Thursday, October 5, 2006

Are We Counselors?

 As I move into my tenth year of teaching in the law school setting, I have begun to wonder whether I have become more of a counselor than a traditional teacher. I’m not suggesting that one is necessarily preferable to the other; I’m just wondering how I should describe my job when others ask me what I do for a living. Am I alone in having the following (or similar) exchange with new acquaintances?

“So, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m teacher.”

“That’s great. What do you teach high school? Grade school?”

“Actually, I’m a law school professor.” (I usually puff my chest out a bit at this point).

“That’s great . . . so what do you teach?”

This is where I usually get stuck. I can say that I run an Academic Excellence Program, which will generate a quizzical look from my new, and quickly becoming confused, acquaintance. I know that I help first year students transition into law school. I know that I also work with students who are in academic difficulty. Digging a little deeper, I teach skills like outlining, legal synthesis, and bedrock concepts like legal analysis. Some of this teaching takes place in the classroom, but I spend a great deal of time meeting with students to discuss these concepts, and others, on a one-on-one basis. This is where I get stuck again.

 Typically, students will schedule a meeting to discuss their outlines or to review an answer to an exercise that I have posted. Regardless of the proposed reason for our meeting, many students have other issues on their mind that require attention. What are they?

I’m having trouble sleeping

I just got into a fight with my significant other

I don’t have time to spend with my family

I’m the dumbest person in my class

I’m no longer sure that I want to be a lawyer

The list goes on and on, however, these issues have one thing in common. They have little to do with academics, which brings me back to where I started. Am I a counselor? Maybe many of you don’t deal with these issues when students raise them, but I feel that I have to. My students have academic problems that must be dealt with, but their personal issues are a part of the problem as well. In fact, dealing strictly with academic issues strikes me as a waste of time when I know that the personal problems, at the very least, contribute to the student’s academic difficulty.

I don’t have any specific training as a counselor, but I am a good listener. Thankfully, a good listener - who discreetly moves a box of tissues within reach when the need arises – seems to be what most of my students need. I rarely have to offer very much in the way of advice, except to say that there feelings or problems are normal and can be dealt with. On occasion, I do have to give more specific advice about managing one’s time more efficiently, or the need to take part in non-law school related activities, or to be sure to get enough sleep. I feel like I’m on pretty safe ground with these recommendations as they sound like the kind of advice my mother would have given me! 

In the end, I guess it doesn’t make any difference whether counseling has become part of my job description. As for explaining what I do to new acquaintances . . . maybe I’ll just say that I teach contracts. (hnr)

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