I Can See the Tops of Trees: Building Collaborative Relationships with Students, Teachers and Parents

Abstract

The school counselor has an array of responsibilities within the school environment. One important responsibility is building collaborative relationships with students, teachers and parents. This article examines the school counselor’s role and challenges in building these working alliances. It also presents a counselor empathy model that can be utilized to strengthen empathic bonds in school relationships.

I Can See the Tops of Trees: Building Collaborative Relationships

With Students, Teachers and Parents

The school counselor has an array of responsibilities within the school environment (Clark, 1995; Murray, 1995; Reese, 2001). According to the American School Counselor Association (2001), these duties include: (1) facilitating students’ educational, personal, vocational, and social development; (2) promoting curricular and environmental conditions appropriate for the school and the community; (3) promoting educational procedures and programs to meet student needs; and; (4) providing a systematic evaluation process for guidance and counseling programs, services, and personnel. Another responsibility that is often unstated is attempting to understand the unique lived experiences of students, teachers and parents. Lived experiences are defined as being the stories and narratives that people share about themselves and their world (Ingram & Moule, 2001). Perspectives about others are developed from the systematic exploration of individual and collective lived experiences (Garcia, & Zea, 1997; Garretson, 1993; Sue & Sue, 1990; Pedersen, Draguns, Lonner, & Trimble, 1996; Uba, 1994). Yet, understanding another person’s perspective, culture or worldview can be a frustrating challenge. It requires moving beyond self (i.e., biases, judgments, etc) and empathically entering the world of the other person. As we know, empathy is the ability to feel what another person feels as it relates to his or her lived experience. From a theoretical perspective, empathy is critical in the process of developing relationships because it can serve as a bridge to build trust, rapport, and understanding among individuals (Rogers, 1980, Ingram, 2000). Yet, unfortunately, in a school context, parents often do not trust teachers or school counselors, teachers do not trust parents or school counselors, and students do not trust anybody! As a consequence, empathy in the process of relationship building is devalued, poor communication patterns exist, and the school community operates in a less than ideal manner. Nonetheless, collaborative relationships between school counselors, students, teachers, and parents are important to the overall success of any school environment (Colbert, 1996; Keys & Lockhart, 1999; Lewis, 1996).

This article examines the school counselor’s role and challenge in building these relationships; explores current perceptions of school counselors by students, teachers, and parents; and proposes a counselor empathy model that can be utilized to strengthen bonds in these relationships. Throughout the article, verses from a poem I wrote entitled, “I Can See the Tops of Trees” (Ingram, 2000) will be integrated. This poem describes the feelings and thoughts of a young African-American male who attempts to reach his life goals but is often thwarted by external factors. The metaphor in this poem can be equated to the challenge that many school counselors face in their efforts to build and sustain working alliances (Kokotovic & Tracey, 1990; Walborn, 1996) and empathic bonds with students, teachers and parents.

Students

“I can see the tops of trees, but I can’t reach them.

Lord knows I’ve tried to reach the tops of trees,

In my mind, in my life, in my time.

Yet every time I scale the heights of an old oak tree

in order to reach the highest branch and touch the highest leaf,

Reality gently, but assuredly pushes me back down to the ground.

And there I am again looking up at the tops of trees,

In my mind, in my life, in my time.”

Much has been written about the key role of students in the school environment (Lapan, Gysbers, Petroski, 2001; Littrell &; Sunde Peterson, 2001; Marchant, Paulson & Rothlisberg, 2001). Simply stated, schools are designed to foster the growth and development of their student populations. Yet, concerns are growing that schools are not equipped to meet the needs of their stakeholders. Despite changes instigated by the education reform movement, student performance levels are decreasing and dropout rates are increasing (Boyd & Raffel, 1992; Griffin, 1994; National Center for Education Statistics, 1995). These are pressing concerns that continue to produce considerable consternation within the educational community. In other words, schools no longer hold any promise for many students. These young people, lacking opportunities to experience genuine success in the classroom, often feel unchallenged, unmotivated, and unsure about their futures (Ingram, 1997). The college aspirations of these students evaporate further with low scores on state proficiency tests and college entrance exams, such as the Standardized Aptitude Test, the Advanced Placement Test, and the American College Test. These students often feel uncertain about whether they can handle the college environment. Many young people end up dropping out of school and finding themselves ill prepared for adult life and its many challenges. Their academic achievement, which should continue into high school, often gradually fades away after the elementary and junior high years. A study revealed " . . . of the three million students who began public school in 1990, 25 percent would not make it through high school" (Martin, 1991, p. 23). As adolescent students approach adulthood, increased peer pressure, drugs, alcohol abuse, school-related violence, teen pregnancies, and unchallenging coursework serve as well-documented catalysts for early school withdrawals. According to Safer (1986), " . . . students who exhibit repeated behavioral difficulties, frequent absenteeism, and serious academic deficiencies are generally vulnerable throughout their formal educational careers" (p. 407). Evidence further suggests that psychological, emotional, and societal stressors are antecedents that cause many students to strike out against the very people who can provide the greatest assistance -- school personnel. School counselors’ working relationships with students in particular are thwarted by misconceptions of the counselors’ role in the school and by their perceived inability to assist or change the circumstances that cause frustration and angst in students’ lives.

