School Counselling and the importance of getting it right

The other day I was speaking to my wife about the role of counsellors in international schools. When I first started working in an international school, I remember it feeling quite strange to have a ‘counsellor’ working at a school. Particularly in a British school. I always felt like this was more of an ‘American’ thing. Whatever that meant.

Counsellors have long held more of a prominent position in American Curriculum schools, and many have responsibilities that you might normally associate with a PSHE coordinator role, which in most British schools, is that of a teacher’s remit. 

‘Counsellors’ in the UK sense are often either associated with NHS mental health services such as CAMHS, or tucked away in little offices that come with a hefty price tag of upwards of £50 per hour. Something you tend to only look at if you are really in desperate need of help. After all, how many families have a spare £200 per month to burn on 4 hours of ‘therapy’ for one child? 

The idea of school counselling has always intrigued me ever since moving internationally. However, the thing that often worried me about the idea of counselling as a viable career was the fact that most international schools only have one counselling position. 

When talking to an international recruitment consultant once, he highlighted to me that the prospect of my wife and I being able to move to a different international school at some point would be challenging. For my wife, who works as a PE teacher, there are often a number of roles in any one school, but for me, often only one role may be available (if you’re lucky). The chances of both coming up at the same time are pretty slim. 

Throw our two dogs into the mix and it becomes clear that moving at some stage is going to be no small feat (I get the sweats just thinking about it)!

In addition to this, counsellors in international schools are often pulled in multiple directions to plug all of the ‘support’ holes in a school. Half social-emotional counselling, half college counselling. Part pastoral lead, part safeguarding lead, part learning support.

It’s much like being a Maths teacher that also has to teach a bit of Science and may be a bit of Design and Technology – after all they all require working with numbers, right?

There are a variety of ‘support’ combinations that many counsellors in international schools find themselves having to fulfil, particularly for counsellors at some of the smaller international schools. The idea of just being a college counsellor, or just a social-emotional counsellor, is something of a luxury that only happens at those elusive ‘big schools’. At least, that has been my impression.

Now, with student wellbeing being near the top of the agenda for many schools across the world, I’m curious to see whether that will mean a growth of school counsellor positions both in the UK and internationally. At least where money allows. 

With the sensitisation to ‘emotions’ and ‘feelings’ as part of this, and the growing SEL and wellbeing movements, now more than ever counsellors are playing a vital role in providing students with a positive experience of the ‘counselling’ magic.

Let me explain a little more.

For many young people, school counsellors provide their introduction to the weird and wonderful world of ‘counselling’. And now more than ever, students may be seeking some sort of help. 

Throw into the mix the likelihood that more students in more schools may now be coming across school counsellors, and it becomes ever clearer that the counselling experience needs to be a positive one.

Not because counsellors will wave a magic wand and make everything better (unlike many teachers and families might hope) but, much like historical (stereotypical) accounts of ‘old school PE teachers’ managing to put people off sport and exercise, at least until later life… if counsellors ‘over-therapise’ and don’t form positive relationships with students, could the same thing happen for many students when it comes to counselling? Could they be put off the thought of therapy in later life because of negative experiences that happened at school?

The counsellors always made me talk about stuff. The counsellor made us sit around in a circle and talk about our feelings. It was embarrassing. It was boring. 

I’m being pedantic here, but you get my point.

We need to find that sweet spot between ‘care’ and ‘overcaring’, being ‘supportive’ and ‘overbearing’ when it comes to counselling.

We have a significant influence in keeping counselling as a viable path if our students need to seek this type of support at some point in their lives.

Therapy really can change lives for the right person at the right time.

In saying this, I don’t think ‘therapy’ in the more traditional sense, is for everyone. But the idea of feeling safe enough to reach out to someone for support is something that should be for everyone.

We need to work with students and not push the agenda of therapy as a ‘fix all’ solution. 

We just need students to know that maybe, just maybe, it could be something that they could turn to should they ever need to.

5 thoughts on “School Counselling and the importance of getting it right

    1. Indeed. The sweet spot if difficult to find. As a school counselor for 25 years around the planet you nailed it. I have often been the first school counselor in China, Burma, Thailand and now Vietnam. Great opportunity sometimes and often much time required to educate head of school, principal, HOD’s and staff who have never worked with a School counselor. And the culture can be a challenge along with lack of MH services in many countries. Enjoyed the Article

      1. Hi Michael,

        Thanks so much for taking the time to read this article and comment Michael! It’s really interesting to hear that you’ve had a similar experience in a few different places. I agree the lack of MH services is incredibly challenging for so many international schools.


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