Dear Me: Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started Counseling

By Barbara Gruener
Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.

Dear MeFor as long as I can remember, I’ve been a writer. I’ve got diaries and pen pal exchange letters that date back to sixth grade and personal timelines and bio-poems that span half a century. I’m in the middle of making a list of one thousand things I’m grateful for, and I keep a Joy Journal to help on days when my burdens seem greater than my blessings. Writing can be a cathartic activity for reflection and growth; the letter to self is a therapeutic tool I’ve used a lot in my counseling practice.

So today, my question is this: If you were to write a letter to a younger version of you, at the start of your career, what would it say? How could those words of wisdom help guide you on the road ahead? As I think through the things I wish I had known all those years ago, here’s how my letter would read:

Dear Me {Version 3.0},

Congratulations on becoming a school counselor; what delight you must feel at the prospect of positively connecting with, nurturing, stretching, and shaping the hearts and minds of our future!

As you start out, think about what you want former students to say about you at your retirement party and spend your days living up to that. Make those things a part of your daily routine. Be intentional. Maybe it’ll be something simple like, “She always smiled at us!” or, “I love the way she made us feel.” Make sure the people who cross your path know that they matter to you because in the end, what will matter most are the connections and relationships you’ve made and helped foster.

Find a mentor to walk alongside you and be a sounding board as you make your way into the world as a climate changer. Be a lifelong learner. Ask questions, lots of them. Soak in the wisdom of those who have gone before you. Then, when you’re ready, return the favor and be a mentor. There’s so much power in collaboration. You have much to learn and equally as much to offer. Don’t forget that you have to teach people how to treat you. Make sure that you—as well as those under your mentorship—know that, embrace it, and do what it takes to communicate your needs.

Celebrate who your students are—each one special, each one unique—every day. Individualize and differentiate accordingly. Give them ownership of their learning by turning some things over to them. Ask yourself: Are my lessons for me or for them? What can I let go of? How can I foster voice and choice? Help them become the kind of leader they would follow; then get out of their way and trust them enough to let them lead.

Confront problems but carefront people.Get to know your colleagues and their backstories. Share, collaborate, and cooperate. Don’t back away from courageous conversations; it’ll show people that you’re invested and that you care. Sometimes you’ll have to agree to disagree. Confront problems but carefront people. Pick your battles and don’t sweat the small stuff. You’ll need your energy for the big stuff.

Reach out to parents and community stakeholders. Invite them to be a part of your school family. Let them volunteer or partner with you to make your students’ experience the best it can be. Remember that parents are sending you their very best, so do your best to see your students through their parents’ eyes. Look for ways to make each one your favorite. Sometimes that’ll seem so easy; other times you won’t think there’s anything that could possibly make that child your favorite. Keep looking. Go deeper. Mine for it when you have to. It’ll be worth it. You’ll see. Sometimes they’re diamonds in the rough. Help polish them so that they know they have what it takes to shine like the sun. Even when it’s dark. Especially when it’s dark.

Get rid of any perfectionistic tendencies you might have and accept that there will be times when you’re going to mess up. Apologize and be willing to forgive. Lavish grace on yourself and others, then celebrate those mistakes as learning opportunities. Keep a growth mindset and know that there’s no obstacle you can’t overcome.

Show empathy, compassion, and kindness to everyone, especially the kids. You will need to learn to switch places with them and walk in their shoes. Step into their stories and be there with and for them. Sometimes that’ll be easy; other times it’ll be a really sad, sorrowful journey over incredibly rocky terrain in some war-torn shoes. But it’ll be important, really important, that you do it to connect with them, to understand them, and to help them grow. Encourage them to walk through the pain rather than avoid it and be the one who gives them hope and helps them heal. Then, at the end of the day on those really difficult days, make sure to physically and emotionally close every door between school and home so that their pain doesn’t follow you home.

Be passionate and enthusiastic about your calling. Work hard to make things fun and engaging for yourself, your students, and your school family, but don’t say yes to every opportunity that comes your way. You get about sixteen hours a day, and it’s up to you to use that time wisely. Eat healthy foods, get a good night’s sleep, and exercise routinely so you have the physical and emotional stamina to go the distance. Feeding your spiritual side is also critical; consider guided imagery, meditation, nature walks, yoga, or prayer. You cannot serve from an empty vessel, so take good care of yourself—mind, body, and spirit.

Strive for your personal best. Show up on time and be prepared. Dream big, but be willing to take baby steps to get there. Patience always pays off. Make it a point to be in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. When you don’t know what that is, ask. Surround yourself with people of good character, and they’ll always be there to help you when you get stuck.

Start every day with gratitude and end it satisfied that who you are and what you accomplished is more than enough. Use this mantra as a daily touchstone: I’ve done enough. I have enough. I am enough.

Live generously and always give back. Volunteer, serve, and donate. You’ll end up bountifully blessed in ways that you can’t even imagine right now. Savor every minute of these first few years and make the most of this amazing opportunity. Enjoy being the hero that you needed as a child and keep on crusading for good. Above all, your students will remember how they felt when they were in your presence. Make sure that it’s a gift that will bring them joy long after they’re no longer yours.

Cape up,
Your {Version 5.5} Self

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 32nd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.


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