By: Jessie Yates, Wake County Teacher
In 2010, I entered a Master’s of Counseling program. As a fresh, doe-eyed college grad, I hoped to eventually work with international, immigrant, and refugee teens.
By the spring of 2013, I was starting my compulsory, license-dependent internship. My first feat was to call a mom and tell her that her daughter might have run away. Her response: “I don’t care. She’s your problem now.” She then hung up on me.
Since that first experience, I have guided groups of teenagers through the unexpected death of a peer; I have supported several teens facing incurable cancer and lupus diagnoses. I have been challenged by the 14 year old child whose guilt developed into a tearful “am I bad because I’m black?” inquiry. I have watched a 15 year old react to the news that her father had died; I have witnessed a young man prepare for the death and funeral arrangements of his own father. I have read the account of a 16 year old whose dream was to become a doctor and whose fear was of deportation; I have reviewed the vignette of a 17 year old whose sister – a doctor – had already been deported. I have been in the room when an 18 year old girl broke her silence about the family friend who had touched her in the wrong place. I have provided a safe corner to sleep for a boy whose mom had turned his bedroom into a crack-den; I have watched with complete ineptitude as another boy experimented with LSD; I have confronted the meth dealer with the promise of one more chance at rehab. I have cried with too many girls as they confessed that they were suicidal and then cried more when I received the news that way too many had gone through with their thoughts. I have been the recipient of coming out confessions and I have been one of the first adults to call her a him. I have offered my hands to hold during panic attacks, my laughter to combat tears, and one of my rare hugs when I hit a wall and knew of nothing else to do. As a professional, I have learned of first loves and first heartbreaks, dreams and fears, passions and setbacks. As strengthening as much of it has been, my heart has taken a hit every time I have worked with a struggling teen.
It’s what 2010 me, although fresh and doe-eyed, still knew to expect from a career in counseling.
Except that in 2012, I made the decision to change programs and – by the next Spring – I had started my compulsory, license-dependent student teachinginternship. In my first week, a girl ran away instead of going to the bathroom. The principal told me to call her mom.
Everything that happened after she hung up on me that afternoon, happened to me as a classroom teacher who has never had any officially designated counselling duties.
Did you know the recommended ratio of counselors to students is 1:250? In Wake County, NC, there is 1 counselor per 393 high school students. And wait a second: they aren’t necessarily psychologists. They aren’t psychiatrists. They aren’t grief counselors or specialized experts. Too often, they are academic advisors with basic psychological training who have been asked to be psychologists, psychiatrists, grief counselors, and specialized experts to 393 students because of budget cuts. In fact, in the state of North Carolina, there are only 740 school psychologists. That’s a ratio of 1:2,162.
Maybe this wording will have more impact: that’s one psychologist to every two thousand one hundred and sixty two North Carolinian students.
My school is lucky enough to actually have a psychologist on staff. We have a student body of 1,891. You should know by now where this is going: we share her with other schools. Which means her assigned student population is more like 5,000 students. That potential caseload is impossible. And yet, most schools could only dream of being assigned a psychologist; under the current budget and legislature, most will never see that dream become a reality.
And yet despite the budget cuts and disheartening ratios, my school has an amazing student services department. They do everything they can to support our students, but their practical abilities and 24 hour schedules are drained. Their caseload is on overload. And yet the students’ need for counselling never ends; even when the door is shut because another student is currently in a session. At one point this semester, I approached my principal with a planned appeal to take the afternoon off after a particularly emotional month at our school. He took one look at me as I entered the office and told me to go home. I can’t imagine what our counselors feel every day. I don’t want to imagine what implications that holds for my - for our- students.
You ask why #Red4Ed is personal. Because they are my people. With every moment that they sit in my class, say hi in the halls, message me on Remind, and fist bump me in the grocery store, my students solidify themselves as my people. Every time a student has trusted me enough to tell me their stories, those stories become my story. Every heartache and painful moment imprints into my own heartache and painful moment. #itspersonal because I will protect and fight for my people.
#itspersonal because they don’t have the support they need. I don’t have the support I need to support them in the classroom. The professionals whose job it is to support them don’t have the support they need to support them in their offices. Are you seeing the issue yet? Because 1 for every 2,162 is laughably demoralizing.
So yeah, it’s pretty personal. And – now – I’m demanding support for them. For me. For us.