Person of the Week

Julie Harwell

School Counselor

You do something really, really small and then find out that it is huge to that child.  I’ve always been surprised with kids that are shut down that if you spend just five minutes chatting with them and finding out about their life, they will do what you ask of them.

1.  What led you to the mission of being a school counselor?

I had decided that I wanted to do therapy or counseling. I spent a lot of time at my kids’ elementary school doing volunteer work. I liked the atmosphere so much that I thought about social work as well.

Julie-harwellI applied to graduate school in social work and got in but even with scholarships, the master’s program was too expensive.  They said, “Just take out loans and pay them off.”  If I became a social worker I didn’t know how I could make enough money to pay off the loans.

I had a friend who was a therapist. She had gone through UMSL (the University of Missouri in St. Louis). She said, “You should look into the program there.” At that time you had to teach five years to be a school counselor. At that time I was going through the graduate therapy program. At the end of this time I found out the law had changed. I could do school counseling by adding on eighteen hours of classes. So I was able to become a school counselor with a bachelor’s in psychology and a master’s in education in the field of counseling

2.  What does this mission mean to you?

I enjoy being in the school environment so much. Instead of just doing one thing, I do may do fifty things.  What I have to do changes all the time. I feel like it is an opportunity to reach kids before they get to the point of needing therapy. I can do that one intervention that helps out before their life gets to be so overwhelming.

3.  What was your best day being a school counselor?

What makes my day is when that one child I’ve been working with makes that good choice I’ve been hoping for — instead of the child crawling under the table or screaming. The best day is when a child actually walks in and says, “I really need your help.”

julie-harwellfairnessIt’s also a best day when a child is moved out of a classroom the child was in for behavior problems and is put back in a regular classroom. It is those days when all your hard work shows.

I remember when one child would come into my office and tear things apart. The child would rip things up and climb under the table. This same child would say, “Go away. I hate you.” When I would walk away, the child would say, “Where are you going? Why are you leaving me?” Everything was a huge drama.

One day this child came into my office. The child said, “I’m really mad and I need to talk to you.” We had this calm back and forth conversation. That was such a “wow” moment.   You sometimes wonder if what you do has any effect. Just to see this child actually come in and have a real heart to heart honest conversation without yelling or screaming or getting mad and saying, “I don’t care” — that’s one of those days that makes it all worth while.

4.  What was your worst day being a school counselor?

The worst day is when something tragic happens. julieharwelldeskWe had one of our little guys Patrick pass away of cancer. He had fought it off and had been cancer free. Then he came in about a year later and I asked him how he was doing. He said, “Well, I’m doing OK but the cancer is back. It’s in my hip.” I knew it had been in his shoulder. Once he said it was in another area, I tried not to show a fallen face. I looked at Dad. Dad shook his head. Patrick made a valiant effort. He always wanted to be at school. Sometimes he would come and nap half the day. But he wanted to be here at school so much. He was way beyond his years. A wise kid.

We knew it would happen and we got the call. We had to tell all the kids he had passed away. We had a library full of sobbing children. There were times of having to step out because we needed a moment ourselves. julieharwellstairwayThen we stepped back in to try to help the children. You don’t want to be cold and stone-faced. But you don’t want to sob in front of the kids either when you are supposed to be helping them. But I think that is the worst day.

There is a big giant chessboard outside that was made in Patrick’s name. Home Depot helped us make it. Patrick liked to play chess because he often could not go out to recess. Home Depot made the chessboard with patio blocks. Then they got us some giant chess pieces.

We also had another child in a roll over accident. He was thrown from the car. He ended up being OK, but getting the news that he was in critical condition and not knowing what was happening – that is a worst day.

It is very hard to lose a student. Those are the worst days.

5.  How did you survive your worst day?

This is such a great school. With each case of tragedy, there is so much support. The teachers care. The staff cares so much for these kids. julie-harwellrespectTo have so many other people going through what you are going through and to know you have done everything you can – this helps – although I always have that feeling that I haven’t done enough in some cases.

But there are always some cases that you simply can’t fix. There might not even be enough time to fix everything. You patch up something here and you have to walk off and help patch something somewhere else. There is never enough time to do everything that needs to be done.

It takes a sense of humor. We have a great staff and they have such a great sense of humor. We always say, “We’re either going to laugh or cry. Which is it going to be today?” The kids will always find a reason to laugh.

6.  What advice do you have for someone who would like to be a school counselor?

A lot of people say to me, “I don’t know how you do it. That must be so hard.” I can do it because there is so much joy. There are so many smiles in the day. I go to work and I get hugged. I can get more than fifty hugs a day. There are not many jobs where you get hugged left and right all day long. It’s such a good feeling.

julieharwellhallWhen I walk down the hall I see so many people happy and smiling. I get to hear the good stories as much as the bad stories. I hear, “I did what you suggested,” or “I worked through it and I did it.” I see the success stories. The ability to make a difference in other people’s lives is so important.

The kids are so appreciative of every little thing you do. That is the neatest thing. You do something really, really small and then find out that it is huge to that child or to a teacher. You think it was nothing. But then you get back, “You have no idea how much that meant.”

I’ve always been surprised with kids that are shut down that if you spend just five minutes chatting with them and finding out about their life, they will do what you ask of them. Just that little gesture of a smile and relationship building can make such a huge difference in kids.

The days go by so fast and I have such great people to work with. Not everybody gets to go to a job where everybody takes care of each other and everybody laughs with each other and everybody cries with each other. I feel really lucky to be able to be a school counselor.