The Conversation: How Administrators and Counselors Can Team Up on Student Health and Well-Being

Summer 2019

By Rebecca Scherr

tc.jpgIn 2016, during their early days of working together, Quinton Walker, head of the upper school, and Beth Eberl, high school counselor at the University School of Nashville (TN), came out of a parent meeting. Eberl turned to Walker and said, “I’m sweaty.” Walker agreed. “I have some deodorant in my cubby if you want some,” he offered. “Yeah,” she said. “I’ll take it.”
 
That’s the nature of their partnership and the work they do together—the stakes run high in conversations around student health and well-being, and the partnership they’ve developed goes beyond supportive, in an I’ve-got-your-back kind of way, one that can only develop naturally.
 
Before joining USN, Walker held administrator roles and spent 12 years in independent schools in Atlanta, but he’d yet to be upper school division head. What would that role mean, with 400 students and 60 faculty at USN, he wondered? He plotted out the logistical and managerial parts as well as critical pieces related to curriculum and planning. But now he’s come to describe himself as a community builder, ensuring the well-being and success of the school community.

Eberl, who has more than 20 years of independent school experience, had been at the school for two years when she sat on the search committee during Walker’s candidacy. She knew he’d put the students—including two of her own—at the core of his work and she thought about how she could help him in his first year. As more schools are turning their attention to student health and well-being issues, she knew that a division head and counselor together can help make sense of the evolving conversation. She didn’t have the authority to bring about institutional change, but she had a deeper understanding of what today’s teens are facing. She didn’t know how their partnership would come together, but their longevity in independent schools and varied experiences would provide the foundation. Three years into their work, they reflect on how they approach student issues, mentor faculty, and guide the full school community.
 
Walker: Early on, we realized that we shared some common beliefs about how schools should work and how adolescents develop, and how well-being really deserves a place front and center in the school conversation. In our first year, we experienced several kids who needed some pretty heavy-duty support, and that allowed us to cement our relationship. We spent a lot of time thinking about how we problem-solve, how we care for kids, and how we communicate best with families. That allowed us to solidify some processes, and looking back, while that was really hard, it was really valuable for us to invest that time up front to think about how we wanted to move forward.
 
Eberl: As the administrator, you have the big picture of not just the high school but of USN, and when a student is on medical leave I have more direct contact with students or the student’s treatment team outside of school, from which I gather a lot of information and report back to you. We talk through what the team is recommending, and then we make the decision around what’s best for the child in our environment while maintaining the integrity of our academic program, our mission, and our school’s philosophy.
 
Walker: You’re the only person in the high school that I have a standing meeting with. We have a dedicated meeting time—Mondays at 2 p.m. People know that’s where we’ll be, and it may be in my office and it may be in yours, it may be across the street, we may go for a walk. We have an hour or so carved out each week to review students of concern and to talk about the community as a singular entity. Having that weekly meeting is really helpful.
 
You’re so good at tracking the conversations, both about a particular kid or faculty member and also for programmatic conversations or visioning statements we’re trying to bring to life. You bring those notes week by week, and it helps us really see where we were, where we are now, and where we need to be heading. It’s so nice to be able to have this running strand.
 
Eberl: And it’s not just responding to those who are in need or in crisis, which is very important, but we want to think about the big picture and with you being the head of high school and allowing those conversations to happen and supporting them and driving some of them is really key. So we are on the same page about throwing in an idea, and sometimes they are good ones; other times it’s like, “Oh, let’s table that one.”
 
Walker: We both try to stay current with what’s going on in the independent school world and adolescent development, better understanding Generation Z. For us, this idea of having students at the core all the time is so critical.
 
Eberl: You’re in the gym working out, you’re at basketball games, you’re at the theater productions. You’re visible. And for me, as a counselor, I am behind a closed door a lot with students, but I also have the opportunity to advise a few different student groups, including the peer educators on our prevention student advisory board. So I have roles in the school that do not tie me to “the school counselor.” I think it’s very important for both of us to be visible.
 
Walker: You’re a great partner for me, and you have a really great comfort with the grayness of this work. I don’t mind the grayness either, so I think both of us will work in the situations that don’t necessarily have clarity or don’t have a good rule or precedent.
 
