School Counselor of the Year Helps Students See All Opportunities

By Joetta Sack-Min

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recently named Terri Tchorzynski, a school counselor at Calhoun Area Career Center in Battle Creek, Mich., its 2017 School Counselor of the Year. Ms. Tchorzynski works with students in 11th and 12th grades to match their interests and abilities to the pathways available at CACC, which offers 20 programs in fields from engineering to health care and culinary skills. Students from local school districts and private schools are eligible to attend CACC for half their school day to learn relevant, real-world job-related and academic skills. School leaders have partnered with local businesses and industries to bring real-world experience to students.

After graduation, some of her students immediately begin work, some choose to go to a four-year college, and others take additional trade-specific classes—but they all know that Ms. Tchorzynski has helped make their choices possible.

She recently took the time for a lengthy interview with the Learning First Alliance to discuss her role and how she helps prepare CACC’s students for their next steps, as well as the importance of their social and emotional learning. She also discussed her time in Washington, where each year the National School Counselor of the Year visits the White House and participates in events sponsored by ASCA. This year, the counselors’ visit made national news as First Lady Michelle Obama chose the event to be her last speech in the office.

Below is the interview with Ms. Tchorzynski:

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and why you decided to become a school counselor?

I have always had a strong desire to work with students because I absolutely love the idea of helping students find their direction in life and help them find the right path after high school in chasing their goals and dreams. I can remember my high school counselor as an extremely influential person in my life. He had an influence on me that I didn't appreciate or understand at the time, but now that I look back, he was always one of the people I could rely on when I needed direction or if I just needed a friendly voice and ear as I started to process challenges that were going on at that moment. I want to be that influential person to my students. I want to be the person they know they can always rely on when they need help or support, and I find value in knowing that I can help young people achieve their goals and dreams. I taught high school English for several years and I was able to do some of these things, but I knew my role as a school counselor would open up all of these opportunities for me in a way that I could find my passion and calling in life.

Your school is a career academy for 11th and 12th graders. Could you please tell us about the curriculum and the students who attend? Are they primarily looking for technical skills, a path to a 2-year or 4-year college, or other career goals? And with so many options, how do you help guide your students to a career path that best matches their interests and abilities?

The Calhoun Area Career Center is a Career and Technical Education building that offers 20 different programs. The programs vary from skilled trades, to health, to education, culinary, and several other programs along various career pathways. With the variance of programming in our building, our students also follow a variety of different paths after high school graduation. We have some students who are seeking certifications--and some of those are offered directly through our programs and allow students employment right out of high school. We have other students who are planning on attending a tech/trade school, a two-year university, or a four-year university or greater. I absolutely love the diversity that comes from our building in regards to students' backgrounds, as well as their future career goals.

As counselors, our department is very intentional about ensuring that our students know all of the possibilities that are available to them. For example, they may hear quite often about the traditional public, state colleges and universities that are well-known, but they don't always hear about the tech/trade schools and/or degree and certification programs that may fit their needs much better. We are very intentional about making sure our students understand all of those possibilities.

Our counseling department uses a proactive approach to ensure we are discovering the needs of our students and then delivering the services that will help them. For example, we conduct a needs assessment at the beginning of every year that assesses students on college/career readiness needs, social-emotional needs, and academic needs. Based on the data we receive, we offer counseling lessons, small groups, individual counseling, etc. to make sure we are addressing the appropriate needs. In regards to college and career readiness, we actually have a team of support staff that offers various activities and events, such as:

- College Fairs;

- Military and Public Service Day;

- Mock interviews and lessons;

- Career and Personality assessments that align with research projects and presentations;

- College Readiness Presentations - FAFSA, scholarships, college admissions, etc.;

- Resume-building workshops;

- Scholarship Writing Workshops and Small Groups;

- College Visits - within programs;

As well as dual enrollment, articulation, and Early/Middle College so that students have the opportunity to earn college credits while attending our programs.

With all of these components working together, we can truly help students find the right post-secondary plans and the path in how to get there. We have established a culture of college- and career readiness in our building that doesn't just come from the counseling department, but also instructors, support staff and administration.

Calhoun Area Career Center focuses not only on teaching academic skills such as math and technology but “soft skills” such as communication and teamwork. What is your role in working with students on these lessons? How can all educators help their students (and parents) understand the importance of these skills?

