The student is at the center of the American education system. Every teacher hired, every school built, every gallon of gas put into a school bus is intended in some way to support students through a complete and competent educational experience, from kindergarten through high school graduation.
Yet people outside the education system might be surprised how much time the average educational administrator, or even the typical teacher, spends dealing with things other than students. Budgeting for all those gallons of gas, negotiating contracts, putting together a curriculum and lesson plans… it can be many hours in a typical day where students barely enter the equation.
Out of all the many roles in the modern school system, there’s only one that always puts the individual student front and center. And that’s the job of the school counselor.
A counselor is a catch-all for dealing with the many things that come up in schools that don’t quite fit the system.
Academic difficulty, different life plans, trauma, or confusion… it’s their job to put the student, as a person, at the focus of their efforts. To come up with solutions that don’t have to work for a class, but just a person. To demonstrate care and consideration on a level that sometimes, the system can’t manage.
It’s an important job that inverts the position of educator as lecturer to one of educator as listener. It takes three parts compassion to every part conventional teaching. And it requires a dedicated and advanced education to pull off in the diverse social and cultural environment of the typical American school.
Lead School Counselor Jobs Involve Exercising Leadership for the Whole Student Body
Counseling is a form of mentorship, and it’s as old as education in some ways. It’s hard to imagine that teachers and school leaders over the centuries haven’t always taken a quiet moment to sit and discuss aspirations and inclinations with their students.
School counseling rose as a distinct profession in the early 1900s, though, rising in tandem with the emergence of vocational guidance in response to the societal upheavals caused by the Industrial Revolution and, slightly later, the efforts to reintegrate soldiers returning from the nightmare of the Western Front.
In the 1940s through 1960s, counseling as a profession got an even bigger boost from the federal government. Needing first to channel students into the most appropriate roles to support the war effort, and then to cultivate technological development and achievement during the Cold War, the Vocational Education Act and the National Defense Education Act both offered support for the selection and training of school counselors.
Today, counselors offer more holistic support than just career guidance. Instead of a last-minute consultation with high school seniors picking colleges or vocations, counselors are now available at every stage of elementary and secondary schooling. They work with every student in areas such as:
They not only help students develop plans, but serve as an ongoing sounding board, mentor, and accountability agent to help keep those plans on track. In cases where circumstances or plans change, they are also available to help students cope with new situations and to adjust their goals.
Counselors offer a wide range of resources within and outside of the school system designed to support overall student achievement and success.
And because academic achievement doesn’t begin or end within the confines of the school walls, counselors have a valuable role as listeners and monitors for all the different parts of life that can impact individual education. They are trained to evaluate students for signs of stress or abuse at home; they may work to ensure proper nutrition and meals, or to obtain schools supplies for kids whose families are without resources; they have referrals on tap for children who need long-term supports in everything from mental health counseling to housing.
Many counselors are also closely involved with special education services. They work with teachers, administrators, families, and outside service providers to coordinate IEP (Individual Education Plan) services and requirements. They may act as advocates both within and outside of the school system for students.
They also act more generally, developing better systems for students within their schools or districts.
Cultivating the Right Skills to Serve as a Compassionate Counselor
Many of the skills required to act appropriately in a counseling role are similar to those used by any other kind of educational leader. In the same way that principals or district administrators work with their teachers and staff to cultivate conditions for excellence and improvement, counselors attempt to achieve the same thing with the student body.
They must be master observers and keen assessors of student behavior and personality. The best counselors are so in tune with students that they may better understand what they are capable of and interested in than the child themself does.
Quietly Watching Is a Key Counselor Superpower
There’s an art to getting kids to open up to you, one that changes based on their age. And with every student it can be different; sometimes impossible.
So counselors learn to become keen observers, distilling information out of what they see from behavior and interactions, even if it doesn’t involve them personally.
In elementary schools, volumes can be read from the simple process of watching parents drop their kids off at school. Are there hugs? Encouragement? Boredom? Disdain? A few seconds of observation can tell a trained counselor all about a child’s world at home, without so much as a word being exchanged.
As kids get older, counselors watch them with one another. How do they stand? Who laughs at whose jokes? Who is assertive and trying to establish themselves in the social hierarchy – who is unconcerned and above it all?
Body language isn’t the only kind of language that counselors use in their work, but learning how to read it may be one of the most important skills they can acquire.
Counselors must have strong foundational knowledge in learning theories, lifespan development, and behavioral psychology. Further, they need training in ethics and legal issues in education.
