Shining a Spotlight on School Counselors

This week is National School Counseling Week, a time to highlight the incredibly important, difficult, and too often unnoticed work of our public school counselors. There is a lot we can say here, like: 

  • 89% of our members who are school counselors tell us they don’t feel respected by the state of Texas, according to our 2022 Membership Survey
  • 68% of them said they’ve considered leaving their jobs in the past year
  • Meanwhile, 98% of Texas students attend school districts that do not meet the Texas Education Agency’s recommended ratio of one counselor to 250 students. 
  • This is true, even as 96% of Texans we surveyed in June want the Texas Legislature to increase funding for public education so we can invest more in mental health resources

But for this week, we think it’s better to let counselors speak for themselves. The following was written by Jessica Pecina Lopez, a bilingual elementary school counselor in Austin ISD. 

As a bilingual school counselor, I spent the past week talking with my elementary students about kindness and respect — helping them to show up for one another in supportive and caring ways.  

I taught them about respect, even as I felt none myself. This week is National School Counseling Week, and I want to give you a taste of the important work of counselors in our schools. I also ask that you stand with us in demanding the salaries and the funding we need to do our jobs.  

Most mornings, I start the day by greeting my students, checking in on how they’re doing and jumping in to calm someone down who’s struggling.  

I run counseling groups weekly, for kids who are dealing with divorce or family changes. I have a group for anxiety and one for anger management. There are more groups, too, for creating healthy friendships and promoting mindfulness, among other things.  

We meet weekly, and I check in with them individually as often as I can. I eat lunch with those who want it, whenever lunch monitoring duty doesn’t get in the way.  

My job is fulfilling, and I love the close relationships I build with my students and their families. That’s why I’m still here. In order to keep doing this job, however, counselors and school employees like me need respect — in our paychecks and in the funding necessary to support students.  

When I go home — after a full day of covering classes, running groups, doing check-ins with kids, and whatever else comes up — I’m tired. I don’t want to cook dinner. But feeding a family on takeout is too expensive for a household that relies on two public education salaries. So I plan all our meals, keeping our grocery bill as low as possible, a tougher chore when the cost of everything is going up.  

This past week, my younger son broke his hand at basketball practice, and my older son’s car broke down — two unexpected bills. The medicine I need for my own health is about $300 a month. On top of that, I see a counselor biweekly so that I can show up fully for my kids at school; that’s another $100 a month.  

Of course, we also have a house payment, a car payment, and insurance payments too.  

I go home daily stressed and tired from this job I love — and then deal with additional anxiety about paying my bills.  

I have an extra job on the weekends (that I shouldn’t need) to help me make ends meet. 

I know other counselors feel the way I do. Here are some of the comments from counselors from Texas AFT’s 2022 Membership Survey: 

  • “We are understaffed and those who come to work get overloaded with filling in the gaps and are still accountable for our daily responsibilities.” 
  • “The salary is no longer enough to support my family. I’m not able to live paycheck to paycheck. If I’d have known that the expectation for educators was to work solely for the love of it, I’d have chosen another occupation. You can’t prosper simply from passion.” 
  • “The pay is not worth the stress. The medical benefits are expensive. Educators can’t even afford to get treatment because of the high cost of insurance, deductibles, and co-pay. The state and government are aware of the statistics on how educators are overworked, stressed, etc., but aren’t helping us with compensation or benefits. So do they really care or are we just another number?“ 

I stand with Texas AFT, which is calling for a minimum $10,000 raise for certified staff (including teachers and counselors) and a minimum 15% raise for classified staff. I am a mom, and I love my kids. But I also love my kids at school. I do not want to have to choose between them.  

This isn’t just about my salary; it’s about funding. My school does not have other service providers to help meet kids’ mental health needs. When students have a mental health issue, I’m the only one they can turn to. 

Our schools are hurting and teachers, counselors, and other school staff are leaving this underpaid, stressful, and vitally important profession. We feel disrespected, as if the work we do with our students isn’t important.  

The Texas Legislature must increase the basic allotment that funds our schools. It also must pass across-the-board raises for all school employees. If we care about our kids — and the people who care for them — that’s the least we can do.