Counseling In Schools: Boost Your Career Skills with a Master’s Degree

A school counselor’s biggest job is promoting student success.

A school counselor’s biggest job is promoting student success.

Guidance counselor. What kind of job do those words bring to mind? For many people, their impressions of the profession come straight from pop culture.

For every kind, insightful portrayal, such as Chris Rock’s Mr. Abbott from “Everybody Hates Chris,” there are a dozen uninterested, uncaring portrayals such as Allison Janney’s Ms. Perky from “10 Things I Hate About You” — a “counselor” memorable for being more into writing her romance novel and hurling insults than in actually helping students.

What’s in a Name? Guidance Counselors vs. School Counselors

Dr. Samantha Booker, Assistant Chair of Troy University’s School of Counseling, knows these stereotypes well.

“With all the negative portrayals in the media, we still have a stigma surrounding counseling in schools. People actuallythink this is what our job looks like.”

It doesn’t. Not only do those stereotypes not match reality, but the guidance counselor role of the past is also long gone, having evolved into the licensed, clinically trained school counselors of today.

Though vocational guidance has existed since the early 1900s, the role of guidance counselor came into being alongside the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). When the USSR shocked the world by launching Sputnik into orbit in 1957, the U.S. responded by passing the NDEA, boosting American education to new heights and ensuring the space race wasn’t ours to lose.

Today, education is less focused on winning Cold War space challenges, and the battles students face are more personal and perhaps, even more complex.

Samantha Krietemeyer standing in front of window
Samantha Krietemeyer

Samantha Krietemeyer, a recent graduate of TROY’s School Counseling M.S. Ed. program and Dean of College Advising and Upper School Counselor at Houston Academy in Dothan, Alabama, uses what she learned at TROY to help students navigate tricky battlefields.

“Students are experiencing puberty, navigating peer and family pressure as well as the ever-looming question, ‘What do I do when I graduate?’” she says. “This, combined with the broad impacts COVID has had on the state of mental health in our country, as well as the absolute and constant pervasiveness of social media, electronic advertisements and technology, transforms the classic, stigmatized ‘teenage years’ into a much more anxiety-ridden and, frankly, dangerous time.”

During her first year on the job, Krietemeyer says she has worked with students struggling with all these issues, “and I have dealt with more anxiety than I could have anticipated.”

In short, today’s school counselors have a more critical role to play than pop culture would have you believe.

Beyond Guidance Counselor: The Changing Roles of School Counselors

School counselors guide students through the tricky years, trained to offer not just career advice but to provide evidence-based approaches to treating mental health and related issues. Counselors are not psychologists but the two professions work together.

“Psychologists and counselors are educated in each other’s worlds,” Dr. Booker says. “If a school system is fortunate enough to have a school psychologist, psychologist and counselor together become a treatment team, picking up where the other leaves off.”

School counselors work in the moment, doing prevention and intervention; school psychologists work on longer timeframes, focusing on assessments, and figuring out why negative behaviors are happening.

The roles complement each other, Dr. Booker says. “Counselors implement treatment plans, working with psychologists to ensure the best care possible.”

The increasingly difficult issues that students face today have contributed to the continuing evolution of the profession. “I think greater understanding of truly effective counseling methodologies has probably created the shift from ‘guidance counselors’ to ‘school counselors,’” says Krietemeyer. “Guidance counselor indicates that we are directingstudents, that we are calling the shots, and that we are somehow all-knowing. Instead, I think school counselor is a more comprehensive, more holistic perspective of what we do and what we can do.”

School Counselor: One Job, Many Hats

Because students’ lives and needs are complicated, school counselors wear many hats.

“Our expertise is school-related,” reflects Krietemeyer. “We know the value of education, we develop post-secondary plans. But our wheelhouse involves so much more.”

A school counselor’s biggest job is promoting student success and that can take many forms.

“The No. 1 priority,” Dr. Booker affirms, “is helping students be successful by supporting them socially, emotionally and academically. If we see gaps, we work to support the students and their families.”

Maybe it’s a big gap, requiring outside resources or long-term care. Maybe it’s a smaller one, like test anxiety. Tests can be scary, Dr. Booker says, especially the summative assessments unlocking the doors to college, career prep or the military.

Either way, says Dr. Booker, promoting student success takes up the majority of a good counselor’s time.

Counseling in Schools = Building Relationships

Promoting student success begins with building good relationships with students.

“Becoming a counselor means building rapport,” Dr. Booker says. “You won’t be able to help anyone if you don’t.”

For instance, take the case of “Johnny,” a middle school student. He’s smart but difficult. When Johnny gets in trouble, he gets sent to the school counselor. This may seem like a reasonable move, but Dr. Booker says it is not the most effective way to build a relationship based more on communicating than trouble-making.

