Academic Exchange Quarterly Fall 2004: Volume 8, Issue 3
Journal Writings of a School Psychologist
Gerard T. Seifert, Sachem School District, NY
Gerard T. Seifert, Ed.D., is
a school psychologist at the
This article is an analysis of the reflective journal writing of a school psychologist at the beginning and end of his career. Through the analysis of selected entries from both journals the author discovers and shares a mixed chronicle of confidence, introspection, whining, and growth.
"Sitting at a picnic table on a late summer day in 1986, surrounded by trees that softened the edges of the urban campus, I extended an invitation to the educators who were sharing lunch and conversation with me. I invited them to continue working together, beyond the formal context of our graduate classrooms." (Miller, 1990, p.1) So begins Janet Miller's book Creating Spaces and Finding Voices: Teachers Collaborating for Empowerment. I was one of the five graduate students at that picnic table who took up the challenge of our professor to work together beyond the classroom. We embarked on a three-year journey that consisted of approximately monthly meetings and dialogue journal writings between Miller and ourselves. At first I had difficulty and was a bit resistant to the journal writing - I just didn't think I was the journal writing type. I had always been self-conscious about my writing. After my initial reluctance, however, I found the writing helped me focus and clarify. "As one of the group members who was initially skeptical of his own writing ability and of his willingness to devote the time and concentration to journal writing, (he) now continues to utilize a great deal of journal writing. He exemplifies throughout our narrative the ways in which writing is a support for him in our explorations as well as in his daily work." (p.32)
When the group began, I was entering my sixth year as a school psychologist. Before beginning my twentieth year while cleaning out my bookcases, I found the marble notebook that I kept my journal entries in, for the 1986 -87 school year. I decided it would be interesting to keep a journal again and compare were I was at the beginning of my school psychology career to where I was, at fifty four years old, as it was swiftly coming to an end. Hopefully I would see growth, hopefully.
Where I Was
I did not read my old journal entries when I first discovered that marble notebook but wanted to wait until I had finished writing that present year's journal before reviewing them. So after the school year ended I opened my old journal, and started reading. After only a few pages I felt my body temperature rise and I began to sweat. What I read was by a much younger more focused and in some ways more confident school psychologist than I am now. Fourteen years ago I had just started to work two days a week in the high school and I also worked three days a week in one of the district’s twelve elementary schools.
The High School
At first I was confused about my duties in the high school.
I'm not sure where I stand at the high school. I'm used to the routine and the comfort level and the more intimate feeling of an elementary school.
But over the year I gained confidence in my ability.
I can feel my confidence growing in counseling sessions with my high school students. I see growth with many of the students I work with. Some of the growth is because of the counseling sessions while the maturing process the influence of other people and events account for a good deal of the change.
As Ben and I talked I felt comfortable with him and also with the knowledge that I could help Ben through counseling. This is a different experience for me from the opening sessions with students who I started seeing at the beginning of the year. My journal writing and the experience I've gained during the year contribute to my feelings of self-confidence.
I write about myself mostly in relation to the students I counseled.
I'm really at different levels with the high school students I see. With some of the students we talk about feelings, personal problems, relationships, etc. but with other students I haven't really gotten off a superficial level. I realize it’s a combination of how comfortable they feel with me and how comfortable I am with them. Lately I've noticed a big difference is the amount of energy I have and whether I want to push through to a deeper level. That also could be a reason I still enjoy testing elementary school students because it doesn't take the kind of emotional energy counseling does.
Towards the end of the school year I continued to gain confidence and reflected on how I insert myself into the counseling relationship.
This morning I saw Anthony second period. I always bring him a cup of coffee and he genuinely appreciates it. Anthony is such a needy kid. I realize my own counter transference with Anthony. I try to be his father at times during the sessions but I consciously pull back from this - advice isn't what Anthony needs. He seems to be gaining more insight into his relationship with his mother - how it's really destructive for him. She curses and yells at him and tells him he's worthless and will never amount to anything. Anthony sees he's the parent to his mother most of the time. He pulls back from looking at what's happening between himself and his mother or else gets misty eyed - sometimes he cries. I let Anthony take this wherever he wants. If he pulls back I let him. If he gets upset I try to let him know that I understand and appreciate how upsetting it is for him. During the next few weeks I'm going to try and get Anthony to consider some ways he can start to get in control of his relationship with his mother.
