Amid National Staffing Shortage, La Salle’s Counseling Department Feels the Effects

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Ashley Hawkins

“My motto this year is, ‘We’re going to do the best we can,’” counselor Ms. Michelle Berry said.

By Lillian Paugh, La Salle Catholic Preparatory High School

With schools across America being hit hard by the current national staffing and teacher shortage, La Salle’s counseling department is not immune, beginning the new school year with only two counselors designated specifically for student emotional support.

At the end of last school year, with the announcement that one of La Salle’s long-time counselors was leaving, a still-open position at the beginning of the school year was a possibility. But one unfilled position turned to two, as another counselor had to step away as well over the summer.

Last year, the counseling department consisted of four academic and emotional support counselors, but this year saw only one of those counselors, Ms. Berry, return and a new counselor, Mr. Kevin Doyle, welcomed. Because of this, certain policies within the department were adjusted to accommodate the situation.

Students initially began this year without a specific counselor assigned to them, in contrast to previous years, but students received their counselor assignments on Monday, Sept. 12.

The school administration and the counseling department have also been urging students to schedule appointments via Schoology with either Ms. Berry or Mr. Doyle in advance, rather than have impromptu meetings with them throughout the school day.

“There may only be two of us, but I still think we’re going to do a good job,” Ms. Berry said. “But the biggest thing is, please reach out to us. …We want to be as available as we can and if we’re not, we will be available at some point. So make an appointment.”

Also different from last year’s practices, there is no daily designated “on-call” counselor for students to reach out to in person in the counseling center in case of urgent situations. Instead, students with pressing issues are asked to check in at the main office.

“We’re still working on [the department model], given the numbers that we have,” Mr. Doyle said. “We’re trying to adapt every day. …I think, as we’re seeing the needs of students kind of flood in and seeing if there are common trends, I think that’s when we’re going to have to make adjustments.”

Despite being short-staffed, the counseling department has found support in the administration at La Salle, with Vice President for Student Life Mr. Aaron Hollingshead, who previously worked in counseling before coming to La Salle, has been assigned to be the counselor for students in the San Miguel Scholars Program and Vice Principal for Academics Ms. Kathleen Coughran, who is also “more than willing to support kids,” Principal Ms. Alanna O’Brien said. 

In addition, La Salle’s preexisting college counselor Ms. Madeleine Hanley and academic support specialist Ms. Shannon Woodworth are playing key roles in advising students.

“I want students to know that we’re here to support them,” Ms. O’Brien said. “And, if they don’t have access to counselors, to know that there’s other adults in the building who are available to support them.”

The administration has remained on the lookout for possible candidates to fill the empty spots, facing setbacks along the way, like candidates backing out for various reasons and the overarching struggle to find counselors in the first place. “I think being a counselor right now is a challenging position to be,” Ms. O’Brien said. “At the same time, I’m really optimistic that we’re going to get good people in those positions.”

However, a concern from both the counseling department and administration is how they can support students as they adjust to the changes. “Students develop relationships with their counselor,” Ms. Berry said. “And it’s hard to then have to start over again and build another connection.” 

This concern is a result of the implications of the current situation and is also one brought about by the changes that have occurred within the counseling department over the past few years, including almost yearly changes in staff. Creating and nurturing strong relationships with students is a priority for both Ms. Berry and Mr. Doyle.

“Hopefully, we’re able to be here for a while and expand the department,” Mr. Doyle said. “But, for the moment, [we’re] just starting to build up those relationships and just kind of see how the year goes.”

Although the school is still actively looking for counselors to join the team, Ms. Berry has chosen to focus her attention on working with the resources the department has for the time being.

“We’re hoping to fill the positions, but at the same time, I think we’ve realized that we need to move on and plan that this is what we have right now,” Ms. Berry said. “And if we get someone else — great. If we don’t, we will keep plugging away.”

This story was originally published on The La Salle Falconer on September 14, 2022.