Safe and Sound Schools Co-founder Michele Gay catches up with award-winning school counselor and children’s author, Julia Cook.
In honor of National School Counselor’s Week, I sat down with my second favorite school counselor, Julia Cook (first being my dad, of course!) to talk inspiration, activation, and of course, school safety! Here are the highlights of our conversation:
MG: Julia, as usual, it has been too long since our last catch up! And you have been busy speaking and writing. I want to get to those projects in a bit, but let’s dive in on National School Counselor’s Week! As you know, my dad was a middle school counselor, and a great inspiration for me as an educator. So much so, I almost became a school counselor myself. I saw firsthand how he changed the lives of the students he worked with by building meaningful relationships and programs to support their personal growth and development. What inspired you to become a school counselor?
JC: I was a middle school math teacher for at-risk kids. I wanted to get an advanced degree that would help me connect with my students more effectively. Shortly after completing my counseling training, we moved to a town that needed an elementary counselor. I decided to try my luck and I ended up loving it!
MG: Over the course of my dad’s career, and then later through my career as a teacher, I watched the role of the school counselor change a GREAT deal. As the needs of students increased, school counselor caseloads continued to grow. The also became responsible for managing multiple school-based programs and initiatives. How did you experience this evolution as a school counselor?
JC: The role of a school counselor changes daily because our society changes daily. We are in the people skill building business, and it seems to get tougher every day. The more technologically advanced our society becomes, the more we seem to be losing our “people trust and communication skills.”
I often read posts from school counselors expressing frustrations about being overloaded. Many school counselors have caseloads of 400-1000 kids, yet they are required to fulfill tasks that take away from contact time with the kids that need them. Our time is stretched so thin that it becomes impossible to invest the time needed for social skill classroom instruction, individual counseling, and small group counseling. As a result, we end up being more reactive than proactive in our day-to-day work with students. My peers often express that the reason they got into counseling is not what the work looks like today. But if you were to ask any of us counselors why we continue to do the work we do, it is because it’s the most amazing profession on the planet!!! School counselors get to be life-changing, positive difference makers!
MG: Well, you are certainly a difference maker. I’ve seen it firsthand. Remember the day you came to my house?
JC: How can I forget! After Sandy Hook, I wanted to write a book to help teachers and parents know what to say to kids when disasters occur (The Ant Hill Disaster.) Michele, you were kind enough to help me not only with the content, but you offered to write a powerful forward for the story that is just priceless. When I planned to meet at your house one morning to discuss the forward it was a crazy day at your house. ESPN was filming a feature story about Joey, your family, and the Baltimore Ravens, but you were kind enough to fit me in anyway. We were in your kitchen talking and I asked you if you had ever received the autographed copy Grief is Like a Snowflake book that I sent to you following the tragedy. You replied, “I’m so sorry, but I have a ton of boxes in the garage that have gifts from people from all over the world. The boxes are so painful to go through that I haven’t been able to do it yet. I bet it’s in one of those boxes. One of your daughters perked up and said, “The tree book? It’s up in my room.” “Where did you get it?” you asked. “It was in one of the boxes in the garage,” she answered. She brought it down to show us and opened it up to the page where the little trees have many different feelings /expressions and she said. “See mommy, I love this book because this is all the ways I feel.” You took the book from her and turned it to the front and saw the inscription and my signature…and then we both started crying.
MG: Now, I’m going to ask a tough one… What is one of the single-most rewarding interaction you ever had with a student?
JC: I am so thankful every day to do what I do. I feel like I am rewarded every time I get to read my books to kids and their eyes start to gleam. Last year, I was reading “A Flicker of Hope” to a group of 4th and 5th graders. Right in the middle of the story, a 4th grade girl started sobbing. I thought to myself “Oh no, maybe one of her family members had committed suicide and this book is just too real.” The counselor quickly ushered the child to her office. The next morning, I received a call from the counselor. “Just wanted you to know what happened yesterday. When I got back to my office with that little girl, she reached into her pocket and pulled out 27 pills. She told me she hated herself and she wanted to disappear. She had planned on ending her life that day after school by taking the pills. Then she said “But now I know if my flame goes out, I might not be able to relight it. I don’t want my flame to go out. Can you lend me some of your light?” The counselor continued, “I have several kids that are currently on suicide watch, but this is a child I would have NEVER expected to feel like this. Thank you, Julia for writing A Flicker of Hope. Your book saved a kid’s life yesterday.”
MG: Your story illustrates how very critical the role of school counselor is to the safety of students—from the inside out— and really the whole school community. Connections, trust, and relationships are at the heart of all that we do to ensure that our schools are safe and our students have a safe place for ALL to learn and grow. And that means school counselors too! What advice do you have for combatting fatigue, managing stress, and remaining present as a school counselor today?
JC: Being a school counselor can be exhausting emotionally, physically, spiritually, and psychologically. Good counselors find a way to put work on the back burner when they leave school. You must find ways to replenish yourself emotionally, physically, spiritually, and psychologically, so you can be energized for the next day. The glass of life is not half empty or have full… the glass is refillable…and you are the re-filler! When my job as a school counselor was adding to my life, I always found ways to share that with my loved ones appropriately. However, on those days when it took from my life, I closed the door on work the minute I stepped into my house. If you want to be good at school counseling, you must be balanced in as many aspects of yourself as possible.
MG: And that applies to all of us doesn’t it? School counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses, school resource officers, administrators, educators, support staff, facilities folks, parents, and students, and on and on. We need to look out for each other and the school community. It takes all of us.
JC: Yes, we are better—and safer together!
MG: Thank you, Julia! And thank you to all of our school counselors this week and every week, for all that you do to keep our kids and our schools safe and sound!
Julia Cook is an award-winning children’s book author, with over 100 titles, translated into 9 languages, and over 2 million books sold. Julia is a former teacher and school counselor, and a renowned international speaker.