Everyone needs someone they can talk to and students in the Pettis County R-V School District have a knowledgeable and caring sounding board in Katie Walker.
As counselor for both the elementary and high school, Walker adjusts her strategy depending on the student’s grade and maturity level. For elementary students, her focus is on social and emotional development.
“There are so many things they are introduced to through friends, things they are not seeing at home,” she said, explaining that her role is to guide them through such situations and teach appropriate behaviors at school.
“At the high school level, they have lived a little and they already know those things,” she said. “The focus there is more on academics, college and career readiness, with less emphasis on social and emotional development.”
Walker was a Family and Consumer Sciences teacher in the district’s Northwest High School for six years before transitioning to counselor. That move was prompted by former Principal David Dawson; the counseling position was open, and Dawson told her she would be a perfect fit but would have to go back to school to attain the proper credentials. As Walker looked into it, she realized counseling was something she wanted to pursue. She moved into the position at the start of the 2018-19 school year.
During her time as a classroom teacher, Walker enjoyed getting to know her students and what motivated them.
“As a FACS teacher, my curriculum was very heavily centered on career attainment, so it was cool to find something that motivated my students in the classroom, then see that drive in whatever their passions were for their career or college pursuits,” she said. That background made her transition to counselor natural.
This past week was National School Counseling Week, so the work of Walker and her peers gained a little more notice. Walker said the role of school counselors keeps changing, as they deal with more mental health and trauma issues in students.
“We hear the term ‘trauma’ and we think of blunt force trauma, but it is such a broad term,” Walker said. Trauma refers to incidents that students either witness or are subjected to, “usually something that alters their course of thinking, such as being in or witnessing a bad car accident.” Other forms of trauma are physical or sexual abuse, food insecurity and homelessness.
“Finding out what that child’s traumatic experience was and being able to work through that is vital to their academic success as well as their social and emotional success,” she said. “We have so many students who have experienced childhood trauma; they are having to go through life and deal with it and they don’t know how. This is not just at our school district – it is nationwide.”
On the elementary side, Walker’s favorite part of her job is checking in with students to ensure they have what they need to be successful that day. Being around them “is the best way for them know I am a trusted adult who they can turn to,” she said. For high school students, she enjoys helping them be more informed before making a decision about a college they might attend.
Most important, though, is for students and adults alike to understand the value and impact of her efforts.
“There is a stigma about kids coming to see the school counselor, especially at the high school, along the lines of the mental health stigma that we have across the U.S.,” Walker said. “I want people to know that it is OK to talk to someone; even adults need someone to talk to. What I stress to my students who I have regular contact with is, ‘Do you have a trusted adult at home who you can talk to about this?’ I want to make sure that when they are not at school, they still have someone they can contact.”
The weight of the work can be exhausting. Walker, who also serves as her district’s homeless liaison, A+ Program coordinator and testing coordinator, spends so much time assisting others that she needs to remember to take time for herself and her family.
“(Counselors) are dealing with some things that staff members at the school don’t know about and sometimes we are the only person that kid can talk to,” she said. “I want people to know that while I wear a lot of hats … being there for my students is my Number 1 role.”