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The role of the rural school counselor: counselor, counselor-in-training, and principal perceptions.

The American School Counselor Association developed a comprehensive set of school counseling guidelines to enhance the school counselor's role within schools in the United States. This study looks at counselors" and principals" perceptions of the school counselor's role in a Midwestern, regional rural educational environment. Results suggest that the perceptions of school counselors, counselors-in-training, and principals are, for the most part, similar Differences occur in relation to addressing student (i.e., special education program versus student guidance) and administrative (i.e., clerical, secretarial, disciplinary duties) needs given limited personnel and economic resources. Limitations are discussed and suggestions for future research and advocacy are presented.


Throughout the United States, school systems, school counseling programs, and state boards of education have had different understandings of what constitutes a school counselor's job (Aubrey, 1973, 1977). In an effort to address this, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA, 2003) developed a comprehensive set of school counseling guidelines, enhancing the efficacy of the school counselor's role within the nation's schools. Research has provided some support that fully integrated, implemented, and functioning school counseling programs may help to enhance student performance and preparation for the future, promote a more positive and safe learning environment (Brigman & Campbell, 2003; Lapan, Gysbers, & Petroski, 2001), and better student-parent-teacher understanding (Gysbers, Lapan, & Blair, 1999).

Rural schools, however, often do not have the resources with which to create a fully integrated school counseling program. Research indicates that this is not unusual; some school counselors report regular reassignment to nonguidance roles (Sink & Yillik-Downer, 2001) including clerical and disciplinary duties (Gysbers & Henderson, 2000). Nevertheless, school counselors, as advocates of collaboration among school staff and faculty and particularly in rural settings where resources may be scarce, usually are willing to engage in nonguidance activities as part of a negotiated fair-share agreement. Nonguidance activities fall into four categories: supervisory duties, clerical duties, special education programs and services, and administrative duties (ASCA, 2003).

The present study explores the perceptions of school counselors in-training, school counselors, and principals regarding school counselors' current and expected role in several rural, Midwestern regional school systems.


Participants were school counselors-in-training recruited from a graduate program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (N = 20), professional school counselors belonging to a regional professional organization (N = 49), and school principals contacted from a list of regional school administrators provided by a regional university (N = 33). A total of 313 surveys were administered or mailed to the three groups, school counselors-in-training, professional school counselors, and school principals; 102 were returned for a 32.6% return rate. complete data are available from the first author upon request.


A survey instrument was developed for each of the three groups, differing only in the title and trade words appropriate to each group. Surveys consisted of demographic information; a list of 26 activities adapted from ASCA standards in which school counselors might participate during a typical school week; and two open-ended questions to list three "other activities you think school counselors conduct but were not listed here" and space to add any issues not addressed by the survey. Participants estimated how much time they devoted to each of the 26 activities and what they believed the school counselor's time commitment should be to each.


Quantitative Analyses

Responses to the list of 26 activities that participants felt the school counselor "should" do and the activities they "actually" do each week were compiled. Results were reported in medians as a few of the respondents reported spending inordinate amounts of time on a few activities. Their extreme responses skewed the means. A nonparametric analysis of variance was run to see if the median time differed significantly among the three groups.

Results indicated that the statistically significant differences that existed among the three groups were, in practical terms, small. The largest meaningful difference in hours concerned was the time that counselors-in-training, school counselors, and principals reported that they "should" spend counseling small groups and individuals with problems (p < .027). Counselors-in-training and counselors reported 18.5 and 17.7 hours per week and principals reported 12.3 hours per week--a difference of 5 to 6 hours. The second largest meaningful difference involved working on Individual Education Plans (IEPs), with principals feeling counselors should devote 4.3 hours per week and the other two groups reporting no hours at all (p = .001).

Common responses were the principals' assumptions that school counselors should supervise hall duty, bus loading/unloading, restrooms, and lunchtime for 2.2 hours each week, while both school counselors and those in training flit they should not engage in these activities at all (p = .045). In addition, counselors and trainees felt they should engage in continuing education and training for 1.5 hours a week more than principals did (2.5 hours, p = .007). Also, principals and trainees felt counselors should be spending almost 5 hours per week testing students, whereas counselors thought they should be spending half that amount of time testing (p = .010). Finally, counselors-in-training assumed that they should spend 1.7 hours referring severely mentally ill students versus counselors and principals (2.7 and 3.5 hours, respectively, p = .008).

