How to Become a School Counsellor: A Quick Guide

Thinking about becoming a school counsellor? Here's everything you need to know!

Student on a couch talking to a school counsellor

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So, you’ve thought about becoming a school counsellor? That’s great! Being a school counsellor is one of the best and most fulfilling careers a person can have.

This article takes you through becoming a professional school counsellor, and what to expect from the job. We’ll discuss the differences between the three school counselling levels (primary, middle and high school) and how to choose which level is right for you. Lastly, we’ll discuss the education requirements and why people from various backgrounds can become school counsellors.

What school counsellors do

You may (or may not) remember your “guidance” counsellor. They probably helped you create a class schedule or suggested career paths for you. The profession has moved beyond the term “guidance”. People in the field choose to be called professional school counsellors. The position now entails a variety of essential duties needed for student success.

Professional school counsellors provide support to students, parents, and teachers to create an encouraging environment for learning. These professionals are aware of the school's climate and help make educational decisions. This may mean identifying specific issues the student has with learning certain subjects. This could also mean providing parents with resources — such as tutoring or psychological counselling — to help the student overcome mental barriers.

Some necessary functions and responsibilities of school counsellors are:

  • Setting up and conducting parent/teacher meetings
  • Addressing social and emotional needs of students
  • Creating safety plans
  • Providing ideas for academic support
  • Peer mediation
  • Group counselling
  • One-on-one counselling
  • Data collection
  • Collaborating with local agencies
  • Community relations

Along with the duties just mentioned, school counselling is also specific to the school level a person is employed. Let’s look at the different levels:

  • Primary or elementary school counsellor: Counsellors that work at this level are qualified in early childhood development. They concentrate on helping students with social behaviours and increasing their self-esteem.
  • Middle school counsellor: Professionals at this level address the challenges of a student’s rapid physical growth and evolving self-identity.
  • High school counsellor: Counsellors at this level address the business side of the education system. High school counsellors are primarily responsible for keeping students on track for graduation.

It’s important to know which level you would be better suited for. Here is an excellent guide to follow:

  • If you love the little ones and can teach those primary skills needed, you will be a good fit for primary school counselling.
  • If you like helping kids deal with their bodies' changes and don’t mind emotional ups and downs, middle school may be something to consider.
  • High school counselling is perfect if you like working with teens, can deal with the occasional bad attitude, and enjoy helping them transition into adults.

What the job is like

No two days are alike for a school counsellor. To speak in terms of what a “typical” day will be like is not helpful or realistic. School counsellors work in a dynamic setting, meaning what they do will change quickly and constantly.

I can say that the job is fun, exciting and demanding, too, at times. Any career will have ups and downs, but knowing what you can handle will improve job satisfaction. Now let's look at what a school day could look like.

Work environment

School counsellors may have small or large offices in strategic locations in the school. If it’s a primary school counsellor (and some middle school counsellors), they could have a classroom as an office. This can provide a significant advantage for holding group sessions in a controlled environment where children can express themselves fully.

Just remember, the entire school is your office. Suppose a student has an emotional episode in the hallway. In that case, you will find yourself speaking with the student as other students are walking past, trying to see what's going on. Situations like these can arise at any time.

Working hours

School counsellors work a normal eight-hour day. There will be times that things get hectic or go awry, and the hours will extend beyond this. If you have a student who is afraid to go home, social services may need to be called. Such a dilemma may take hours to settle.

Many educators work long hours to keep up with the job demands. This is typical of many teachers, but this can also be true for school counsellors.

Job satisfaction

School counsellors have a high rate of job satisfaction. Stress levels are low, with job mobility and flexibility being moderate. Many teachers opt to become school counsellors when they are ready to leave the classroom. They want to continue to serve students without the obligations of creating lessons plans and following learning rubrics.

Also, school counsellors develop skills that are transferrable to different fields. One school counsellor I work with is our community relations coordinator. She organises meetings with community members and listens to suggestions for strengthening ties with the community. She has developed many public relations skills that are valuable to many companies.

Job market

The job market for school counsellors can be competitive. Your chances of securing a job will depend on location. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment for school counsellors could grow by 11% between 2020 and 2030, leading to an additional 35,000 jobs in the field.

Even if the market becomes competitive, new roles are being created. A person with a school counselling degree could find employment in a different capacity within a school. An example of such would be a school’s career counsellor. When a school counselling position becomes available, the person can quickly fill that role.

Salary

School counsellors are often brought in at a higher salary than their teacher counterparts. This is because of the education requirements. Many school districts only require a bachelor's degree to begin their teaching career. For someone wanting to become a school counsellor, most districts have a minimum requirement of a master’s degree.

Median wage

Starting at a good wage is essential. It’s a good idea to study the median salary wage for school counsellors in locations of interest to you. Below is the median salary of professional school counsellors in the U.S.

Mean annual wage

Mean hourly wage

$62,320

$29.96

Median wage by experience

The more experience you have, the more money you can earn. Suppose you have experience in a similar counselling field, such as mental health counselling, crisis counselling or marriage and family counselling. In that case, this can be factored into your wage.

Below are averages of wages based on experience.

Experience

Mean annual wage

Entry-level

$35,620

Junior level

$45,080

Mid-level

$58,120

Senior level

$75,920

Top-level

$97,910

Median wage by state

Below are the top five states in the U.S. for school counsellors according to wages earned.

State

Mean annual wage

Maryland

$72,720

Massachusetts

$72,780

Virginia

$73,590

New Jersey

$75,030

California

$81,350

Median wage around the world

The job of a school counsellor is vital around the world. If you are thinking about relocating to another part of the world for this profession, here are the median wages for a few countries.

