Meet Lisa, School Counselor
“School counseling is amazing...you have the power to completely change the trajectory of a child’s life.”
Lisa Andrews is a school counselor working in the Pomona Unified School District in California. Throughout her career, Ms. Andrews has dedicated herself to servicing the most vulnerable of our society by empowering them to change for the better. As a growing leader in the field of school counseling, Ms. Andrews has been invited to speak at conferences and multiple school counseling training programs. She is especially passionate about pushing boundaries and questioning current counseling norms. Ms. Andrews makes a point to go above and beyond her responsibilities to develop innovative college and career readiness programs for her students.
Ms. Andrews, please tell us about your career journey so far.
I come from a family of educators. My mother was an elementary school teacher- one of the first black teachers in her school district- and my father is a clinical psychologist who has a long history of providing mental health services within the inner city. So, it was inevitable that i would enter this profession.
I started off attending the University of Redlands for my undergraduate studies with the intention of becoming a speech pathologist. Following graduation, my two most significant positions were in social work. First in downtown Los Angeles, providing services to the homeless, and later on, I ended up working in Compton at a place called Shields for Families, which was a residential drugs and alcohol treatment center.
Based on these experiences, I decided that I actually wanted to pursue social work as a career, so I attended the University of South California to attain my Masters in Social Work with an emphasis on families and children. At this time, I also acquired a Pupil Personnel Services (PPS) credential, which allowed me to work with children in schools.
My first job in a school-setting was as a Designated Instructional Service (DIS) counselor and behavior intervention case manager for a public school in Pomona. While I enjoyed working there (one of the benefits was that I attained a lot of administrative and leadership skills), I really wanted to expand and work within a district setting. This led me to enter the Pomona Unified School District and manage projects which created intervention programs for students whose behaviors, family circumstances, or socio-economic circumstances got in the way of them being successful within the school setting. I did that for several different schools for about four years.
At the time, mental health was not a concern that was really supported within the school setting, so I had a hard time working with the administration to get programs off the ground. So, I ended up going back to school at Concordia University and got a Masters and credential in Educational Leadership. I figured it is not only important to know what I am doing, but also how to speak the language of administrators and other educators, so they could buy into my program and I could better understand their priorities.
I stuck with this job for a while, but found myself getting frustrated because of how limiting it was. I could only address mental health within the school system, which is such a small part of the students’ life. It’s like you’re only helping them enough to get by temporarily. Then, after before or after school, they’re back in the environment that is damaging to their mental health and you have to start from scratch again.
I figured that the best way to help my students was to find a way for mental health and education practices to come together, so I could empower them to uplift themselves out of their circumstances. That’s how I found myself in the position of a school counselor, which led me to go to the University of LaVerne and get my third Masters in School Counseling, and another PPS credential specifically in school counseling. I have been a school counselor ever since.
What motivated you to pursue this career?
What really motivated me was my experience working in Pomona. At the time, and even today, it is one of the most economically depressed communities in Southern California, with a very high teen pregnancy rate, high amount of gang violence, and a low literacy rate. Politically, Pomona is alienated from economic and social services. However, 45 percent of its population are youth ages 14-25. Given those statistics, I realized that the only way to change these demographics was by empowering its students to realize goals of higher education or work training so they could come back and elevate their community. School counseling is amazing in that sense, because you have the power to completely change the trajectory of a child’s life. When you empower a first generation of students with education, you’re ensuring that the subsequent generations have at least one family member empowered by higher education. I think this is a really powerful place to be. You have the capacity to completely alter the landscape of the world and produce great minds for generations to come.
What is your proudest personal achievement?
Last year, I had the pleasure of graduating the highest performing senior class in the last 20 years of my school’s history. That was not really 100 percent my own doing; a lot of it was because of my students’ own individual determination and their ability to transform their experience into a motivating factor, leading them to unparalleled academic success. But within the last four years serving as a counselor, I am proud to sayI have approached my job with a sense of innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit. What this means is that I have learned how to create schoolwide programs that are scalable, franchisable, and aligned with the school, district and professional school counseling mission and vision. The programs include a series of school wide conferences and events that teach college knowledge, skill and readiness, build leadership and increase students’ perspectives of societal trends. I have implemented schoolwide FAFSA Financial Aid Campaigns that ensure students have the economic support needed to pursue their college dreams. Efforts such as this have been critical in building a school culture that is predicated on a college attendance mentality. My proudest achievement is being able to stand out as a school counseling leader who is unafraid to question the way things are done and propose better methods.
Is there something you wish you had known before becoming a school counselor?
I have learned that the education industry is very political. People coming into this profession need to master interpersonal skills and the art of negotiation and advocacy. In short, you need to first understand the intricacies of the educational system, recognize the needs of your peers, and advocate for the desires of your students and colleagues, while simultaneously maintaining fidelity to the goals and mission of your school site. As a school counselor, you are an advocate for your students, parents, colleagues (teachers), school administration and yourself. You must exert an unprecedented amount of leadership and savvy in managing and resolving their complex needs. People skills and intuition are key for achieving this balance of interests.
One of the models I always follow is to be a part of the group (just enough so I can establish good relationships, develop allies, a sense of belongingness and camaraderie so everyone I’m involved with knows I have their best interest at heart in terms of the work we’re doing), but also separate from the group (I stand back and take my time to analyze situations, individuals and my role, so that I can come up with effective solutions).
As a school counselor, what is something you wish every high schooler would do?
I wish every high schooler would brush up on their media, cultural and world literacy and understanding of societal trends. That way, they’d know how to develop a sustainable educational and post-secondary plan that would enable them to thrive in today’s world. It is so important for them to understand the world we live in and their place in it by developing a ‘critical consciousness,’ which is basically the ability to critically analyze the world, its contradictions, and determine how that affects your place in the world. A great way to do this is by reading a lot and paying attention to the news, in lieu of updating their facebook status.
Also, I would ask every student to consider a certain philosophy I bring to my counseling practice: no matter what you think you want to do after high school, make sure your performance and schedule in high school supports entering a four-year college. So, when you graduate, you will be prepared to the highest level and can enjoy having a wider range of options to choose from (four-year college, two-year college, the military, trade school, etc.)
Any last words of advice for a student seeking to pursue your career?
I think it’s important to figure out what part in the counseling world they want to play. There are some people who are going to graduate and become school counselors and settle into that position. But some will continue from there to rise in the ranks and make a larger impact on the profession at large. Those paths include advocacy, influencing policy, or being an entrepreneurial school counselor who packages guidance programs that support students at large. To be effective in this field, you must be aware of the latest general education trends and news, as well as those specific to the profession. By staying up-to-date, you will find inspiration for the impact you want to make.