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Mindy Salyers has served as an educator and school counselor for 17 years, working for La Sierra University and Georgia-Cumberland and Minnesota conferences before moving to Hinsdale, Illinois, in 2019. The school counselor project she leads for Illinois Conference was awarded a second Versacare Foundation grant and the program will expand union-wide. | Photo credit: Sandra Mendez

April 1, 2021

Big, Bold New Ideas in Education

Some schools may have a counselor but here’s something unique to any school in the North American Division. In Fall 2020, the Illinois Conference initiated a conference-wide school counselor project, led by Mindy Salyers.

Salyers has served as an educator and school counselor for 17 years, working for La Sierra University and Georgia-Cumberland and Minnesota conferences before moving to Hinsdale, Illinois, in 2019. We explored with Mindy how this out-of-the-box experiment is progressing.  —Debbie Michel

Update on 4/2/21: Versacare Foundation awarded $25,000 to the Illinois Conference to expand the school counselor project to all Lake Union schools in 2021-2022. Details on what this entails will come in the near future.

Q: Welcome to our Union! Can you begin by talking about how it came about for Illinois to receive this grant for the school counselor role, the first we are aware for any conference?

A: So, I think it’s important for you to know that this school counselor “role” is technically not a role at all, but rather a project. We have termed the project “school counselor,” as it’s much easier for teachers, parents and students to understand the services I will provide. The framework and funding for my services is designed around the “Care and Climate Connectedness” proposal that is grant-funded through La Sierra’s Center for Conflict Resolution and the Versacare Foundation. This project was built on the thinking that the COVID-19 pandemic would cause school disconnect and increase the need for student and teacher care. Although this hypothesis was developed in the summer 2020, it has certainty proven true, with a much greater than normal population of teachers, students and parents in social and emotional crises that need a Conference support person to walk beside them in these challenging times. Lori Aguilera, superintendent of Education, foresaw the need for additional mental health support during COVID-19 and seized the opportunity to gain a school counselor for the Illinois Conference.

 

Q: Perhaps you can define for us what a school counselor does. The term seems ambiguous and oftentimes we think of counselors in the high school setting. But you’re catering to a broader age range. What do you do and how does your job differ from elementary to high school-aged populations?  

A: In general, a school counselor targets the social and emotional development and well-being of students, putting into place both prevention and intervention services that help support students and ensure their school success. With the growing understanding around mental health, research shows that students cannot perform well academically if they are not healthy emotionally and socially. In general, a school counselor works alongside the teachers, administrators and parents to provide whole school, classroom, small group and individual support that can help them work on developmentally appropriate social-emotional growth so they can be successful in school. There are an estimated half-dozen school counselors in NAD schools (all being in Adventist-mecca locations that have a student body of 500+), but this is the only such position that is Conference-wide. This position provides services to all Illinois Conference schools, regardless of size.

Having worked in the elementary, middle school, high school and collegiate settings, my background allows me to tailor counseling resources to issues that are appropriate for student grade levels. In preschool and elementary, I target topics like tattling, bullying and mindfulness. Middle-schoolers often need help with study and test-taking skills, navigating social cliques, and developing a sense of self-identity. High school support might take the form of career exploration, college preparation and credit recovery. Because I love the variety of all three levels, it’s fun for me to customize services to meet the needs of each and every student.

Specific to the Illinois Conference Care and Climate school counseling services, there is a wide variety of support provided. Through a mental health needs assessment, teachers identify specific areas for preventive classroom guidance lessons, targeted “Lunch and Learn” small groups, and at-risk individuals needing weekly one-on-one sessions. Referrals for these services also come from parents and students themselves. Thanks to technological innovation, I spend my days “Zooming” into a number of schools across the state, providing virtual support from my little Chicagoland office.

 

Q: So, it sounds like the role of the counselor is to help with the nearly limitless variety of concerns that students, parents, teachers, administrators and the school community may have. Sounds like a vital role. Why is it then that we don’t have more school counselors? 