Teachers

“I can see the peaks of mountains, but I can’t reach them.

Lord knows I’ve tried to reach the peaks of mountains,

in my mind, in my life, in my time.

Yet, every time I climb the cliffs of the craggiest mountain

in order to taste the pureness of untainted snow,

Reality gently, but confidently pushes me back down to the ground.

And there I am again looking up at the peaks of mountains,

in my mind, in my life, in my time.”

Rising rates of poverty (Barber, 2001; Bronfenbrenner, McClelland, Wethington, & Moen, 1996; Reed & Saulter, 1990, p. 3), school-related violence (Martin-Shore, 1996) and growing apathy (Nunn & Parish, 1992) about the school experience make it increasingly more difficult for teachers to do their job effectively. Additionally, teachers who struggle with increasing numbers of students and worsening discipline problems generally have insufficient access to professional training programs to help them cope. As a consequence of these and other factors, collaboration with teachers also can be a daunting challenge for school counselors (Blum, 1986; Martin & Baldwin, 1996). In many instances, teachers feel that a school counselor is the person who pulls students from class and interrupts the educational process. Some teachers may have had negative experiences with counselors during their own years in school. These unfavorable opinions can often be attributed to a lack of understanding of the school counselor’s role and how counselors affect the overall structure of the school experience (Nelson, 1991; Reese, 2001). Further, the school counselors’ challenge of collaborating with teachers intensifies when their roles are misunderstood and teachers themselves feel unsupported and frustrated in their own positions.

Parents

“I can see the meridian of the sky, but I can’t reach it.

Lord knows I’ve tried to reach the meridian of the sky,

in my mind, in my life, in my time.

Yet, every time I stretch out my arms

in order to seize a piece of Mount Olympus on high,

Reality gently, but deliberately pushes me back down to the ground.

And there I am again looking up at the meridian of the sky,

in my mind, in my life, in my time.”

Parental involvement is very important in the social and academic success of students (Torbert, 1998). A review of the literature revealed that parental involvement is critical in helping students achieve success in the school environment (Smith, Connel, Wright, Sizer, Norman, Hurley, & Walker, 1997). Parents who are active in the educational process are better able to understand the needs of their children as well as the needs of the school (Griffith, 1997). School counselors realize that supportive parents are key to the success of the school experience (Campbell, 1993; Edwards & Foster, 1995). Yet, the relationship between parents and school counselors often is fraught with obstacles. For example, some parents question whether the school counselor is truly an advocate for change who understands the child’s dilemma or is really just the spokesperson for the administration or teachers who would like to label the child (Vickers & Minke, 1995). Further, and potentially more damaging to the psyche of parents, is the expectation that school counselors will challenge their parental competence. Mandatory reporting of child abuse often creates a climate of suspicion around the school counselor and can preclude open and honest dialogue about child discipline, behavior patterns, or family dynamics. Combating these perceptions may prove a very difficult task for the school counselor. In a number of school systems, school counselors have designed and implemented innovative programming to increase parental participation as well as improve student performance and behavior. Nonetheless, these well-intentioned and initially well-received programs often meet with parental resistance, soon lose focus, and thus fail to effect positive changes (Ingram, 1997).

Empathy

As previously stated, empathy is a skill that can be applied as a grounding mechanism when attempting to build rapport and trust in a relationship. Specifically, empathy approximates the experience of another person, and connects the parties based on the underlying thoughts, feelings and behaviors that occur during the interaction (Ivey, Ivey & Morgan, 1997). Empathy can also be defined as the desire and ability to listen to another person's story without judgment or bias. It means moving beyond the level of sympathy. Sympathy, feeling sorry for another person, is often a hierarchical position that does not entail viewing the other person as an equal in the relationship. It means that one hears the other person, but there is still a distancing from the person that precludes the possibility for a close understanding of that person's feelings. In other words, "It happened to them and not to me, therefore, I feel sorry for them." Empathy, on the other hand, is feeling with the other person. It means being with the person in terms of approximating an understanding of their thoughts and feelings (Noddings, 1991). Power is decentralized and the level of awareness is equalized since there is a sharing of spirit that occurs as the two parties commune in a sense of oneness about a particular experience. In summary, J. Seward (personal communication, August 8, 2000) stated: Sympathy means I see you, I hear you, I feel for you.  Empathy means I see you, I hear you, I am with you. School counselors need to cultivate their level of empathic ability in order to understand the lived experiences of students, teachers and parents.

