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Thursday, February 22, 2024
Feb. 22, 2024

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What it takes to be a WA school counselor of the year


SEATTLE — To be honored as a school counselor of the year is to acknowledge an often-misunderstood profession, says Jorge Torres.

Torres was named 2023 School Counselor of the Year by the Washington School Counselor Association and was one of five finalists and the only male counselor in the running for the national School Counselor of the Year award.

He did not receive the national award. But he was honored to be nominated.

“I was this kid, the son of migrant farmworkers, who qualified as homeless, who had the resiliency of not giving up and being hopeful for the future. With my experience, I think I’m able to provide promise and hope for the future generation,” he said.

At Foster High School in Tukwila, Torres and the three other school counselors — Liz Hepner, Laura Linde and Jenni Standard — are assigned to more students than there are days in a school year. Their strength and stamina in managing everything from master schedules to mental health crises comes from working collectively as a team for more than a decade, said Torres.

Torres is in his 16th year as a counselor for Foster and 24th year in the profession; he started in the Wenatchee School District. Torres is also a rare representative in the school counseling field. The majority of counselors are white and female, according to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA).

Torres comes from a family of 10 siblings raised by Mexican migrant farmworkers. He attended 11 elementary schools, three middle schools and three high schools between the U.S. and Mexico, as his family faced illness, death and uncertainty.

It’s those experiences, and Torres’ own resilience, which have helped him best support his students.

“I just had a new student coming in today. A refugee from South America who was basically sleeping out in the cold, but coming in with a smile telling me they’re excited to be here and looking forward to coming to school,” Torres said on Tuesday. “It was humbling.”

We asked Torres about working with a diverse student body, the evolution of the role of guidance counselor to school counselor and what keeps him in this increasingly challenging role. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become interested in being a counselor?

When my older brother dropped out to help my family, it struck me. He was one of the smartest people that I knew. When it came to math, I could see that he thrived. I found some information on a high school completion program and shared that with him. He ended up going to school and getting his GED and did really well for himself.

I realized it made me feel really good to help get my brother resources and encouraged me even more. I wondered what other kids are in need.

How has your role changed over the years?

When I was in high school, school counselors were commonly known as guidance counselors because at the time, that was what was needed. The ASCA student standards have three domains, which include academic development and support, college and career readiness and social-emotional development and support.

When you look at all those pieces over the years, the social-emotional has become more of a focal point for many different factors, including societal and technological changes. Suicidal ideation rates have increased [among youth]. AI is now a thing. We have to think about how that is going to impact our students, and communities in general.

And school counselors aren’t trained therapists, right?

I hope in working with the state we can look at the missing parts of our system. We all talk about mental health, right? But we don’t have enough providers.

As school counselors, we’re not mental health therapists. We’re not trained to do therapy. But many times, we are it for students. There are limits to how many clients even full-time therapists can take. I would say it’s improving to a degree but taking longer to connect students with therapists than before COVID.

So, we rely on other structures of support we can provide.

What keeps you in this role?

The students, honestly. I love my job. The best part of my job is when I’m sitting with students, talking about college or doing check-ins.

There are a lot of needs. It is difficult. And I’m not going to lie, it’s increasingly stressful figuring out how to navigate that. But we have a great community of staff and other school counselors. All of us on my team have been around for at least 10 years and that’s very uncommon. Each of us does a lot of stuff behind the scenes.

What are some of those things?

We’re going into classes to talk with students about graduation requirements and credits, and planning a meeting for families on Jan. 11. We’ll have interpreters there so we can explain here’s what you need to know. Here’s what you need to do.

Despite the challenges, students still want to be successful and we want to be there and be supportive of them.

In our school counseling center, each of us play a major role to support students. We also work with family liaisons, social workers, college and career specialists. We’re currently hiring a re-engagement specialist and we also work with a behavioral health specialist.

What are some of the challenges in your work? And the joys?

Some people say some things are the jobs of school counselors and I’m not afraid to ask who said that. We have national standards and frameworks that talk about what duties are appropriate and inappropriate.

For example, is it appropriate for counselors to be coordinating standardized tests versus interpreting results?

Outside of my work [at Foster] I work with the Professional School Counselors of Color group. I’m always mentoring and encouraging candidates of color to join the cause. Their experience might be just the support our students are looking for.

Our students come from very diverse backgrounds and that type of diversity creates strength with all of us.

It’s humbling, being empathetic with students, and saying, “Hey, you’re not alone. I’m right next to you. It’s not going to be easy, but we could help make it more enjoyable along the way.”