Emily Sene

An Elementary School Counseling Career Profile

Transitioning from teaching to school counseling involves a significant paradigm shift, according to a seasoned teacher who recently made the career change, but, she says, it’s a change well worth the effort.

Emily Sene taught seventh grade Spanish in Edmond, Oklahoma for three years before moving to Texas in 2003 and teaching fourth grade ESL (English as a Second Language) classes at Barbara Bush Elementary for four years, and third grade ESL classes at Zavala Elementary for two years. As a teacher, she saw the results of her efforts almost immediately, as when she noticed students delighting in grasping a new subject, or in their test scores, or when her students progressed from one grade level to the next; these results are easily identifiable.

Now as a counselor, the results are less measurable, but in many ways more meaningful. She calls counseling results more “qualitative” rather than “quantitative.” As when a child comes to school not talking, but through her intervention begins to not only talk, but actively volunteers answers in class, or when a child doesn’t have any friends, but through group work, learns how to make friends, or when families are struggling financially, and through the North Texas Food Bank Food for Kids program, coordinated by Sene at her school, the kids bring food home over the weekend.

“It was a paradigm shift for me in going from teaching and having those tangible numbers and black and white progress outcomes that I could see, to becoming a counselor where it may take more than one day to see the progress, but it’s there, and I absolutely love that. It’s not as instantaneous as when you teach a lesson, but you see the progress throughout the year, especially with the hugs and smiles. It feeds your heart.”

Teaching for nine years, however, Sene acquired valuable experience and skills that she uses daily on her job as a school counselor. She credits teaching with helping her learn how to interact with not only the children, but also parents.  She understands the parents’ frustrations, and realizes that in many cases, her most important contribution is to be a good listener and empathize.

Often when a child is struggling academically or emotionally, Sene details for parents the three-step early intervention process established through her school district to address the issues. This process, called the Response to Tiered Intervention (RTI), is designed to address the needs of children before more serious measures are required. Sene describes her role as an “intermediary” between the child and parent.

But acting as an intermediary doesn’t stop with the parent-child relationship. This role also requires her to manage the relationship between child and teacher, and also between the child and the overall functioning of the school. Because she’s been a teacher, Sene knows the extra demands placed on a teacher with a struggling student, therefore she’s able to empathize with the teacher as well.  

And as a counselor, teaching doesn’t stop altogether, meaning that Sene still goes into classrooms to teach positive character building in the areas of trustworthiness, respect, caring, responsibility, and also guidance lessons on specific needs, such as spreading rumors, stealing, whining, bullying, and the difference between tattling and reporting. The role of counselor, however, is “much more holistic,” as it requires Sene to deal with all the educational personnel and family members involved in children’s lives. And, most ideally for Sene, it means that she can help all the school’s children, rather than just the 22 or so that she would have in one class as a teacher.

Helping a large population of students drew Sene into the counseling field during her second teaching position in Grand Prairie, Texas, at Barbara Bush Elementary. It was at Barbara Bush where she worked with an inspirational counselor who became her role model for how someone in this helping profession can truly impact lives. “Angela Tackett was just an outstanding counselor and really showed me that by being the counselor, I could not only help a group of children as a teacher, but also go above and beyond and help the whole school.”

Tackett’s passion meant that her door was always open for the children, regardless of the amount of paperwork or other tasks that needed to get done. And her openness and welcoming arms, being there always for the children, making home visits if needed, still inspires Sene today.

If you walk into Sene’s office, you will see yellow Post-It notes all over her computer, and if you happen to enter her home, you’ll also see yellow Post-It notes dotting the house. Those household notes are thoughts she has about certain kids or situations that she needs to attend to the next day. One note will have a child’s initials and the comment “get a coat,” another will have another set of initials, and the comment “pull in tomorrow to discuss the issue that arose at the end of the day.”

Teaching required Sene to grade papers and plan lessons either before or after school, but today, Sene points to those Post-It notes as an example of how her “take home” work has changed. She now brings home consuming thoughts and emotions about the children, and the needs of their families.

Yet paperwork is still part of Sene’s professional life. She completes Child Protective Services Reports, and paperwork for the Food for Kids program. She also completes at-risk and homeless forms to comply with federal legislation entitled the McKinney-Vento Assistance Act. And she’s responsible for the school’s 504 program, which provides academic plans for kids with medical needs such as asthma or ADHD.

These reports are in addition to helping with plans for the RTI program that addresses children with special education and speech therapy concerns.

The paperwork gets done, Sene stresses, but not at the expense of the children. If a
child enters her office having a bad day, everything gets pushed aside, and the child’s problem takes precedence. Sene says a number of “emergency” situations often occur, and that means that those yellow Post-It notes on her computer simply get transferred to the next day.

Managing those Post-It notes and her “to-do” lists means that organization is one key to success on this job, but more importantly, Sene says, is the requirement that school counselors are self-motivated. At Grand Prairie’s Fannin Elementary, where she is in her first year as a counselor for over 400 students, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, she could work in her office all day. “But to have that intrinsic motivation and desire to really make a difference, you get out there in the hallways and greet children each day, and you find the areas where you need to help.” She stressed that counselors must be problem-solvers, and enjoy lots of variety and unexpected interruptions. “You never know what’s going to walk through the door.”

In talking to Sene, one comes away with the impression that self-motivation is truly what drives her. After realizing that she wanted to pursue a master’s degree in counseling, she contacted Grand Prairie’s district personnel who were in charge of counseling. She wrote an e-mail to a woman who is now an assistant superintendent, describing who she was, why she wanted to become a counselor, and how she was entering the master’s program at the University of North Texas to achieve that goal. She told the woman that she wanted to stay working in the district as a counselor after finishing the degree.

This woman made a special visit to Barbara Bush Elementary to meet Sene, and she eventually became an internship supervisor for Sene as she finished her degree. Sene points to this experience as the type of networking that helped her land the job she has today, and one which she truly enjoys, and she recommends this type of networking for all those interested in school counseling. Sene also recommends having strong communication skills and a diverse background of work experiences when seeking a counseling position.

For those just beginning their master’s programs, Sene recommends finding a program with opportunities that provide a variety of clinical experiences. That means getting counseling experience with children, teens and adults in community mental health centers, psychiatric hospitals, group, and one-on-one settings. By gaining this type of experience, Sene says, you learn how to talk – and listen – therapeutically in every possible situation that you will one day encounter in your counseling career.

If you desire a career that involves working with children struggling academically, physically or emotionally, in an educational setting as well as working with parents and teachers, and you desire to help the overall functioning of a school, you should consider pursuing a master’s degree in school counseling.

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