Strategies

Developing a collaborative relationship between the school counselor, students, teachers, and parents is often daunting and can be fraught with difficulty. One strategy for counselors that can be utilized when they are asked to serve as an intermediary in conflicts, conferences or consultations, is a counselor empathy model adapted from a schema that was originally developed to assist counseling students build basic skills in reflective listening (Yager, Ochlteree, & Brekke, 1975). The schema has six-steps and focuses on identifying emotional words and the associated content. The goal of the method is to assist individuals feel understood. According to Cormier & Cormier (1991) individuals tend to communicate more freely with persons whom they feel attempt to understand them.  School counselors are asked to critically process the following six steps:

1.                  What can I pat myself on the back for with respect to understanding the student, teacher or parent’s lived experience?

In many instances, school counselors don't commend their own efforts for the work they attempt to do with students, teachers and parents. To illustrate, being open to listening, moving away from work distractions, and connecting to the experience of others are reasons to commend self involvement.

2. What did the student, teacher or parent state directly and verbally about their feelings and thoughts?

Often, feeling words and phrases are directly expressed and identifiable. Therefore, listen closely to the words that are expressed during the interactions; verbal information can serve as a reference point for understanding and communication.

3. What did the student, teacher or parent express about feelings and thoughts through nonverbal cues?

Nonverbal and verbal descriptions may not necessarily be congruent with one another. Therefore, the emphasis should be to observe the nonverbal cues and ask questions that are designed to seek clarification and increase the level of understanding.

4. How am I feeling right at this moment or at the conclusion of the interaction?

Our own feelings sometimes will warn us in advance that we need to be attending to something about a potential interaction that is not yet in our awareness. Do not ignore these warning signs. Process these warning signals and seek consultation from a principal or colleague, if necessary.

5.                  If I were the student, teacher or parent and had their lived experience, background, culture, and world view, how would I feel?

This is not a question about how we would feel in the student’s, teacher’s or parent’s situation; it is a question of how we might feel if we had experienced the student, teacher or parent’s life, culture and history? Furthermore, in this stage, the school counselor can attempt to acknowledge and validate the student’s, teacher’s or parent’s experience and related feelings. Remember, if you find that you can't understand the experience, attempt to resonate with the feelings behind their experience or the nonverbal cues being expressed. This is not the time to be defensive or express feelings of guilt.

6. How can I reflect the student, teacher or parent’s feelings and thoughts and form either one of the following empathy statements:

1). “It sounds like the student, teacher or parent felt . . . when . . .” or

2). “I notice that the student, teacher or parent seemed . . . when . . .”

These empathy statements are designed to help the school counselor demonstrate understanding of the verbal and nonverbal information that occurred during the interaction.

Again, if there is difficulty understanding the student’s, teacher’s or parent’s lived experience the counselor should attempt to resonate with the feelings, thoughts or non-verbal behavioral cues that exist behind the lived experience. In other words, acknowledge and validate the feelings, thoughts and nonverbal cues expressed. For example, resonating with the teacher might mean attempting to understand the many challenges that are faced daily in the classroom.

Conclusion

The school counselor’s role requires that school counselors possess many of the following proficiencies: A working knowledge of the differences, as well as similarities, that exist between students, teachers and parents (Davis & Garrett, 1998; Helms & Ibrahim, 1985; Wilgus & Shelley, 1988); the ability to provide feedback that will be helpful in building better communication patterns between each group and ultimately enhance students’ performance levels (Schmidt, 1996); and an empathic understanding of the feelings behind the experiences of the aforementioned groups (Kottler & Kottler, 1993; Kottler & Kottler, 2000).

This model seeks to provide a foundation for assisting school counselors to reach these proficiencies and develop basic empathy skills. This model also builds a framework of respect, understanding and exploration. It sets a safe stage to recognize differing approaches to understanding the lived experiences of students, teachers and parents. Further, it assists school counselors to synthesize information and make better decisions based on experiencing the six stages in the model. Application of the model is dependent on the school counselor’s willingness to challenge preconceived notions about his or her role and to risk closer involvement working with students, teachers, and parents to create an environment that is

safe and constructive for all concerned.

Reality!

"Won’t you stop pushing and please . . .

Let me dream,

let me reach,

let me be!”

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Dr. Michael Anthony Ingram is an assistant professor in Counselor Education and Supervision at Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon. His areas of research include counselor supervision, career counseling, and multicultural counseling. Dr. Ingram received his doctoral degree in Counselor Education and Supervision from the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati Ohio. He holds a Masters of Science degree in School Counseling from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Greensboro, North Carolina and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Radio, Television and Motion Pictures from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Dr. Ingram, in addition, to his professorial duties, has gained an international reputation as a performance poet and cultural artist. He travels extensively reciting his works and conducting workshops on building cultural competence through socio-cultural poetry and metaphor (see www.thecounselingpoet.com).

Dr. Michael Anthony Ingram

Assistant Professor

Oregon State University

Counselor Education and Supervision

318-B Education Hall

Corvallis, Oregon 97331

541-737-3550

541-737-2040 (fax)

Ingramm@orst.edu