Together, we’re really good problem-solvers. We both have a really nice network of people beyond the USN walls who we can call upon for counsel or mentorship or advice. But I think the grayness of working with kids as we see them evolve and having a good tolerance for that gray is instrumental in how this really works for the two of us.
 
Eberl: On a day-to-day basis, I want to know when I can be proactive around a situation—whether that’s with a student, a faculty member, family—and we’ve built that trust over the years and that’s something that I value greatly and feel very fortunate that we have.
 
Walker: We’re making some tough decisions about which direction to go with a kid—for example, a kid may be on medical leave; do we really know if this kid is ready to come back? We’re thinking about what’s in the best interest of the kid, which may not be what the school or the family wants. It’s really about having the kid-first mentality, and it’s something we say all the time in schools but to put it into practice and use the filter for our decision-making is really critical.
 
Eberl: Something we frequently talk about is confidentiality. And we’re learning to walk that fine line between you, as a division head, and me, as a counselor. If there are issues that come up with a student, whether they’re harming themselves, someone else, someone harming the student, I think carefully about what to share with you in terms of the community’s well-being. I balance that with the professional ethics I abide by as a counselor as well.
 
Walker: I agree. I see you working really hard to honor that balance between confidentiality and community well-being. You do a great job of reconciling the two. As our working relationship has evolved, I’m trusting in your judgment to also think about the community. When I started, I encouraged you to think about your role as a champion and lead of social-emotional wellness programming for our community. And it’s a lot of “let’s try this; let’s look at this. Let’s explore. Let’s plop it in and see if it works.” We share accountability for making sure we have programming that fits our community. We’ve been working with our counterparts in the middle and lower school divisions around formalizing a social-emotional learning (SEL) model and curriculum that has strands that run K–12. You’ve been instrumental in helping that come to life. We’ll roll that out communitywide in the fall. I’m eager to see how our partnership continues to evolve with that as well.
 
Eberl: Yeah, and I think that goes back to what you’ve mentioned to me about having experience in different independent schools. I didn’t realize how helpful that would be, but now we know.
 
Walker: Thinking about this work, in my third year, I’m starting to see as USN evolves and shifts, grows, and becomes an even better independent school for its students, we’re starting to see the ways in which we can help our faculty grow and bring them along in terms of their sense of ownership, be it SEL or student wellness or training in other areas.
 
Eberl: Going along with that, we’re both human beings and have our lives beyond USN, and over the years, you’ve gotten to know me and my family. I’ll be like, “Quinton, I’m not on my A-game today,” so you can support me, in my role and as a colleague. Hopefully I do the same for you.
 
Walker: You know there are times that this work can be really weighty in terms of what our students are managing or grappling with, their family dynamics, and so it’s just nice to have another person in the room who can carry some of that together.
 
We’ve talked a lot about the secret sauce, and how we’ve come together in three years and made this work so well. I know it has to do with the way we view and care about students, and the way we think about the world. We also believe in the power of students to have a sense of agency in their lives and also in the life of our community. So maybe that’s another secret ingredient.
 
Eberl: We can dream—starting with what’s best for the student—and we talk about it and question whether it fits into our institution. Keeping the integrity of our academic program and your involvement at Vanderbilt University, working with up-and-coming leaders through the Independent School Leadership Program, and all those things just help us all be better at what we do.
 
Walker: We have a good sense of what each other values, certainly professionally, in terms of adolescence, in terms of school, in terms of school climate and culture, but also personally. I think we have a good sense of each other’s values, and we strive at every turn to align those values with action, which to me is a simple definition of integrity. And so, at every turn, we are striving for integrity, for our kids, our families, and our school.
 

Do You Have a Conversation to Share?

Have you had a great conversation with a colleague recently that broke down silos or got you thinking about your work in a new way? Have you chatted with someone on (or off) campus that led to an unexpected collaboration? Tell us about it. Do you know of—or are you a part of—a great student–teacher duo? We want to hear about it. Send a brief description to ismag@nais.org, and we’ll follow up.
Author
Rebecca Scherr

Rebecca Scherr is senior editor/writer at NAIS.