Under counsel

Q Some of my colleagues have been arguing about whether teachers can act as counsellors. What is your opinion?

A Of course, most teachers do not have formal training or experience in such work so cannot be said to be counsellors in the strictest sense of the term. However, through their work and professional development, many teachers have developed counselling skills that can be exercised in their daily workplace.

A key issue concerns the aims of the "counselling" and whether this is being used primarily as a means of persuasion or exhortation. The infant school headteacher who once phoned me, in relation to a seven-year-old, stating that she wanted me "to severely counsel this child!" had failed to grasp the central tenets of the process.

Counselling is a means of helping someone who recognises that they have a problem and wants help. The person being helped has ultimate control and responsibility for choosing what to them is the most effective way forward.

The counsellor's task is to help the client (the child in this case) gain greater understanding of the key issues and to empower him or her to select the most adaptive and desirable course of action.

In many school situations, the teacher cannot permit the child this degree of autonomy. For example, if a form teacher wanted to ensure that a child desisted from wearing inappropriate clothing to school they would talk to the child about their behaviour, but because there is only one permitted outcome, this would not be counselling.

On the other hand, should a child wish to discuss, with a trusted teacher, how to handle a friendship dispute, the ensuing process could resemble a counselling session. If the teacher merely tells the child what they believe is the best course of action, however, the process is better described as guidance.

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