Looking to Pursue a Career in Education? Here’s How to Become a School Counselor in a K-12 Setting

While the path to becoming a school counselor may be slightly longer than other roles, you’ll be rewarded with a career that makes a positive impact on so many lives.

Within the K-12 education system, students need intelligent, caring, compassionate and knowledgeable educators in order to thrive — and that doesn’t end with teachers.

There are other crucial figures in school settings who provide guidance and aid to children on their journeys toward adulthood, especially school counselors.

School counselors play an integral role in promoting student success and sustaining a safe, effective learning environment for everyone. Clearly, becoming a school counselor allows you to make a significant impact on many lives, and to do so, there is a great amount of training involved.

To determine what exact steps are needed to become a school counselor, USC Online spoke with Marsha Boveja Riggio, PhD, LPC, ACS, NCC, an associate professor of teaching and school counseling program lead at USC Rossier School of Education.

Below, she shares what degrees you need to become a school counselor, how to succeed as an educator and what to expect from the Master of Education in School Counseling online (SC online) program.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a School Counselor?

First off, you need to earn your bachelor’s degree. Of course, there is not a specific undergraduate degree you need as a prospective counselor, although it helps if the program is related to education or behavioral sciences.

“Most of our students have an undergrad degree in something like psychology, sociology or health education. Others were teachers before. We have a sprinkling who come in with music or art as a background, too. There are also some older adults who are looking for a second career and come in with a different degree, like they were doing business or HR in the past,” Boveja Riggio explained.

Even if your bachelor’s degree isn’t completely connected to the field of school counseling, that’s OK, she said. Having a passion or background for helping others, or experience in volunteering, can also help demonstrate you are ready for the role.

Next up is obtaining a master’s degree from a school counseling program, like the SC online at USC Rossier. In addition to completing your coursework, you must gain in-school fieldwork experience, like an internship. You’ll complete your fieldwork in various K-12 schools, where you can apply your knowledge to real-world issues affecting children, families and school administration.

From there, you must sit for any required exams to earn your state certification, and then you can apply for your credential. In California, your master’s program must officially recommend you for a credential before you complete the Basic Skills Requirement and apply for the Pupil Personnel Services School Counseling (PPS-SC) Credential.

After that, it’s finally time to start your job search so you can land a position to support students’ learning and growth.

What to Expect from the USC Master’s Degree in School Counseling

The SC online master’s program at USC Rossier prepares graduates to help students of all ages from diverse backgrounds with their social, emotional and academic development. It’s also very much focused on learning how to prepare students for college.

As a result, USC Rossier classes include “Legal and Ethical Issues in Counseling,” “Learning and Individual Differences,” and “School Connectedness, Climate and Classroom Management.” USC Rossier, however, differs slightly from other school counseling programs, Boveja Riggio pointed out.

“We teach our students about trauma-informed practices for the school counselor, which is a little unique compared to other programs. We believe that there’s a lot of trauma experienced by K-12 youth right now, and current school counselors might not have had the training to work with them,” she explained. “Our program teaches school counselors how to recognize trauma, what trauma practices are, and how they can … go into schools and dismantle some old school ways of counseling.”

Being able to differentiate between a behavioral problem and a reaction to trauma can help counselors better navigate their sessions with students to improve their emotional wellbeing and academic potential, Boveja Riggio said. This focus on handling trauma also meets the needs of students who may have been left behind in the past.

“We want to address this equity gap that often exists [in] academic achievement — we’ve been trying to reframe it and identify opportunities for youth who maybe haven’t always been considered. There’s a lot of work out there that talks about students who struggle in school, barely pass or don’t graduate. They tend to get involved in activities that put them at risk. If only we had school counselors or school-based mental health professionals that had been able to recognize what may have been happening as a reaction to trauma in their community or at home and to develop a plan to approach that with the teachers, we might be able to help them better,” she said.

But that’s not the only aspect that makes the SC online degree a bit different from other school counseling programs. Boveja Riggio noted that at USC Rossier, they also prepare graduates to address career readiness initiatives with children.

“Not all K-12 kids are destined for college, but they may be more career-oriented. So we have a heavy lift on getting our school counselors informed about ways to do career counseling so that we can identify what the different styles, dispositions and curiosities are that may set them up for a career instead of college,” she explained.

A school counselor is a multifaceted role, and those interested in the progressive field must be prepared to support the mental, social and emotional needs of students.

“School counseling has evolved. It’s evolving to not being just guidance counseling or just academic counseling. It’s evolved into clinical counseling. It’s to sit with students and counsel them — not just do schedules, not just figure out what class they’re taking, not just make recommendations for different things, it’s doing some real counseling and guidance,” Boveja Riggio said.

How Much Does a School Counselor Make?

Like most roles, the salary varies by location and experience level for school counseling positions, but the median pay in 2021 was nearly $61,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those working in California in particular earned a salary of $81,350, which was the highest mean pay across the entire U.S.

For those worried about industry growth, the profession also has a promising job outlook: School counselor positions are expected to increase 11 percent from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations, reported the BLS.

What Type of People Succeed as School Counselors?

Of course, before you even start on the path toward becoming a school counselor, you may be wondering: Is it really the right role for you?

Boveja Riggio explained that admissions advisors actually discuss this topic with prospective students, ensuring they have the necessary skills to succeed in both the program and their future careers.

Once students are admitted, we tell them that students who are organized, have good time management, have the willingness to reach out and be a part of their cohort, and are willing to be vulnerable and dig deep, they’re going to succeed in our program,” she said.

Being open to talk about your own background and history and work through personal issues is crucial, according to Boveja Riggio, so they do not arise during counseling sessions.

“We don’t want any projecting of our own problems on our own students,” she said.

Other desired qualities for school counselors include compassion, good listening and communication skills, and a true passion for helping others.

While the journey to becoming a school counselor may be slightly longer than other roles, you’re ultimately rewarded with a career that makes a lasting, positive impact on student lives.

Learn more about the Master of Education in School Counseling online program today. 

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