School counselors share their love for helping students

Published 3:57 pm Thursday, February 9, 2023

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National Read a Book Day is Sept. 6, Teacher Appreciation Week runs May 8 to 12 and Sept. 29 will be National Coffee Day. Another random holiday occurred this week, as it was National School Counseling Week, which is always the first full week in February. This year’s theme: Helping Students Dream Big.

Larissa Rohlik and Jess Hatland are Albert Lea Area Schools counselors helping students to do just that.

Rohlik, in her third year as a counselor at Hawthorne Elementary School, has always loved working with children.

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“I have worked all the way from college [and] I’ve always been into working with especially smaller children,” she said.

She said young children are “without a care in the world.”

For her, every day is different, and her work includes doing classroom guidance lessons.

“I’m teaching social skills to them … and it’s teaching them how to cope with their feelings, it teaches them how to problem-solve different issues that they may have, we teach a lot of empathy,” she said.

Rohlik also does small-group interventions on issues such as building social skills, making friendships, dealing with anxiety and impulse control. She does one-on-one sessions, and she’ll do school-wide assemblies.

“I’m up in front of a whole entire school acting silly, dancing around, teaching them how to show empathy, teaching them how to problem-solve,” she said.

A common issue she sees is separation anxiety.

“I help a lot with parents on how to help them along the way at home on how to support their child here at school,” she said.

But she loves how interactive her work is, as well as how work allows her to be silly.

And she works on the student council.

“I love my job, love it,” she said. “I love seeing the kids’ faces when I come and grab them in the mornings or just greeting them. Their face completely lights up.”

She also admitted there were frustrating parts to her work, especially when issues arise with students that aren’t in their control and leaving her to figure a way to help.

Her work also involves a lot of playing, whether with Play Doh or using fidget spinners, all the while letting the student guide the conversation so as to let them feel comfortable.

The work taught her to be flexible and adaptive, and she noted things came up at different times.

“Right away when I entered into this that really was a shocking point,” she said. “I was like, ‘OK, once I’m in this building I’m on, I’ve got to go, my job is to support kids, my job is to support teachers.”

Rohlik enters conversations with an open mind, and said a lot of times children come to her feeling uncomfortable about opening up, and that getting them to feel that way could take a lot of time.

“I have to make this space feel like their home away from home, and that’s something that I really thrive doing every single day,” she said. “When they come into my space I want them to feel safe, I want them to feel like they can just sit down and relax and that they can just talk about what they’re experiencing.”

Her work has taught her the value of patience and persistence.

In helping students dream big, Rohlik plans to do career lessons with the entire school.

She wants that work to help students start thinking about different career fields and colleges, and after students complete their research Rohlik will have them present their findings to other grade levels.

Besides a degree in family consumer science, Rohlik also has a master’s in school counseling from Minnesota State University Mankato.

Hatland is also in her third year as a school counselor, though she works at Albert Lea High School.

Like Rohlik, for her there was no such thing as a typical day, but said there generally was some type of meeting, whether a child intervention team meeting or a collaborative team meeting.

The rest of the day will consist of student appointments that are categorized in three ways: social-emotional, academic, or college and career.

She’ll also give presentations in classes about subjects such as scholarships or helping seniors plan what they should be doing at a certain point.

There are also unplanned meetings.

Working at a high school, a common issue she sees is achieving credits towards graduation and keeping students on-track to graduate.

“If our students are behind on credits to graduate, we are meeting — especially with our seniors — on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to make sure they’re earning the credits they need towards graduation,” she said.

She’ll also take the career exploration Rohlik does and “take that up a notch,” and help them fill out college applications and apply for financial aid.

Unlike the separation anxiety Rohlik deals with, Hatland sees anxiety and depression.

She loves developing positive and supportive relationships with students, learning about them and being someone who can help them get on the track to success.

“I enjoy laughing with kids, I enjoy figuring out what they’re going to do next in their life,” she said.

Within her work, she said it was hard coming across certain stories found on social media. At the same time, she said those stories are what kept her coming back and wanting to help students in tough spots.

Hatland also tries to be approachable, easy to talk with and seeing things through multiple perspectives.

“Everyone has a story,” she said. “Everyone has a story, and we can’t always see that story walking around on our students’ faces.”

To that effect, she has learned to meet students where they’re at with their stories.

At the same time, she admitted there were a lot of different facets to school counseling and said there was always room for growth.

In getting the students to dream big, she acknowledged that very definition could mean different things to different youth.

“Maybe it means that they’re dreaming big to get into the college of their dreams and how can I assist them through scholarships, through helping them to write the best essay they can, things like that,” she said. “Maybe dreaming big means they’re in a dark situation and seeing the light to get through that situation.”

And for some students, dreaming big could mean being a first-generation college student.

But she also believed she could help instill hope in students and their situations.

Prior to counseling, Hatland worked as a teacher for 16 years, where she taught primarily in fourth grade in Owatonna.

“I loved teaching and had done that for a long time, and I was kind of looking for a different avenue in helping kids in a little bit different way,” she said. “A little bit less of the academics, or the direct teaching of the academics, and a little bit more of the social-emotional college and career planning. And still keeping an eye on academic planning.”

Hatland graduated with a degree in elementary education from Gustafus Adolphus in 2004. She also has a master’s in educational leadership from Southwest State, as well as a master’s in school counseling from Minnesota State Mankato, where she was in the same cohort as Rohlik.

According to the American School Counselor Association, National School Counseling Week highlights “the tremendous impact school counselors can have in helping students achieve school success and plan for a career.” School counseling is over a century old and evolved through different economic, social and educational forces.