Jocelyn Vargas attends the UFT’s School Counselors Conference every year.
“It’s a good event for us to come together and share our difficulties and learn from each other,” she said at the 16th annual conference at UFT headquarters in Manhattan on March 7.
Vargas, a counselor at the Pelham Academy of Academics and Community Engagement in the Bronx, was among more than 200 school counselors who came for the day’s workshops, exhibitions and speeches around this year’s theme: School Counselors Create Positive Change.
“School counselors face the challenge of preparing students to become productive and contributing members of society,” said School Counselors Chapter Leader Rosemarie Thompson. “We must be productive in helping our students achieve their full potential.”
UFT President Michael Mulgrew thanked the counselors for addressing the fears of the school community in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
“You’re the most important people in the building in terms of really keeping people calm,” said Mulgrew.
Navigating new situations is all part of a day’s work for school counselors.
“How many times do you walk into a school and something happens that you had no idea was ever going to happen, and you had no plan for it at all? Every day, you deal with it,” said Mulgrew. “That is the heart of our school system: We always deal with it.”
The conference honored former School Counselors Chapter Leader Angela Reformato, who served for 16 years. Reformato, who stepped down as chapter leader when she retired in 2008, told attendees that no matter how others see the school counselors’ role, “You are advocates for the students first.”
Keynote speaker Misha Thomas, an instructor at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology and a child behavioral specialist, said he often visits schools as a consultant to provide therapeutic crisis intervention, and he encouraged counselors to cultivate an outsider’s perspective.
“When you’re coming in from outside, you’re able to see things that folks inside can no longer see,” he explained.
Thomas invited attendees to respond to his ideas and to offer their own in an interactive segment following his speech.
The conference also included 14 workshops on subjects ranging from supporting LGBTQ students to helping students plan for college.
Vargas and her friend Tenelle Sanchez, who was attending the conference for the first time, participated in a cyberbullying workshop, where they learned how to help parents support their children on social media, where so much bullying happens. “Doing check-ins, having parental settings, having your children’s passwords” are examples of what parents can do, said Sanchez, a school counselor at PS 222 in Queens. The workshop also provided “videos we could use as a tool to talk with our students at assemblies,” she said.
Omawattie Toolsee, a counselor at Astor Collegiate Academy in the Bronx, enjoyed talking to fellow counselors. “I am networking and finding out how other individuals are working,” she said. Attending the Comprehensive School Counseling Plan workshop, she found that “everything I studied in my master’s program is coming to life.”
The event also helped cement her belief that she is in the right profession.
“It’s my first year as a counselor,” said Toolsee. “This is giving me a sense that this is what I was born to be.”