In terms of what the three groups felt counselors "actually" do throughout a typical school week, principals thought that counselors spent 10 hours each week consulting with teachers, staff; and parents about students development needs, but in actuality, counselors and trainees reported spending 3 to 4 hours a week less (6.7 and 6.2 hours, respectively, p = .044). Counselors and trainees surveyed reported spending no time being responsible for IEPs, while principals assumed they were spending 2.6 hours per week (p = .021). Principals also perceived that their counselors spent twice as much time referring students for severe mental illness as counselors and trainees did (4.0 versus 2.3 and 1.7, p = .001).

Qualitative Analyses

Of the 102 surveys, 47 (46% of total) included some written responses. Two of the authors read through the responses and independently identified themes by participant subgroup (counselor-in-training, school counselor, and principal). Responses expressing similar ideas were decontextualized within each group. The composite of similar ideas created a recurrent theme. The themes then were recontextualized across subgroups to bring out the major categories reflected in the written responses. Finally, the thematic categories were combined into four larger classes to better reflect ASCA guidelines. The four major classes include (a) school counselor roles and duties as defined by this state's department of education; (b) school counselor roles and duties beyond the scope of ASCA guidelines; (c) concerns that participants had about pay and advocacy; and (d) critiques the participants had about the survey instrument used.

Qualitative results were compiled from participants' responses to the open statement "Comment on any important aspects of the school counseling profession that you believe have not been addressed in the survey." Duties that participants felt they engaged in that were best described by guidance curricula included running incentive programs for good behavior, character education programs, and "other" classroom activities. Two people monitored a hot line, and one person wanted more time to actually plan the guidance curriculum.

Individual planning was spent differently depending on school level. Only high school counselors clearly delineated that their time was spent in planning career fairs and writing letters of recommendation for scholarships and college applications. One counselor remarked, "The issues that I was not prepared for were ... the pressures of college admission and scholarships. Scholarships can make or break a high school counselor."

Counselors, counselors-in-training, and principals identified counselors' consultation role (responsive services) as being more time-consuming than imagined. School counselors consult readily with parents, teachers, principals, school nurses, students, and community counselors in their schools. System support included professional development, staff meetings, and being a member--often the facilitator--of the teacher support team.

Participants reported participation in such nonguidance activities as secretarial, administrative, disciplinary, and substitute teaching duties. Four participants indicated that they often filled in for the secretary or engaged in secretarial duties. Others expressed concern regarding the administrative and disciplinary nature of their duties. One counselor stated,</p> <pre> As a counselor, I am often placed in a position to do duties that I was not trained for as a school counselor. Many, many duties are administrative in nature (10 hours a week for developing the master schedule, 25 hours a week to maintain permanent records and handle transcripts). </pre> <p>A second counselor wrote, "Through supervising hall, cafeteria, restroom, bus loading and unloading (approximately 10 hours weekly), I get to know the students. However, I am put in the position to discipline. I do not believe a counselor should be a disciplinarian."

Not all participants felt that such duties were inappropriate. One counselor stated, "The principal and I both supervise 5-6 and 7-8 grade lunch periods each day. Actually this has worked out great. I can make contact with many students during this time without class interruptions."

Special education services and testing generated the most responses: Counselors expressed feeling overwhelmed, unprepared and untrained, and as though their time was being misspent. One counselor wrote, "[I] do all paperwork (assessment, scheduling, consultation, report writing) from beginning to the end of the process.... Overwhelming.... Complicated and stressful, especially when thrown into it with little or no training."

Another counselor estimated that 50% of her time was spent on special education testing and paperwork; while several noted being asked or expected to perform duties as special education coordinator or head of special services with no training, no increase in pay, and no recognition. One counselor stated,</p> <pre> Counselors spend too much time on special education. Evaluations and IEP meetings have taken up most of my time. I am more of a special education coordinator than a counselor. Yet, I still have all the responsibilities of a counselor and special education coordinator. </pre> <p>Another stated,</p> <pre> Even though I am not qualified to test, I am

still the coordinator of special services, which means I set up meetings, attend all meetings, and type the diagnostic summaries. It takes up so much of my time (just keeping on top of the due dates). It is a nightmare sometimes. I also see a lot of students and I try my best to put them first. </pre> <p>Principals do recognize this conundrum, yet they face pressures of their own to accommodate special needs students, sacrificing the school counseling needs of the general school population in the process. One commented, "We use our counselors as half-time special education process people and half-time guidance. More time should be devoted to guidance." Another stated, "I have a wonderful counselor who spends a great deal of time testing students for special services placement. I feel she should have more opportunities to address the counseling needs of students with problems, but testing truly demands data."