“If I’m just the lady in the office Johnny sees when he gets in trouble, then I’m in a disciplinary role, not a counseling role. That’s a negative.”

The positive approach is the preventative approach, building relationships before behavior issues occur.

“If we have healthy relationships,” says Dr. Booker, “we can have healthy confrontations. I can say, ‘Johnny, I understand you feel that Miss Smith is picking on you. But the rules say you have to be in class. So what can I do to support you in that?’ If you can’t build a relationship, you can’t get to that point.”

By being open and authentic, counselors earn the trust needed to navigate students through difficult behavior.

Managing Behavior Isn’t Just Disciplining

Relationship building is key because student problems can be bigger than one incident would imply — and a good counselor probes a little deeper to find out what’s really going on.

Back to Johnny. He’s also having trouble with a teacher. He gets angry, yells in class, throws his desk. His teacher can’t figure out what’s triggering him.

“But, having built rapport, I know him,” Dr. Booker says. “I can say, ‘Johnny, tell me what home looks like,’ and he’s comfortable enough to confide, ‘Well, whenever dad gets angry, he just starts throwing stuff …’”

Knowing that, it’s easier to pinpoint triggers and work out realistic approaches for helping Johnny change his reactions and behavior.

On the other hand, it could be that the problem isn’t Johnny, but a system that has failed him. Maybe Johnny got promoted to the next grade without being ready.

“It happens,” Dr. Booker says. “He’s in ninth grade and doesn’t understand algebra. No wonder he acts up. He’s frustrated.”

Johnny may be feeling like he’s not good enough and that can translate into negative behavior. A good counselor, one who builds rapport, can get him to open up and get him in a remediation program, paving a path forward.

“We want students to have a sense of worth,” Dr. Booker says. “Academics can be difficult. We provide the correct tools to help not just students but teachers succeed too.”

Promoting Mental Health

Ensuring students’ self-esteem also requires promoting mental health.

“After COVID,” Dr. Booker says, “school administrators saw the consequences of ignoring mental health — increases in school violence, bullying, etc.”

School counselors are the best trained and positioned to make a difference. But making a difference means treating the causes, not just the symptoms.

Take school violence. In the past, Dr. Booker notes, “Schools put in place zero-tolerance policies and sent offenders home for two days — but they come back. They weren’t addressing the root cause.”

Advocating for students means recognizing problems early and mustering the outside resources necessary to address mental health needs as they happen.

Ensuring Equity

Advocating for students also means advocating for all students, no matter their race, class or gender.

“How do we promote inclusivity? Equitable education?” Dr. Booker asks. “It’s not about equality, but equity.”

Counselors understand that not every student has the same advantages. The effects of inequality echo across generations — a student denied a good education is denied a good life, and their children will suffer in turn.

“Our job,” says Dr. Booker, “is breaking these cycles, not just slapping bandages on gushing wounds.”

The first step is ensuring that every student has the same chance for a quality education.

“Advocating for students, for social justice — this is the soul of counseling in schools. Helping people be successful no matter their class, their race, their sexual orientation.”

Mapping the Future: Developing a Roadmap for Career Success

Finally, school counselors work to guide students toward their best possible future — and best-fit careers.

“From pre-K to 5th,” Dr. Booker says, “we introduce kids to many jobs — what it means to be a plumber, a fireman, a college student. By high school, they know there’s far more than just doctor, lawyer, teacher.”

For some students, their best future means college. But college-bound kids might not know what that really means.

“What if they end up wanting to be a thoracic surgeon?” Dr. Booker asks. “They might not know that even exists, because all they’ve heard is ‘Be a doctor.’”

School counselors work to create an environment where a student can explore what doors college can open, not just how to open the college door.

For other students, their best future means vocational programs or the military.

“In some ways, the push for college prep hurt us. We’re seeing vocations with a lack of people,” says Dr. Booker.

America is facing a shortage of skilled tradespeople; school counselors can help fill the gap by providing information and options for students who are more interested in learning a skilled trade than in pursuing a four-year degree. Ultimately, it’s about helping students make the decisions best for them.

“Happiness matters,” Dr. Booker reflects. “Learning what you don’t want to do is just as important as learning what you do want to do.”

Beyond the Classroom: Counseling Jobs In and Out of Education

You might think with an M.S. Ed., the only career paths would lead through education. Not so.

Dr. Booker notes that by completing a good, accredited program — a 60-hour, 2-3 year program, including practicums and internships — graduates can “not only be a school counselor, but they can also be double certified as both a school counselor and a clinical mental health counselor.”

