I remember walking into the school for the first time. I was there to be interviewed for a voluntary placement as part of my studies, and I was instantly hooked. A big, bright state of the art building with glass walls and hundreds of children and staff all going about their busy days. I wanted in on this!
Having spent 18 years as a private nanny with no colleagues and no company except the small children in my care, I was excited at the prospect of a less isolating career with the opportunity of becoming part of a wider community of people.
At first I was preoccupied with settling in with new clients, managing a case load, meeting the criteria of university and juggling supervision commitments. My only contact was with the safeguarding officer - effectively my line manager, and my clients. But once I was in a routine and had found my way around the school, I was keen (in my naivety) to start mingling with other people.
My instinct was to go to the staff room at lunch time. I’m a confident person who enjoys meeting new people, and so I was a little surprised at the reticence of others to engage with me. Teachers would sit around a large table and vent their frustrations to one another while I skirted around the side-lines making myself a cup of tea and hoping to be invited into the fold. It felt isolating, and even a little intimidating. I remember my eager anticipation waning and feeling downhearted. However I persisted, thinking it would only be a matter of time before they spoke to me.
Then, one afternoon I overheard a teacher talking quite openly and heatedly about the so called ‘bad’ behaviour of one of my clients, unbeknownst to her of course. I sat there listening to her frustration at this child’s disruption of her class, how difficult it had been to gain control of a situation and how she had punished them by implementing an isolation.
In an instant I was raging. Less than two hours previously this child had been in a room with me, divulging traumas and rejections that made my heart break and made it entirely understandable to me as to why they would be exhibiting anger. But of course, this teacher knew none of this, and so she had given him yet another rejection.
Suddenly I became acutely aware of the divide between us and I wondered if that meant that I could never be invited to the table? I took my anger to the safeguarding officer and I talked it through with my supervisor, making notes of the conflict around confidentiality, ethics and boundaries. Unsurprisingly my supervisor advised me to avoid the staff room, and perhaps find a quiet place on my own to eat my lunch. As a student, I followed the advice, but I made a conscious decision to see if I could work my way around it.
Over the following months I made a concerted effort to get to know more of the staff. I was having more contact with the year leaders as they are generally the people making the referrals, and so I went out of my way to introduce myself to them all and make it clear that they could approach me. I chatted with the girls in reception and was relieved to find that I was able to enjoy a good bit of banter about last nights ‘I’m A Celebrity’ without having to worry about breaking any confidentialities.
The cleaning staff and administrative teams too were friendly and more than happy to engage in small talk and idle chit chat of the kind that has nothing whatsoever to do with my work. It was a relief…finally I had an outlet and a few connections.
Sometimes, when I’ve been in a room with a client all that hangs in the air after they’ve left is the echo of their tears or the weight of their confessions, and all I really need is to get out, have a cup of tea, talk nonsense and shake it off before the next session begins. The interactions with others became an invaluable part of my self-care as well as adding to the social aspect of the job.
I still had the staff room to tackle though and the confidence to do this came only once I was qualified and in an employed position at the school. Somehow I felt now more ‘deserving’ of a place at the table and so I went and sat at it.
I had realised that as a volunteer, and still now as a self-employed counsellor, the lanyard I wear reads ‘temporary’ and is the same as any other visitor to the school, from supply teachers who are there for a week to prospective parents there for an hour. I couldn’t really blame the teachers for not going out of their way on their break to befriend someone that for all they knew, they would never see again. These people are heroes as it is (I genuinely don’t know how they do what they do) and are already under so much pressure….if I were them, I would want half an hour with my colleagues to have a good rant too!
And so, I sat down right next to them and introduced myself. I explained that although I had already been at the school for a year, I was perhaps slightly invisible, but that now I am a permanent fixture I’d love it if they wanted to say hi anytime.
Now, 18 months in I’m finally feeling like I’ve found my place in the school. I still have to work hard at maintaining boundaries and keeping confidentiality. I know now that it is my responsibility to leave the room if something is being discussed that affects my work rather than the teachers responsibility not to discuss it, but I can honestly say that I have made some great connections with people and that I finally feel like I am part of the team.
Working in a school is wonderful in so many ways, but it can be challenging too. So if you’re just starting out, my advice would be…give it time. It is so well worth it, and if you can find the balance between professional, confidential counsellor and holistic team player then the rewards are boundless.
School counsellor - lone wolf or team player? I think…both.
Having previously spent 18 years as a nanny, Katrina is now qualified as a person-centred therapist, using creative methods in her work as a school counsellor and in her private practice, The Person-Centre. Katrina lives and works in East Sussex and enjoys painting and poetry as a form of relaxation. You can find out more about Katerina and her work here or get in touch with via email.