The Elementary School
The focus of my journal writing was different in the elementary school because I was involved with research into using children's creative writing in counseling. Much of my journal entries concerned this even though I kept a separate logbook in which I wrote more extensive notes about my research. The research gave me a focus beyond my normal duties but added to rather than subtracted from my other responsibilities.
As I work with my elementary students I realize how valuable writing can be for some children in counseling as a way of expressing themselves and the reflection the writing causes. Other children need to utilize other ways - play, drawing, silence, listening, watching - and writing may not be helpful for them.
As in the high school journal entries, there is confident writing about helping kids and parents. Below is part of a long journal passage about my counseling sessions with James a fourth grader and a session with his parents.
Last year James' father left home for a few months and this, obviously, had a terrible effect on James. Mom didn't tell James the truth for a long time; she kept referring to his father's absence as a business trip. But James knew it wasn't and even after his father came home James was afraid he was going to leave again which affected his sleep - he called his parents into his room constantly to kiss him good night… I talked to Mrs. Smith numerous times over the phone and she had also come into see me by herself but today was the first time she came in with her husband…. Mrs. Smith is quite a worrier and would often ask me in our telephone conversations should she worry about this or that. Mr. Smith said he really doesn't share his feelings easily - he said this after I said that James doesn't express his feelings easily…. I talked about how after James called his teacher a smart ass he started to open up more and seemed to be doing better in the classroom since then and they said that recently he doesn't need constant reassurance from them. We talked (I talked they listened) about honesty, consistency, and giving James more responsibility. I think James will continue to make progress as long as his parents stay together - but if they have another separation I don't think James will react much differently than he did before.
Where I am
When I reread my present school year journal I felt better about where I am. I don't have the focus that a dissertation process provided and have been worn down a bit (maybe more than a bit) over the years but I still am enthusiastic about my work. After rereading the entire year's entries what I found was that I ended the year in a real mixed mood for a number of different reasons. What was weighing on me most as the school year ended was my personal style.
There is part of my inner life that I keep at bay; or maybe not at bay but when it happens I don't delve, I don't examine. I don't write when I'm in the midst of a down period. I just ride it out. It's a personal style and one I've gotten good at. I don't deny but I don't investigate. So at school I don't go as far - as maybe I should to be more effective - into the darkness of others of teachers, parents, kids. I don't deny where they're at either and will empathize but I don't slow down and help them explore - Do I need to do that? Is that where a school psychologist in an elementary school should go? When I was in the high school I used to go there with adolescents more than I go into the dark places with kids. My style puts limits on what I do.
So my year ended with a confused personal reflection. But the year was much more of a mixed bag of ups and downs.
The Elementary School
I am at the same elementary school I was fourteen years ago but now I'm there full time. The school continues to be an excellent educational place. But I still have questions and reservations about the philosophy behind psychological services and the entire special educational system, in particular how it is driven by legal concerns more than educational ones.
There were many journal entries about my problems with the bureaucracy, the paper, the whole weighty special education system, and how psychological and special education services are driven by legal concerns more than educational ones. I started the year with a reminder of the state of special education.
Week before school starts and I got a letter of welcome back and a notice that we'll be having a presentation on, "How to Prepare a Legally Defensible IEP" by an attorney. Sucked the energy right out of me for the day.
Lawyer was not too bad but what a way to start off a year.
I got it that's all it's supposed to be a legally defensible IEP. That's all it can be. It would be pretty impossible to come up with an educational defensible IEP, for say a third grader in March that will be put into action the next school year. So the trick is to do it quick without much emotional angst… For kids it's the feeling of what happens and how long teachers can lift them into their zones of proximal development and inspire them to continue to strive on their own - no way to put that in the paperwork.
