Tough private counseling love

At many of the counseling and admissions conferences we attend, at least one session will degenerate into a small contingent of private counselors who voice complaints that high school counselors:

  • don’t appreciate what we do
  • are biased against us
  • should be more open to collaboration, like taking our phone calls, communicating with us about our shared students, inviting us to present to their families, etc.

It’s always a small group. But once the complaints are raised, the tension—and tempers—start to flare. I can often see reasonable points from both camps in these debates, but I’ll use my space here to address the contingent I’ve been part of for nearly 18 years—private counselors.

First, are there specific experiences where one or more of those complaints above might have merit for a private counselor? Sure. Many of us have met that high school counselor whose biases run deep, who’s sure that all private counselors care more about making money than we do about helping our students, who acts as if they’d sooner invite identity thieves to connect with their campus community than grant similar access to a private counselor. Those instances are a lot less frequent than they used to be, but they still happen.

But there are some private counselors who never feel compelled to voice those complaints, who enjoy a good relationship with high school counselors, and who are able to work around the occasional bias and still do great work for their kids. What are they doing differently, and how can you do the same?

There’s no quick-and-easy checklist to follow, but here are five guiding principles that, if you stick with them, will go a long way towards winning over the high school counselors who haven’t fallen prey to industry biases or the occasional bad private counseling apple.

1. Give credit to get credit.
The first step towards earning respect is offering it where it’s due. The very best private counselors revere high school counselors for having a much harder job than we do. They counsel the student who’s failing algebra and field the calls from the parent who insists their student be placed in the now full AP class. But more importantly, they are on the front lines assisting students with a broad range of challenges—academic, emotional, psychological, physical, and family–that most private counselors aren’t expected to address as part of our work. And in between all of this, they somehow have to find a way to advise their students through the college admissions process. Private counselors, the sooner you recognize and appreciate the difficult and vital nature of the work our colleagues on the high school side are doing, the sooner you can expect due respect in return.

2. Don’t expect a space on their work plate.
Yes, there can be benefits to private counselors and high school counselors collaborating. But you are not entitled to a high school counselor’s time and attention. Why should it be their job to regularly take your phone calls, to invite you to campus, to help you access, enroll, and yes, even to do a better job for your students? Remember, you likely aren’t the only private counselor in town. Is the high school counselor responsible for speaking with all of them? I hope not. As I explained above, high school counselors have too much to do for too many students. Their job is not to help you, it’s to help their kids. The more time they can spend doing just that, undistracted by other demands, the better. Appreciate whatever time they can give you. But don’t expect it, and don’t assume that their refusal to give any necessarily means that they don’t respect what you do.

3. Don’t make their job harder.
We’ve all experienced the frustration when someone unravels the advice we’ve worked hard to impart on our student. The family friend recommends unrealistic schools. The neighbor belittles the summer plans the student left your office excited about. The parent rewrites (and unknowingly ruins) their student’s essay. Outside meddling often makes our job harder. Make sure you aren’t doing the same to your students’ high school counselors. Start by reminding your student that you do not replace their high school counselor. Encourage kids to meet regularly with their counselors and to attend their school’s college planning events. And most importantly, never tell a student that their counselor is wrong just because their advice seems to differ from yours. In those cases, are you sure it’s not your advice that needs correcting? And if not, assume good intent, extenuating circumstances, or even just a simple breakdown in teenage communication.

4. Be so good they can’t ignore you.
Steve Martin said it. Then a study skills author wrote about it. And any of us can follow it. Great work always stands out. It’s better than any marketing or advertising you could do. If you consistently make and keep your promises to your customers, if you run a business you can be proud of, and if you make reasonable efforts to contribute to the profession and to the counseling community as a whole, you’ll make a well-deserved name for yourself. And you’ll find that more high school counselors start to see you as a respected colleague instead of a suspicious outsider.

5. Grow with good apples.
All professions have their great and not-so-great representatives. Private and high school counseling are no different. You may run across a bad apple on the high school side who treats you unfairly without cause (just as a high school counselor may run across a private counselor who doesn’t exactly make the rest of us proud). When that happens, accept that you’ll never please everybody. Then get back to work earning the approval and respect of the people who matter most—your students and your fellow great counselors.