Country

Mean annual wage

UK

£22,380 ($29,540)

Australia

AU$66,570 ($47,590)

Canada

C$52,830 ($41,530)

New Zealand

NZ$61,760 ($41,830)

South Africa

R220,000 ($13,760)

Steps to become a school counsellor

Becoming a school counsellor is a straightforward process. Some people take a unique path into the profession, but the conventional steps are simple.

1. Determine if it’s the right job for you

Making sure that who you are is aligned with a career is essential. You will have to ask yourself some critical questions to determine if school counselling is the right field for you.

10 crucial skills and qualities needed to be a successful school counsellor are:

  • Patience
  • Adaptability
  • Empathy
  • Passion for education
  • Being a good communicator
  • Focus
  • Problem-solving
  • Being a good listener
  • Desire for helping
  • Willingness to go above and beyond

All the skills above are important, but being able to communicate effectively and being empathetic are key to being successful in the role. If you embody many of the skills above, it would be an excellent time to take the next step and complete a career test. This can help to narrow your interests and confirm if you are an ideal fit to be a school counsellor.

2. Get a bachelor’s degree

Many people who become school counsellors are former teachers who majored in elementary education. But the best thing about becoming a school counsellor is that you can have an undergraduate degree in almost anything (business, economics, philosophy) and still become a school counsellor. For many people, getting a bachelor’s degree is their first step.

Some people favour getting a bachelor’s degree in sociology, psychology, or even early childhood development. Any of these qualifications can lead to a career in school counselling. Just know that if you have a bachelor's degree in engineering, you can still be a school counsellor.

3. Complete a master’s degree

Most school districts require a person to earn their master's degree in school counselling. School counselling is a very specialised area because of the education component. A master's degree focuses on different counselling theories and how to use each of these in a school setting.

Once you are familiar with the different counselling theories, you will need to practise in a live environment. Many master’s degree programmes have what are called residencies. A residency is an opportunity for students to come together and develop their counselling skills. During the residency, students will get feedback from their fellow students and professor on their counselling competency.

4. Complete an internship

As part of your master’s degree programme, you will be required to complete an internship. You will be placed in a district of your choice and mentored by a current school counsellor. This is where your real learning begins. They will guide you each day and help you develop the essential skills you need to be successful at the job.

Knowing all the counselling theories is essential, but 90% of the techniques you use when you become a school counsellor will come from the internship. An excellent way to explain this is to look at high school counselling. Different states and countries have additional requirements students need to fulfil to graduate. A master’s degree will not cover these differences, but your internship will.

5. Get licensed

Once you have successfully completed your academic qualifications and internship, you will have to become licensed. The license is based on location, and where you acquire your license is where you can practise school counselling. Suppose you received your license in Georgia but wanted to practise school counselling in the state of New York. In that case, you will have to acquire a New York license.

A license is granted by passing a license or certification test. These tests vary from location to location. Once the person has met the required score for their location, they will receive their license.

6. Earn a professional certification

Many school counsellors choose to obtain a professional certification, such as a licensed professional counsellor (LPC) qualification. This is not necessary to practise school counselling in the U.S., but this can increase a person’s wage and create opportunities to open your own counselling business.

Other professional certifications include National Certified Counsellor (NCC), Clinical Mental Health Counsellor (CCMHC) and National Certified School Counsellor (NCSC). Each of these certifications has clinical supervision requirements to be approved.

7. Complete a specialist degree

Once a person has got their master’s degree, they can stay at that education level. Many, however, choose to continue to narrow their focus in school counselling. A way to do this is to obtain a specialist degree.

The Education Specialist Degree (Ed.S.) is intended for graduate students with a master's degree in counselling who desire further specialisation as professional counsellors and have a higher level of proficiency in their work environment.

Specialist degrees often consist of completing at least 27 semester hours after completing the master's degree.

8. Get a doctorate degree

Some school counsellors decide to continue their education with a doctorate degree. This is not necessary to be a school counsellor. Still, it opens more opportunities to progress in the education system and will strengthen your CV or résumé.

Obtaining a doctorate is challenging, and the time commitment is high. Also, consider that you will be employed full time as you pursue this advanced degree. Many school counsellors choose to pursue the less time-consuming specialist degree.

Final thoughts

I think school counselling is one of the best jobs in education. Students, parents, teachers, and school administration trust you. And it’s a great feeling to be involved in the growth and prosperity of young people who will go on to do great things. It’s a career that provides great job satisfaction and the future prospects look promising for this career path.

However, in the UK, there isn’t a legal requirement for schools to have a school counsellor. In 2021, the subject hit the Commons in the UK Parliament, where they debated the need to improve school-based counselling services. Currently, most school counsellors in the UK have been hired independently by the school, but with the increased investment in mental health services, this could soon change.

I want to take the time to explain why I personally love this profession. I'm a high school counsellor, and I love working with teens. And yes, I know teens can be challenging to work with, but here is a true story.

I worked with a student who transferred from a California high school. She had difficulty adjusting to the new standards she needed to meet because her old school was not as rigorous as our high school. She would come to me crying she wouldn't make it and she wanted to give up. I advised her to schedule weekly meetings with me, and we devised a plan for her to complete her work. It wasn’t easy for her, and she had setbacks, but she graduated.

After graduation, I did not get to see her, but she left a note for me with our counselling secretary. Her letter had me in tears. She thanked me for helping her through high school and wrote she could not have done it without me.

This is a success story. Not all situations turn out like this, but that was a moment of celebration.

Join the discussion! Were you influenced by a school counsellor when you were in school? Or are you a counsellor yourself? Let us know in the comments below!

 

This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 7 December 2018.