Several counselors were concerned about appropriate remuneration. One school counselor's frustration was clear about the disproportionate amount of and type of non-guidance-related duties required compared to her salary:</p> <pre> If I could recommend, I would tell anyone

going into school counseling, don't. You work more than administrators, you have to complete more hours to get your degree, and you get less pay. We are not even worthy of our own pay scale as we are classified with teachers. </pre> <p>DISCUSSION

Counselors, counselors-in-training, and principals have different perceptions of how much time school counselors currently spend versus what they ought to spend on a variety of school counseling duties. This school counselor role confusion is not new; rather, it has been a chronic and unresolved issue since as early as the 1950s (Aubrey, 1973, 1977). Findings from this study suggest some of the reasons for this confusion: (a) All key players do not know what a school counselor's role is, and when they do, they do not always agree on that role; (b) the power differentials inherent in the relationships among key players make it difficult for the school counselor's role to become institutionalized; and (c) economic, regional, local, and student needs play a significant part in altering the daily functioning of an individual professional school counselor's duties.


Caution must be used when generalizing the results of this exploratory study. The differential sampling procedure by group (mail surveys versus classroom surveys) affected return rates resulting in overrepresentation of counselors-in-training versus principals and counselors. Mail survey return rates also were low (28%) affecting the generalizability of these findings. In addition, only 46% of the returned surveys included written responses, representing about 14% of the total possible number of participants contacted. Despite the limited response and methodological concerns, the responses gathered can be used to generate a useful discussion around some of the realities that rural school systems and counselors face when trying to implement the ASCA National Model[R] (2003).


Institutional change requires the commitment of several levels of key players within the given environment. Rural school counselor educators need to continue to work on the professional development of their counselors-in-training. This need can be met by teaching students advocacy techniques using evidence-based arguments to promote the profession in the field with an understanding of the economic realities that may exist in a rural setting. In addition, school counselor educators could become involved in course development consultation in the allied education professions.

In the field, school counselors from rural areas can become involved in their state school counseling organizations to advocate for rural school needs. In addition, school counselors might offer in-service sessions defining the school counselor's role and how it enhances the teamwork that all do to promote education. On the state and national levels, professional school counseling organizations such as ASCA need to work collaboratively with rural school representatives in teacher education, special education, and educational administration accrediting bodies such as the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education to include school counselors' roles in their curricula. State and national legislators need to be educated about school counselors' roles and the evidence backing up their effectiveness, leading to (a) more funding available to hire school counselors, and (b) bills drafted to legally define the professional duties of a school counselor.

Future Research

This exploratory study merely begins the process. There is a strong need for evidence-based research on the efficacy of professional school counseling in rural schools. Additional research is needed to determine the perceptions of other professionals involved with our ultimate goal: the development of the full potential of the children in our schools. These other professionals include (but are not limited to) teachers, special educators, school superintendents, principals, and legislators.


American School Counselor Association. (2003). The ASCA national model: A framework for school counseling programs. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Aubrey, R. F. (1973). Organizational victimization of school counselors. School Counselor, 20, 346-354.

Aubrey, R. F. (1977). Historical development of guidance and counseling and implications for the future. Personnel & Guidance Journal, 55, 288-295.

Brigman, G., & Campbell, C. (2003). Helping students improve academic achievement and school success behavior. Professional School Counseling, 7, 91-98.

Gysbers, N. C., & Henderson, P. G. (2000). Developing and managing your school guidance program. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Gysbers, N.C., Lapan, R.T., & Blair, M. (1999). Closing in on the statewide implementation of a comprehensive guidance program model. Professional School Counseling, 2, 357-366.

Lapan, R.T., Gysbers, N. C., & Petroski, G. F. (2001). Helping seventh graders be safe and successful: A statewide study of the impact of comprehensive guidance and counseling programs. Journal of Counseling and Development, 79, 320-330.

Sink, C. A., & Yillik-Downer, A. (2001). School counselors' perceptions of comprehensive guidance and counseling programs: A national survey. Professional School Counseling, 4, 278-289.

Julieta Monteiro-Leitner is an assistant professor in the Department of Education Administration avid Counseling, Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau. E-mail: Kimberly K. Asner-Self is an associate professor of counselor education in the Educational Psychology and Special Education Department, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Cheryl Milde is an associate professor in the Department of Education Administration and Counseling, Southeast Missouri State University. Dennis W. Leitner is an associate professor emeritus in the Educational Psychology and Special Education Department, Southern Illinois University. Doris Skelton is an associate professor in the Department of Education Administration and Counseling, Southeast Missouri State University.
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Author:Skelton, Doris
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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