Dr. Booker herself is a licensed school counselor, a licensed professional counselor (LPC-S) supervisor and a licensed mental health clinician. She also owns her own private practice.

The skills learned with an M.S. Ed. also translate to other careers.

“When you’re learning the skills necessary to be a counselor — being empathetic and kind and a relationship builder — you’re learning to be a good human being.”

Dr. Booker recalls a former student who loved counseling in schools but not the politics that came with working in a school system. Now, Dr. Booker says, “She’s working for a recruitment firm out of New York because counselor skills are really people skills.”

Effective interpersonal skills translate to nearly any job involving people — meaning most of them.

“I can’t think of a single aspect of my life that hasn’t benefited,” Krietemeyer says. “I knew I was empathetic, but applying it to someone in crisis was not something I could have done prior to this degree.” Krietemeyer credits the TROY M.S. Ed. program not only for skill-building but for enhancing her confidence as a professional. “I am confident in my abilities, and I’m even more confident in the network of friends, colleagues and resources I’ve found through this program. I’ve gained a huge support system, and I’ve learned more about who I am than I ever expected to.”

Authentic Advocates: Who Makes the Best School Counselors?

Dr. Booker says anyone can be a good school counselor — if they want to help others.

But certain qualities do stand out. “Empathy, flexibility, genuineness, kindness, being nonjudgmental, wanting to build relationships and having a good work ethic” are key qualities in counselors, says Dr. Booker. “We can teach fundamentals, theories, state standards — but we can’t teach someone to be kind.”

Krietemeyer concurs: “Students need authentic cheerleaders, advocates and role models; it is our job to care deeply about the way students see themselves and their futures.”

Krietemeyer points out some additional qualities that are helpful. “I think school counselors have to be organized, persistent and flexible; this degree truly taught me how to multitask, especially since I was enrolled in multiple classes while I was employed full time and having my first child!”

TROY: CACREP Accredited Programs

TROY’s M.S. Ed. is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) and uses the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) standards. “That’s the highest level,” says Dr. Booker. “You’re prepared to go into any school setting, at any level, anywhere in the country.”

Because of the CACREP focus, most classes are offered in-person and students in the program complete an internship in both an elementary and secondary setting, ensuring they are trained pre-K through 12th grade. But TROY works to keep the program flexible.

“We build around non-traditional students,” Dr. Booker says. “Classes are held in the evening, and we have a few online options.”

Most students getting their master’s degree are already working, many in the classroom. TROY recognizes this and helps students maintain their careers while taking them to the next level.

“We help our students build their 60-hour programs so that they are not only state certified to be a school counselor, but if they choose to be a clinician, their educational component is already fulfilled. They can do both at the cost of one degree.”

This flexibility makes TROY’s graduates much more marketable when it comes to applying for counseling jobs. What’s more, TROY’s CACREP accreditation offers added national flexibility.

“CACREP accreditation gives grads the ability to move,” Dr. Booker says. “They can go anywhere in the country with a CACREP degree, get licensed and start practicing.”

Krietemeyer chose TROY for this very reason: career flexibility. “I saw how short other programs were. Some were fully online. When I looked into TROY, I understood why it was different: CACREP accreditation requires a rigorous curriculum. My TROY degree allows me to have backup plans upon backup plans.”

The investment in her education is something that Krietemeyer does not second guess. “Though the commitment to attend the TROY program meant the degree would take longer than a year and require a more time-intensive internship — plus attending classes in person after an already-long day at work — I felt the commitment was one I would benefit from greatly. And I have. I would not change anything about my decision.”

Getting a Master’s of Counseling at TROY

Becoming a counselor means becoming a cheerleader for your students, Dr. Booker says.  “It’s about going on a journey with them, not going into your office and shutting the door.”

Krietemeyer couldn’t be happier with her own journey; commitment to her students is at the heart of her career satisfaction. “The students — my gosh, they make me laugh; they impress me; they surprise me; they are smart and kind and loving. They truly are some of the brightest spots in my day. I get to help those kids become the people they want to be, and I get to help them when their life becomes tougher than they are prepared to handle. What better job could I have?”

In spite of the hard work involved, Krietemeyer tells others who are considering the master’s program to jump at the opportunity. “Don’t wait. Do it for the right reasons. When you feel like the light at the end of the tunnel is too far away, remember that you are putting yourself in a position to give students hope. You’ll have some amazing cheerleaders in your professors at TROY, and you’ll get to see what (I hope) your students will experience when they have you as their counselor.”

If you think you have the empathy, authenticity and determination for counseling as a career, visit TROY’s Master’s of Counseling program page to learn more.