Many of my entries for the year express my concern for my own psychological growth as a person and as a school psychologist.
I wonder if I was better at just intuiting what was going on with others when I started out and wasn't burdened down by 20 years of experience and jaded by the experience.
I've lost my swing; lost my center. Maybe 20 years are enough. I came in with more insight than I'm going out with. My center has been papered over.
OK, I got my swing back. Went in and focused and things went well; played within my ability level. When I get into the flow of the day at school it's fine, it's fun, it's productive.
I forget at times what a good a fit this job is with my skills. I bounced around for awhile - graduate theology study in the seminary, teaching high school theology, masters in special ed., bartender, bar owner, bookstore owner, and then in my mid thirties masters in school psychology and work as a school psychologist. I understood my strengths and weaknesses and how they were a good match with a school psychologist's duties. I find the profession challenging both intellectually and personally. But now sometimes I use my skills to slide by and not grow… I can usually see what's coming and can act to deflect negative consequences - a skill I picked up as a kid not wanting to get in trouble in school. The problem is that I often pick the actions that will get me off the hook so I don't confront tough questions and don't grow.
Another strand of entries running throughout the year concerned my relationship with kids and their teachers.
OK it's the relationship with kids I think that's all they're interested in and at this point it's all that I'm interested in. It's the healing interaction - it's doing a simple enjoyable activity with them as we talk. And it's not being too intrusive. Cognitive behavioral approach is what I use with most kids' problems with the emphasis on the cognitive and not the behavioral… I try to hold teachers and kids in positive regard - emotions are contagious.
When I work with teachers I don't want to insert too much of myself but be sensitive to the landscape of their classrooms. To listen and observe and then try to realign slightly - most would not even notice - and then keep checking in.
Interested in the energy of interactions and how to focus and release my own energy. Heart softened, attention focused, and psychobabble to a minimum - catch on to the flow and stay away from negative energy.
Where I'm Going
My old journal writings reflected a confident school psychologist who was excited about reaching a comfortable level of mastery after five years. I would push through all difficulties with brute force. Overall there was a confidence that, "Yep I can do this job and it's fun."
There's a different feel to my present journal entries. The paperwork and the philosophy behind it weigh on me but my goal is to do it quickly and return to the people. Where I've grown over the years is in my self-reflection and in my reflection on how I interact with the school environment. Because of that deeper self reflection I sometimes have to consider personal shortcoming that affect my performance. My relationship with teachers, students, and parents has reached a subtler level. I am more comfortable not being intrusive. I do not use brute force but attach myself to the energy and skills of others and slowly redirect. I've started breaking down my global self to examine a smaller part - my school psychologist self - in hopes of completing that part of my personality.
The growth depicted in my writings is not a linear growth. I haven't gone through certain stages never to look back again. Rather the growth has been in a more complex examination of myself and the state of special education as I continually circle back to examine the same issues. I’m still asking many of the same questions I grappled with fourteen years ago and one of the tools I still employ in my self-exploration is reflective writing.
Was I a better school psychologist at either of these two points along the continuum of my career? I don't think so. There is a mystery to relationships especially helping relationships and different students, parents, teachers respond better to different school psychologists and different approaches - male, female, older, younger, wiser, funnier, funkier, behavioral, cognitive, humanistic, etc. So those who were drawn to me, and who hopefully I helped, were drawn to different me's with different skills along the way. The one constant factor has been an honest self examination, sometimes forced on me by my writing, and this has kept me aware of my own limitations and helped me stay open to the needs of others.
As I approach the end of my career as a school psychologist, I’m pulled by a desire to try other things rather than pushed by a desire to leave. There is a freshness that continues to characterize my daily practice, an understanding each day that I haven’t done exactly this before there are patterns of course but each child, teacher, and parent is ultimately unique.
Miller, J. L. (1990). Creating spaces and finding voices teachers
collaborating for empowerment.
T. (1988). A multiple case study of the effects of reflective writing of
elementary school children in individual counseling with a school psychologist.