Davey Thompson says, looking back on her career, she can see how she’s always been moving toward a mental health support role in education. But it was three years as an assistant principal in an Edmonton high school that affirmed her decision to enroll in the University of Alberta Faculty of Education’s School Counselling Master’s Program.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in one of those difficult situations you find yourself in sometimes as an administrator that didn’t involve a mental health concern of some kind,” said Thompson.
“Often you’re seeing families in times of crisis, so being able to connect them to supports or even just knowing what to say when people are in so much distress, that became the most challenging but also the most interesting part of my work, and I wanted to do more of that. In the school counselling program, I saw that opportunity. It seemed like a really pragmatic program I could apply right away to my work and I felt a real sense of urgency because that’s what I was seeing every day.”
With the abrupt transition to and from online learning during COVID-19, the social isolation, and the level of job losses among parents leading some families to experience economic hardship, the urgency for students and their families to have access to support right where they are at has become all the more real.
Program director Dr. Noorfarah Merali says the School Counselling program prepares trainees to offer classroom guidance by developing structured lessons or units of curriculum to help students build critical personal and life skills for their future success, including skills in self-care. It also prepares them to provide basic counselling to students in person or online to help them problem-solve and support them through academic and personal challenges, as well as career planning.
Through their practicums, school counsellor trainees also gain experience in connecting children and families to appropriate community resources such as local food banks and social services, as well as health care and mental health services.
The two-year program is delivered through summer courses and classes every second Saturday during the school year to accommodate careers in progress.
Immediately applicable skills and strategies
Now in her second year, Thompson says the benefits of the program, both in terms of instruction and in learning in a cohort of like-minded education professionals, include providing new insights and affirming prior practices as she works in a counselling role at her school.
“Typically we learn something on the weekend, and I use it on Monday—like, almost without fail,” she said. “And the things I was doing before that were working, now I know why they were working. That’s comforting. Everyone in this cohort came to it with some strong skills, but we’re refining and understanding them, and that’s calming when you’re in the moment.”
Monika Tomczak, who teaches English and previously taught drama at a Calgary high school, started the School Counselling Program in 2019. She says teaching fine arts courses made her more aware of the need for school-based mental health supports and sought a professional development opportunity to improve her own skills—even if it meant regular commutes between cities for classes.
“Helping students have a creative outlet was really eye-opening because they were so comfortable with the rapport we developed—that ultimately gave me insight about the mental health struggles they were dealing with,” Tomczak said.
“I liked the fact that the U of A had a specific school counselling master’s program. Typically programs that focus on counselling have more of a clinical focus or are for people who want to work outside the school context. Being from Calgary and choosing to commute every other weekend, is a testament to the Faculty and the program they have created.”
Edmonton secondary teacher Jennifer Fedor completed the program in 2017. She says maintaining a career while doing a master’s degree was by no means easy, but the skills she gained and the support from her instructors and her cohort— relationships and a professional network she can still count on—were more than worth the effort.
“What makes the program so unique is that it is challenging, and at the same time the skills you gain from building that resiliency are a huge asset to the work you’re going to be doing after you finish the program,” Fedor said. “ The experiences and the knowledge and skills you gain, you’ll never regret that.”