Rhode Island

Lisa Tenreiro: RI’s School Counselor of the Year Goes to Washington

By Lisa Tenreiro 

On Friday, January 6th, I had the honor of a lifetime. I got to stand behind First Lady Michelle Obama alongside forty-four of my fellow State Counselors of the Year  as she shared her final remarks as First Lady to our entire nation and to the world.  Mrs. Obama chose to deliver these remarks during her School Counselor of the Year Celebration because of her passion for the work that school counselors do.  I stood behind her on those risers not only as a school counselor but also as the wife of a high school administrator who has served on our local school committee for four terms. I stood there as a parent of two students; one in public school and the other receiving a Catholic education. I stood behind the first lady of the United States as a school counselor who, in my core, is invested in every aspect of education.

In a fairly small, historic, and crowded room, in front of an audience filled with celebrities who support school counselors, top education officials including Secretaries of Education John King and Arne Duncan and more press than I ever thought I would be standing in front of, Mrs. Obama delivered a speech that will certainly go down in history.

Our former First Lady knows that school counselors play a critical role in helping students succeed. Michelle Obama’s quest to shine a spotlight on students succeeding in school not only resulted with campaigns such as Reach Higher and Better Make Room but also resulted in college signing days, efforts to make college more affordable and more funding to support school counselors. She shared a recent study that showed that when students met with their school counselor to talk about financial aid and college they were 3 times more likely to apply to college and 7 times more likely to apply for financial aide. She sees school counselors as the heroes of this work and wanted our nation, specifically educational institutions, to understand and acknowledge the difference that school counselors are making in the lives of students every day.

Everyday, school counselors see the promise in each student, school counselors believe in students when they don’t believe in themselves, sticking with students when they are most anxious and afraid,  and do it all in the face of overwhelming challenges like impossible student counselor ratios and tight budgets. – Michelle Obama

Parents, the press, administrators and the general public often wonder just what it is that school counselors do on a daily basis. Gone are the days of “guidance” counselors sitting in their office simply handing out college applications, making schedule changes for students or meeting with the “troublemakers”.  I am sure many of us can think back to our experiences with our high school “guidance counselor, a memory typically so underwhelming that the American School Counseling Association is working to change the name from guidance counselor to school counselor in the hope of reinventing the both the role and the image of today’s counselor.

I never met with my guidance counselor. I left high school without applying to college or for financial aid. Thanks to a family friend, late admissions and the four jobs I was lucky to find, I was able to apply, get in, and pay for my higher education.

School counseling programs are intended to be comprehensive and collaborative efforts that benefit ALL students, parents, teachers, administrators and the overall community. School counseling programs should be an essential part of ALL students’ daily educational environment, and school counselors must be partners when it comes to student achievement.


The Middle School Years

I spend my days with middle schoolers. Middle school is an especially challenging time for kids as they begin to seek affirmation from peers instead of parents in their search for their own identity. The increased focus on approval from friends and social standing combined with fatigue due to rapid growth can have a huge impact on academic achievement and overall success in school.

As a middle school counselor I cannot work in isolation. I see my role as one of proactive leadership that engages all stakeholders in the delivery of programs and services to help ALL students achieve success in school.  But my caseload is 650 students. Until we see the value of the counseling role and shift our priorities, we will continue to see caseloads that make it impossible for all students’ needs to be met and impossible for counselors to do their best work.

What is the work, anyway?

  • Academic skills support

  • Organizational, study and test-taking skills

  • Coping strategies

  • Peer relationships and effective social skills

  • Communication, problem-solving, decision-making and conflict resolution

  • Career awareness, exploration and planning

  • Substance abuse education

  • Multicultural/diversity awareness

  • Individual and small group counseling

  • Professional development

  • Consultation, collaboration and teaming

  • Program-management and operation

School counselors also must look specifically at their school’s own targeted needs, identify gaps, and develop a plan for improvement. Our current Woonsocket Middle School is tackling challenges surrounding social media and digital citizenship, suspensions, attendance, and at-risk behaviors.  The diminishing work ethic we see in many of our students and our gaps in performance, social/emotional adjustment, and 21st century skills will remain such unless we are honest about where we are, where we need to go, and perhaps most importantly, who can help us get there.

The road to high school starts in kindergarten and takes a huge bumpy detour through middle school. We simply cannot wait until students are in our system for nine years before providing them support in career planning and conflict resolution. We cannot wait until high school to address truancy, study skills gaps and digital citizenship. This support cannot be given the attention it needs from classroom teachers who are already burdened by overwhelming curriculum demands or from building administrators with insurmountable responsibilities or from social workers who are inundated with students suffering from issues that require intense clinical support. Although all of these professional stakeholders carry a piece of the burden and responsibility, it is the school counselor who has the ability to reach ALL students ALL of the time.

The Rhode Island School Counselor Association and The American School Counselor Association expect me, as the state’s School Counselor of the year, to advocate for my profession and to support policy makers and school officials in their awareness of the value of today’s school counselor.  My passion and core values make it so that I expect myself to also advocate on behalf of students and parents who do not or cannot always advocate for themselves.

So here I am in my first attempt to call attention to the importance of school counseling with the inspiration of Michelle Obama’s words still fresh in my mind. It is my hope that we can begin to have robust and much needed conversations about the role of the school counselor not only in Woonsocket where I work but also statewide.

Our kids need us to get this right.

Lisa Tenreiro is a school counselor at Woonsocket Middle School and mother of two. 


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