A: Thankfully there is a growing denominational awareness that mental health support services are needed for our Adventist schools. However, funding is the primary challenge that stands in the way of each and every school having a mental health professional. It is only through the generosity of the Versacare Foundation and the support of La Sierra’s Center for Conflict Resolution that the Illinois Conference has gained mental health support for its 429 students, 42 teachers, and constituent families. This hopes to be the first of a three-year project, with hopes to eventually extend school counseling services to all Lake Union schools.

 

Q: As it turns out, you began during a pandemic. We hear news reports of students, especially those doing online learning, really struggling. What challenges are you seeing with students, parents and teachers?  

A: Illinois Conference schools have not been immune to the stress of COVID-19 and is seeing the mental health crises that was foretold by public school data. 

Specific to students, over 10 percent of the conference’s total enrollment have required intensive mental health support through the Care and Connectedness program. With so many students doing fully online or hybrid learning, this school year has shown a significant increase in students suffering from anxiety and depression. With this sudden and drastic uptick in student mental health crises, I am able to conduct risk assessments with students to determine assess at-risk individuals for self-injury or suicidal ideation and offer families support in referring for additional treatment programs.

Parents, too, are struggling in how to support their children during this time. In addition to a monthly Kid Connection parent newsletter that goes to all Adventist families of conference schools, I am available for individual support as well. This often takes the form of parents collaborating with myself and their child’s school to provide Special Education accommodations, linking families to community resources, and partnering with guardians to develop behavior intervention plans.

Finally, the heavy toll of providing synchronous and in-person learning is evident in our educators. A large focus of the Care and Climate Connectedness project is to encourage teacher self-care for ongoing resiliency and mental wellness. A weekly Teacher Tidbits educator newsletter provides resources that work to prevent against compassion fatigue. The October Teacher Inservice focused entirely on not just being a survivor, but becoming a thriver. A monthly Take Heart and Teach book club is offered for all teachers, as well as a regular small-group Connection Circle for sharing and encouragement.  

 

Salyers with her daughters in their virtual classroom. | Photo credit: Sandra Mendez
Salyers with her daughters in their virtual classroom. | Photo credit: Sandra Mendez

 

Q: Like many parents, you, too, are juggling homeschooling and work. What tips do you have for parents on remaining sane at this time?  

A: Yes! It certainly has been challenging to support my first- and third-grade daughters in Connected Learning, all the while trying to manage my professional role. I am incredibly grateful that this position and the blessing of technology allows me the ability to do both, although it may not be up to my prior one-track standards. I guess the biggest advice I have for parents is threefold:

First, as easy as it may be to let students “do their thing” online, it’s important to be present as much as possible. Students, whether elementary, middle or high school, have the need for in-person adult support. This provides a sense of accountability and mutual responsibility. Students will do best if they know they have a partnership at home as they navigate this uncharted territory. For me, this can feel chaotic as I jump in and out of Zoom sessions, periodically checking on my girls’ schoolwork and tutoring them through difficult areas. No matter how busy, we are intentional to eat lunch together, playing boardgames or going on walks during P.E. and recess time, taking advantage of this unusual opportunity to be together.

Secondly, I try hard to have regular communication with my child’s teacher. Through texts and emails, I’m able to track their progress, as well as have a good understanding of missing assignments, upcoming tests, etc. In return, I try to spoil their teachers as much as I can, offering to create bulletin boards or dropping off a treat of gratitude.

Finally, my mental self-talk is to let myself off the hook of this being a “perfect school year” for my kids. We’re all navigating this for the first time and there is no “perfect.” My children will miss assignments, accidentally be offline at the wrong time, and have the internet go down during critical instruction. It’s not going to be perfect, but I have to let myself off the hook and just do the best I can.

I have a sign in our classroom/my office that says “. . .and they created a school they loved.”  That’s really to me what the school counselor role and my mommyhood role is all about this year. Whether online, in-person, or a bit of both, I want to partner with the fabulous teachers and parents of the Illinois Conference to create a school that every child loves.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with us! May God grant you strength and wisdom during these challenging times for our students.