Q&A with Dolores Simpson-Kirkland, Lincoln Southwest

Dolores Simpson-Kirkland, guidance counselor at Lincoln Southwest High School, has been honored as recipients of the 2013 Yale Educator Award. The nominations are made by matriculating students. Of 210 nominees, was one of the 90 honorees chosen for the award. Simpson-Kirkland answered questions about her work.

What duties consume most of your time?

My duties revolve around the events that take place throughout the year. Counseling responsibilities based on the American School Counselor Association model at a school that operates on a block schedule are cyclical. Schedule changes based on academic placement criteria consume a significant portion of time at the beginning of each term.  Contacts and interventions with students; collaboration with teachers and families take place with ongoing regularity. Counselors must also respond to personal/social crises as situations arise.

How has the profession of school guidance counselor changed in recent years?

Since the time I became a school counselor (1995), I continue to learn to align my daily work with the standards of the American School Counselor Association and interact with students, families and colleagues with focus, intentionality and purpose. Counselors assess and review data on student progress and needs and provide interventions based on data results. It has also become necessary for us to become more cognizant of the myriad of personal/social emotional and economic struggles that students and their families are experiencing and resources that will assist students and families in meeting basic needs. We do not have the luxury of operating as lone rangers; we must collaborate with others so that we may implement our best professional practices on a daily basis. It has become necessary for me to learn how to incorporate advances in technology into my professional activities. 

When you schedule gets busy, where do you place your emphasis with the students?

I enjoy staying busy and when life becomes very busy, it is imperative for me to focus on student/family needs first, particularly in an emergency situation. I need listen to the student  so that I can be organized and have a plan to work in a compassionate, effective manner. I need to listen.  If a particular matter can wait for a while, I will make a note so that I remember (to the best of my ability) to get back to a student, parent/guardian or colleague in a timely manner.  

Can you give an example of how you can help a student refocus or get back on track or try a new path?

I continue to learn that there is no substitute for personalization -  listening to a student and not minimizing the concern that is presented. I understand that while adolescents may sometimes have a flair for the dramatic, if an issue is important to them, then it is important. I will ask students to share what they feel the problem or concern is; what have they tried to alleviate the problem; what was the outcome of their attempts; whether they are open to looking at other possibilities to improve the situation; what is their commitment to working to find a resolution to the concern and developing a plan to address the concern in a different and hopefully more effective way. Following up with students is critical to the success of the development of any plan to try a different strategy or path.  Instilling a sense of hope a critical step in this process.

How does a guidance counselor work with a student while they stay active in class and other activities? In other words, how do you help students with the whole picture of their education? 

It is important for the student and I to talk about the big picture. This can be hard for students to visualize when they are engaged in so many things and can have so many distractions. We will frame our conversations from the context of examining future plans and goals and how current academic and co-curricular activities will assist students with setting and reaching goals. This can be challenging for students that have not set goals for themselves; students that are not involved in any activities; students that appear to be over-involved in activities and students that are so academically focused that they do not see the need for being involved in activities that will expand their horizons and allow room for growth and maturation.  Planning and goal setting involve small steps in which students can see a purpose in what they are doing and why they are doing what they do. This is new territory for many students, although there are students who have their futures mapped out. Students will learn that life is fluid and subject to change at any time. Our job is to assist students in seeing and believing that life options and choices do exist.

How have the students changed you as a person or a professional?

The students with whom I have worked have had a profound impact on my life. I continue to learn that life is precious and that people are to be valued and treated with courtesy. I am learning to laugh more; empathize with the students and the concerns that they bring; exhibit patience; apologize when I am wrong and bring my best to each day's work. I am also learning to improve my technology skills (not my area of strength).

Published: September 17, 2013, Updated: July 20, 2015