Constance Johnson, a school counselor at William B. Wade Elementary School, was recently named the Elementary School Counselor of the Year by the Maryland School Counselor Association.
When Johnson started with Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) in 2014, she split her time between Wade and C. Paul Barnhart Elementary School before beginning at Wade fulltime at the start of the 2015-16 school year. At Wade she is the counselor for kindergarten, third, fourth and fifth grades.
Despite her love of the job, it wasn’t one Johnson was planning on when she was in school — she earned her bachelor’s from American University and master’s from Johns Hopkins University. She wanted to work in communications with a focus on political advocacy. She was with a communications firm for a couple of years that worked with the National Center for Education Statistics(NCES), which collects, analyzes and publishes statistics related to education.
“I was always fascinated with the data and information, and the story behind the kids who were taking these tests,” Johnson said. She thought about the lives of the students beyond the data and started thinking back on her own experiences in school with counselors.
Finally, she went to her boss to resign and ask for a letter of recommendation — Johnson was enrolling in an intense, 15-month counseling program.
“My experiences with my own school counselors really shaped me into wanting to do this,” she said. Johnson recalled a meeting with her parents, teachers and counselor during her junior year where things weren’t looking great academically. It was her 10thgrade English teacher who would go on to become a school counselor that advocated for Johnson, pushed for her to take advanced classes. “She showed me what school counselors should be doing and could be doing,” Johnson said. Another school counselor sought out Johnson to talk about things beyond grades and class schedules. That relationship also planted a seed that would bloom into a career as a school counselor.
After completing her training and education, Johnson planned to work with high school students. And she did, for a while. “I was a high school person,” she said. “I was about college readiness and college awareness. That is what I was passionate about.” However, advisors thought she would flourish in an elementary school setting working with younger students.
Johnson heeded the advice and took a job as an elementary school counselor in Virginia. “It took me two years to accept that this is my home,” Johnson said of working with elementary school students. “I was built for elementary age. I like to have fun with them. I like to do silly things they like to do … the singing, the dancing and the games.”
“A great counselor must be able to listen and hear the concerns of her students.A great counselor needs to be able to assess the needs of their students and place them with the best resources.A great counselor needs to be a good communicator, able to advocate and communicate on behalf of their students,” Alicia Jones, supervising school counselor for CCPS, said. Johnson is a great counselor. “Ms. Johnson is enthusiastic and friendly. She is a person that listens to her students and ready to help guide them in making the best choices,” Jones said.
School counselors are woven into the fabric of a school. At the elementary-school level, they are more proactive. “A lot of what we’re doing is trying to teach skills to children. Teach them how to manage their emotions, how to get along with each other,” Johnson said.
“Ms. Johnson connects with students in our building with ease,” Sara Seifert, a third-grade teacher at Wade, said. “Students know when they need to speak with Mrs. Johnson, that she is ready and willing to listen, judgement free. They know she will keep them safe and offer advice that is useful in real world situations.”
Counselors teach lessons, and look at data to see students through a lens of equity. “Are there achievement gaps we should be looking at? Do we need to look at data by race, by income or special needs? That’s been turned on its head this year,” Johnson said.
As the events of 9/11 shaped her generation of millennials, Johnson believes the pandemic will be the defining cultural event of her students. “There’s not a playbook,” she said. “We can talk about the effects of trauma, the effects of stress and how that might impact our kids, but we won’t know the magnitude of what they experienced until they are in front of us.”
Many teachers, staff and school counselors have put in a herculean effort to stay connected with students, Johnson said. On the counseling front, Wednesdays at Wade are reserved for Counselor Chats when students can visit virtually with their counselor. Office hours are set aside for students by grade to connect one-on-one with the counselor. “Everyone’s pandemic experience has been different,” Johnson said. “We’re all dealing with this, but not all are affected to the same degree.”
The pandemic isn’t the only thing students and others are grappling with. “It’s not just COVID, but the racial injustices … our students have been experiencing it and thinking about it,” Johnson said.
Students know they can schedule time during office hours, and Johnson has reached out to specific students to get a read on how they are dealing with the traumatic events taking place in the world.
Some students know they can seek out their school counselor for support, others might not. “I think that where being proactive is so important for school counselors,” Johnson said. “If they know that I’m a person that’s here for you, that’s my job.”
Professional school counselors from around the state were nominated for their innovation and exemplary comprehensive school counseling programs. The Maryland School Counselor Association honored Johnson and other school counselor of the year semifinalists during a virtual gala last month.