That knowledge backs up skills they learn in areas such as:
Counselors must have a knack for connecting with kids and adults. They’ll work as much with school staff and families as they do with students, often serving as a translator of sorts. It takes the kind of individual who can step up and provide leadership even in challenging circumstances.
Meeting the Tough Requirements to Earn School Counseling Licenses
For such a sensitive and important role, school counselors require special licensing in every state.
Not only is this distinct from regular teacher certification, but it also has higher initial standards. The job always requires a graduate degree, master’s level or higher. On top of that, around 30 credits of specific, mandated coursework at the graduate level are typically necessary to fulfill EPP requirements.
Additionally, most states require some on-the-job experience, with around 600 clock hours of supervised training in a school setting.
Finally, a school counseling exam must be passed. In most cases, this will be either a state-specific test, or the common Praxis Professional School Counselor exam from ETS (the Educational Testing Service).
However, it is possible in some states to substitute the standard test requirement by passing the National Counselor Exam (NCE) offered by the National Board of Certified Counselors. This is a part of the National Certified Counselor (NCC) certification process, which is a required credential on the path to becoming a National Certified School Counselor (NCSC).
In fact, some states require professional certification as an NCC or as a state-certified counselor to maintain school counseling licensure.
Some states offer multiple paths to counseling work. They may have a dedicated school counselor license, but also offer a counseling endorsement that can be earned on top of a standard teaching certificate.
Some states exempt currently licensed professional mental health counselors from the full education and EPP requirements, allowing them to transition to school counseling with a minimal level of school counseling coursework.
And still other states have different levels of counseling licenses, with temporary or preliminary credentials that can be earned before or while qualifications are being met.
Counselors at the post-secondary level do not require licensure unless practicing in a clinical capacity. In those cases, they will be covered under laws governing professional mental health counselors. But for academic advising and counseling, your degree and professional experience will count for more at the collegiate level.
Picking the Best Degree to Qualify as a Lead School Counselor
A Master’s in School Counseling or Master of Education in School Counseling are the most common degrees that future school counselors pursue. They are focused on exactly the kind of skills and knowledge you need to qualify for licensure and to pass the key tests involved.
However, you can also find Master of Education (MEd) in Counseling programs, Master of Education in Counseling and Mental Health Services, or a Master of Education in Educational Counseling.
And if you already hold a master’s or want to advance your training even further, there are degrees such as an Educational Specialist in School Psychology and Counselor Education, or a PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision with a specialization in School Counseling. While these often do not specifically include the required EPP coursework, it may be available as an add-on certificate for the degree.
All these degrees cover concepts and techniques in areas like:
Practicum or internship placements are also standard. You’ll learn on the job under the watchful eye of professors and experience school counselors to polish your classroom knowledge into real-world expertise.
And the programs will include that pinnacle of every master’s level program, a thesis paper or capstone project requirement. These put together all the various knowledge and skills you have acquired in the program and demonstrate your mastery of concepts and your original thinking in the field.
The degrees may offer tracks in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Child & Adolescent Mental Health, or School Counseling. Some even have more exotic concentrations, such as Sport Psychology, Career Counseling, or Rehabilitation Counseling. Each comes with their own unique set of coursework adapted to the concentration. Not all tracks will necessarily lead to licensure, however; it’s important to confirm with your state licensing agency that practicum and coursework will meet their standards.
Specialty accreditation is a must for any degree that will qualify you for licensure. Unlike most educational licensing, however, CAEP (Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation) accreditation is not your only option here. Many counseling degrees instead hold CACREP (Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) or MPCAC (Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council) accreditation.
School Counselor Salary – How Much Do School Counselors Make?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) places school and career counselors into the same overall category for tracking employment and salary data. For 2021, the overall average annual wage for those positions was $60,510 per year.
But there can be big differences in compensation between career counseling outside the educational world and these positions. Fortunately, BLS further breaks down what counseling and advising jobs pay based on the industry of employment. The relevant averages for school and college counselors and advisors for 2021 are:
Regardless of industry, the top ten percent of counselors were found to earn more than $98,190. With the right leadership training and experience, that’s the kind of salary you can aim for, too.
As with many educators, though, you’ll take home a lot of your compensation in the form of job satisfaction. Knowing that you have managed to help a kid stave off a personal crisis, get accepted to their college of choice, or even just get a solid meal after days of hunger offers a sense of real purpose that mere dollars can’t compete with.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for School and Career Counselors and Advisors reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed May 2023.