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Herriman Journal

Award-winning counselors credit a culture of collaboration

Aug 24, 2020 03:44PM ● By Jet Burnham

The counseling team at Copper Mountain Middle School is recognized as the Utah School Counseling Team of the Year. (Photo courtesy of Jordan School District.)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

The Copper Mountain Middle School counseling team—Hillary Emmer, Melisa Christiansen, Nic Hale, Amy Gibson and Teresa Bills—was named The Utah School Counselor Association’s Utah School Counseling Team of the Year for 2020–2021.

“They are fantastic individually and incredible as a team,” CMMS Assistant Principal Michael Christensen said. “This team is firmly focused on what is best for the individual student. They work tirelessly to advocate for student success and social-emotional wellness for all.”

The team members credit their success to collaboration.

“As team members, we realize those strengths that each of us have,” Hale said. “We're able to execute those to best help the kids.”

The counselors do everything as a team. When Christiansen was named the Utah Career Technical Education Association’s Counselor of the Year this spring, she said it felt odd to be singled out.

“Everything we do, we do collaboratively,” Christiansen said. “I couldn't do what I do without them.”

She said teachers and administrators are also part of the teamwork needed to meet students’ needs.

“They give us classroom time when we ask,” she said. “They give us names of kids that they see that need help. We all work well together and see the value of each other's jobs.”

Teamwork is common among counselors, who often share ideas with other schools. This year, a districtwide social emotional learning program, developed by Mountain Creek Middle counselor Becky Hunsaker, will ease their workload. Counseling teams at all 12 middle schools in Jordan District are contributing materials and lesson plans and will take the lead for one of the monthly themes.

“As counselors, we're wearing more hats than we ever have,” Hunsaker said. “Our anxiety rates are just through the roof, and so we're needing to do more groups and individual counseling. We really need a strong [social emotional learning program]—something that we don't have to always re-create the wheel.”

CMMS Principal Lauren Peacock recognizes the variety of responsibilities school counselors have.

“They're supporting kids for mental health, helping them register for classes, helping with peer conflicts and then also taking a look at college and career preparation,” she said.

Parents and students most often interact with counselors to make schedule changes, but Bills said the majority of what counselors do is to support struggling students.

“There's a lot of challenges that kids have that get in the way of being able to be successful in school,” Bills said. “All the things that we do are to help them have that support so that they can.”

On average, Utah school counselors are responsible for the individual needs of about 650 students. Jordan District administrators have worked to reduce that ratio to one counselor per 350 students. Previous CMMS administrator Cody Curtis prioritized hiring more counselors so that last year each CMMS counselor worked with just 240 students.

“Just that difference of 100 kids really lets you focus on those 250 kids,” Emmer said. “But it also lets you do other programs beyond just working one-on-one with students.”

The team collaborates on schoolwide activities and competitions for Career Week and College Week. Team members  also all contribute to the creation of virtual material.

The team experimented with new tools when it didn’t have direct access to students because of COVID-19. Through Facebook Live segments, counselors provided tips on relaxation techniques, self-care and positive thinking. Hale was even able to model in real-time his response to an aftershock as he was filming a segment on breathing exercises on March 18

The team is prepared to be flexible and inventive for this unique school year.

“Counseling with masks and face shields on is going to be difficult, because so much of what we communicate is through body language,” Bills said. “That makes it really hard when you can't see the facial expressions of those that you're working with.”

They are exploring solutions such as virtual student support groups, a Canvas classroom and virtual teaching materials. They’ll also be adapting some of their regular activities to engage with students on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

“We're not opposed to new ideas or to trying new things,” Bills said.

Gibson and Hale are leaving the team to open the counseling center at the new Hidden Valley Middle School in Bluffdale.

“It was a phenomenal team, and I feel really grateful to have been trained by them,” Gibson said. “We'll take that very strong collaboration spirit with us wherever we go.”

The CMMS team will continue their culture of collaboration with a new part-time counselor Jody Jensen and an intern.

“I just love going to work in that school with my team every day because it's such an uplifting positive vibe,” Emmer said. “It's nice to have something like that, where you know that you're valued, and you love the people you work with, and it doesn't always feel like work.”

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