Call them a “careers teacher” or a “career guidance teacher” at your peril.
For, as any school guidance counsellor will tell you, their role involves much more than careers; they also support the social and emotional needs of their students. If a student is suffering due to mental health problems, in need of support after a bereavement or family and friend problems, they provide critical counselling support.
These days, they also support the planning and implementation of whole school guidance programmes, which include SPHE (social, personal and health education) and wellbeing, guidance modules and career education programmes, and work experience and placement.
Even when it comes to careers, they don’t so much teach as guide and support their students towards their own choices.
After the principal, guidance counsellors might just be the busiest staff members in a school. Even in the best-resourced schools, their time is limited.
“There is a lot asked of every staff member in a school,” says Alice O’Connor, a guidance counsellor at Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School in south county Dublin.
“It’s not the school’s fault; it is a resource and staffing issue.
“Different schools will have different guidance allocations but even if a school is lucky enough to have three guidance counsellors, it is still difficult to facilitate guidance at junior and senior cycle.
“Part of our professionalism is that we manage our time through planning, and I love the whole school guidance model, where I work closely with year heads.”
And yet, one or more sessions with your guidance counsellor can be invaluable in helping bring clarity to your post-school options. But not all students know how to approach their guidance counsellor or how to best use their sessions together.
So, how can students use this valuable resource wisely?
What is guidance counselling?
“Guidance is a collaborative, meaning-making process,” says Bernadette Walsh, guidance counsellor with CareersPortal.ie and a lecturer in guidance at Maynooth University.
“It is not the role of the guidance counsellor to tell students what to do, but instead to work with them as early as they can, so the student can begin to think of themselves in relation to careers, as well as their mental and emotional health.
“A guidance counsellor helps students to understand themselves, their interests, skills and learning styles. They can help students find the best way to study and to play to their strengths.
“On CareersPortal.ie, we have free interest profilers, with one for second-level students and another for adults. It matches the person to courses, occupations and jobs that might suit them.
“A guidance counsellor also helps a student to learn about the world of work and education in Ireland, and all the different pathways to get there.
“Most important, perhaps, is that by going through all the education and training options, the student is developing career management skills, so when they do move on from school, they understand how to find out more and how to research the next steps in their learning.
“So, instead of having someone do it for them, they will know how to find a course, how to find a job, how to develop a CV and prepare for interview, and how to access all the available opportunities.”
How can you get off on the right foot?
In 2019, a government-commissioned report recommended that guidance should begin in primary school and be available for people at all stages of life, not just those in secondary school.
“When CareersPortal.ie was founded, the philosophy behind the site was that all students should have access to information and not just a few prospectuses,” says Walsh.
“But it is important that every student is proactive when it comes to careers. They should have some preparation from the beginning, perhaps having at least taken the interest profile on the site.”
Ideally, students will have researched at least six level eight courses that might interest them, as well as Post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses before their session with the guidance counsellor, Walsh says.
“Ask for support and ask for an appointment if one isn’t offered. Sometimes, the shyer students may be reluctant to ask a question in front of the class, so this is where the one-on-one is useful.
“A guidance counsellor can help you to understand your options and how to research, but we often describe ourselves as ‘signposters’, as we don’t give generic advice; instead, we individualise it based on the student’s needs.”
Sarah Geraghty, director of student recruitment at the University of Galway, says that there are plenty of supports in school to help students figure out their true interests.
“Through the TY (transition year) curriculum, CSPE (civic, social and political education) and the career guidance programme in the school, students will be encouraged to think about the world of work and it will hopefully spark the imagination,” Geraghty says.
“There will also be access to tools and supports such as personality tests that help students figure out their strengths, motivations, values and natural interests.
“Outside of the classroom, there are many opportunities for students to get a taste for different fields. Most colleges will run outreach and civic engagement programmes which secondary school students can sign up for. ”
What happens with the guidance counsellor?
“Young people may find it hard to realise the immediacy or importance of something until it is right on top of them,” says O’Connor.
“There is a difference in talking to students about careers when they’re starting sixth year and those students who have looming CAO deadlines.
“Definitely, students should try to take information on board if they are lucky enough to have guidance classes. Talk with your teachers, talk with your head heads, and open up a dialogue with parents if that is a possibility. I work in an area and school where a lot of young people are well-supported, but some families won’t have a legacy of attending third-level or further education.”
O’Connor points to copious sources of information online: besides CareersPortal, there is Qualifax.ie, endless websites and social media sources of information on courses.
“They don’t need the guidance counsellor to tell them everything. If they can take ownership of the process, and bring that to their guidance appointments, it can really help.”
Of course, O’Connor is aware that this is the ideal, but it isn’t always possible for every student.
“In my school, there are plenty of students who will know the Irish system fairly well, but if a new student comes from abroad, or is here under refuge, there are bigger challenges, and they may [not] know the websites or how to do that conversational piece around careers, both at home and in school, so the guidance counsellors will be there to offer extra support where needed.”
The one-hour guidance session
If you only had one hour with each of your students, and otherwise never saw them from one end of the year to the next, how would you tell them to prepare for their guidance session?
“That’s tricky!” says guidance counsellor Alice O’Connor. “But I might try to send them some information ahead of that. I’d ask them about things they are interested in. What subjects do they enjoy? What is important to them in terms of their career or course (location, work experience, study abroad, extracurricular activities)? What matters in terms of their values (money, flexibility, meaningful work etc) and interests outside of academia? And I would have them do interest assessments on CareersPortal or Qualifax.”
Reach+ on CareersPortal.ie – and how it can help parents and guardians
Reach+ is a career and college preparation programme with a difference, and it can be a valuable aid in making further and higher education decisions.
“It is set up from transition year and follows the student through to sixth year,” says Bernadette Walsh, guidance counsellor with CareersPortal.ie.
“Students can do their own career investigations on Reach+ for €20 a year over three years, it allows the guidance counsellor to track how a student is performing. They can see the results of the student’s self-assessment and whether the student has begun the research process for their career.
“We also recommend that parents open Reach+ with their child at home and go through it. Parents can be overwhelmed with all the options, so we break down the information they need on a parent’s section, including with subject choices and how they can best support their child.
“Parents can be shocked by the cost of college, and the housing crisis is making it difficult, so we have information on sports and academic scholarships.
“I encourage parents to be proactive and inform themselves, particularly around whether the student may be entitled to grants or support from HEAR (the higher education access route, which supports students from disadvantaged areas to go to third-level) or DARE (which supports students with disabilities at third-level),” says Walsh.