A lot of the work done through the above-mentioned activities and presentations cover the areas of soft skills as well. Again, not only are the program instructors emphasizing the importance of soft skills in the industry but as counselors we are intentional about delivering that message as well. I have developed a Student Leadership Team that focuses on communication, leadership, innovative thinking, positive role modeling, etc. that has helped our students develop those soft skills that will be needed in the workforce. We also have small groups on self-esteem, positive relationships, and effective communication--and these are interventions that are a result of the needs assessment that our students complete as well as soft skills that our industry partners want to make sure our students come to them with.

When we meet with parents about the benefits of attending our programs, we always bring up both the technical skills and soft skills that will help them be successful in the workforce. We also stress the importance of attendance in programs, and as students start to struggle with absenteeism we are proactive in communicating with parents and students so that we can stress the importance of attendance, as well as address any barriers that may be present for the students or families.

What are you hearing from the local businesses and community leaders about the need for CTE? Are there specific skills or jobs they are seeking to fill?

We have advisory committees that consist of business and industry partners for each one of our programs and these committees meet twice a year. During these meetings, we are always discussing what our students need to know when they leave our programs so they can be successful in the careers they are pursuing. Time and time again we hear from business and industry that they can teach most people the technical skills side of things, but it is the soft skills that most students need to work to develop. The communication--written and verbal--the attendance, leadership traits, ability to work with others, responsibility, etc. Employers are telling us, "if students can come to them with these skills, they can help them find success in the actual skills of performing the job."

There is a huge need to fill skilled trades professions right now, especially with the influx of people who will be retiring in the next five to 10 years. We are hearing that careers in manufacturing, welding, aviation and healthcare will have a huge need for new employees in the near future, and a lot of times we will try to partner with these programs and/or business and industry partners so we can use CTE to fulfill that need.

Lately there has been some attention brought to the low numbers of girls who are participating in CTE and STEM classes. Is your school dealing with this disparity? How can we encourage more girls to consider CTE and related careers?

Yes! We are very intentional about supporting and reaching out to our females in male-dominated programs.  When we go to different schools to promote our programs, we are always encouraging females to join these fields. I always laugh because the majority of the time when we have females in these male-dominated programs, the females usually shine above as rock stars. We offer specific scholarship opportunities and support for our non-traditional females, and our ISD also provides non-traditional career fairs for middle school students so females can be exposed early to possibilities in these particular fields. I truly believe it is just an awareness piece. Our young female students need to know there is a place for them in these non-traditional career fields so the more they are exposed to other females in those fields - then the more that option can look more appealing to them. Build the awareness and knowledge about the possibilities will encourage these students.  We have to have those intentional conversations with these young ladies who are interested.

An important part of school counselors’ jobs is also working with students’ social-emotional needs. What are some of the triggers of stress or emotional issues that you see? Have there been any changes or new issues in recent years?

I would say the social-emotional challenges that students are facing is becoming a large issue in our schools and it is impacting their academic performance. Schools need to realize that mental health is a huge barrier for our young people today, and when these mental health concerns are not addressed then their academics will suffer. With the population of students that I work with, I would say homelessness—meaning not living with their parents/guardians, poverty, anxiety, depression, poor coping strategies, are just some of the many challenges our students are facing. I think school plays into some of these issues that students are facing, but I also think that the family structure can play into this as well--maybe single-parent homes, parents who work all of the time to support the family, blended families due to divorce, parents who had kids at a young age, students not living with parents, guardians, etc. I am not saying that these challenges are what impacts all students' learning, but it does seem to present some challenges for some students who are having a hard time dealing with the different family dynamics and structures. This is why it is so pertinent for schools to develop relationships and communication with the families so everybody can work together to support the success of the student.

Unfortunately, teenagers today are dealing with real issues--even things like self-harm, low self-esteem, suicidal tendencies, depression--so it is more important than ever before for school counselors to be there as a support and advocate, and then serve as a person who can connect these students and families to community agencies if that is the additional help that is needed.

While being a School Counselor of the Year is always a big honor, your award made the national news because the school counselor’s reception was First Lady Michelle Obama’s last event at the White House. Could you tell us a little bit about that experience?

It was the most amazing and incredible experience! Not only did I just feel honored to be chosen as the National School Counselor of the Year, but the fact that I was able to meet Mrs. Obama and introduce her for her final farewell speech made this whole experience that much more memorable. I truly felt honored to be able to thank Mrs. Obama personally for all of the work and support she has offered school counselors. She has supported and created great initiatives that have put school counselors in the national spotlight, so being able to be a part of that and thank her for work was beyond anything I would have ever imagined or dreamed.

Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience with us!

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Michelle Obama with school counselors