A new UNC Charlotte program is connecting experts at the university with school counselors in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) to provide professional development in designing curriculum for critical classroom lessons.
“The classroom lessons that school counselors lead are just as important as the content-focused lessons that teachers in their schools teach,” said professor Hilary Dack, co-creator of the program. “An argument could be made that they're even more important, since they focus on critical mental health topics, socio-emotional issues, and strategies students must have to make academic success possible. Our goal with the School Counseling Fellows Program (SCFP) is to equip school counselors with the same tools classroom teachers have to make these crucial lessons as engaging, rigorous, and impactful as possible.”
In addition to their use of one-on-one and group counseling, school counselors are also tasked with designing and teaching lessons to entire classrooms of students.
“School counselors teach about important topics like bullying prevention, coping skills, and conflict resolution,” said Dack, who specializes in curriculum and instruction. “It’s work that’s more important than ever at a time of increases in adolescent suicide rates, deaths from school shootings, and anxiety disorders.”
According to Dack, the American School Counselor Association recommends that school counselors spend up to 45% of their time planning and teaching classroom guidance lessons, but they typically don't receive training on how to plan effective lessons. Recognizing this need, counseling professor Clare Merlin-Knoblich first asked Dack to lead several workshops about lesson planning for Merlin-Knoblich’s class of future school counselors several years ago. From this collaboration, Merlin-Knoblich and Dack decided to write an article which school counselors could use to improve their classroom lessons.
Their unique partnership produced the publication, “Improving Classroom Guidance Curriculum with Understanding by Design”. Based on the response from the academic community, Dack and Merlin-Knoblich established the School Counseling Fellows Program in 2019 with the support of a UNC Charlotte Faculty Research Grant to provide professional development in curriculum design for school counselors in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The program received over 50 applications and accepted 25 counselors from surrounding schools in its first year.
“When we advertised this opportunity, we shared with potential Fellows that participating in the program would be time-consuming and thought-provoking,” said Merlin-Knoblich. “Receiving so many applications was a clear reminder that our local school counselors are eager to learn and hungry for further training on how to support their students.”
The Fellows met four times in the fall to learn best practices in curriculum design and to redesign their own curricular unit in hands-on, practical workshops.
“The program has introduced me to new ways to write counseling lesson plans and think about the intentions of my work with students,” said Noelle Hughes, a UNC Charlotte alumna and Fellow. “It’s so important to look at the big picture and what you want your students to walk away with at the end of your lessons.”
The Fellows will take what they’ve learned back to their schools and teach a series of redesigned lessons throughout the spring semester before gathering for a final meeting to reflect on applying their new skills in future practice.
“We hope that the program draws attention to the wide range of roles that school counselors play, the eagerness school counselors have to learn, and the importance of curriculum design to improving outcomes for K-12 students through classroom lessons on critical issues,” said Merlin-Knoblich.