Q&A: School Psychologists

Robert Coad

Q: How long have you been working as a school psychologist? 

A: I’ve been working as a school psychologist for 22 years. 21 of those years have been at Walnut High School.

Q: What does your job mean to you and why did you decide to pursue it? 

A: My job is really about supporting students kind of through their day. School keeps getting more complicated. I went to high school in the 1980s. Sometimes, I’ll hear parents say, ‘I was in high school once I understand how hard it is.’ And a lot of times, I’ll correct them and say that we really don’t understand how hard it is for you guys. Things are changing so rapidly. The amount of information and things that you guys get during your day across your phones and your devices and your computers, it just wasn’t the case many years ago. So the amount of things that you guys are exposed to, the things you have to process and understand and the competition to move forward into college is so much greater than it ever was before. So my job is really to support you and help you guys navigate that process to be successful, and hopefully along the way through high school, feel safe and secure. Feel that you belong, and that you feel successful when you get to the end. Personally, that’s a commitment of mine that I think that any student on campus should have access to an adult that they feel comfortable talking to, that will listen. They should have that available to them at any point they feel they need it.

Q: Can you describe what a day in your job is like?

A: My days are split, so part of my role is supporting students that are in special education and have learning disabilities and special needs. So, part of my time is dedicated to them, to support them as they go through their day because they learn a little differently than most students. We tailor an individual plan for them, to help them be successful. The other part of my day is providing support to the students on campus that, for whatever reason, may be struggling or feel like they could benefit from support, or just want to talk. So really, that other half of my day is dedicated to just counseling students.

Q: What do you think is the most important aspect of your job?

A: The most important thing I do is I’m giving students a safe place to talk and have someone listen to them if they need it. So I purposely, 20 years ago, picked my office and its location out in the B building on campus. When we’re actually physically on campus, I purposely did not want to be in the front office. I wanted to be out on campus, and I have a little room that students come and go. If they want to keep it private, people don’t really know what they’re doing or where they’re going. They can come and go with some privacy. I’m there to support students that are struggling with academics and are struggling personally. Sometimes they’re struggling with things that they might get in trouble with if it was something that showed up in the front office. So they know they can come to my office and talk about those things without being afraid of getting in trouble or having their personal feelings exposed. That is the most important part of what I do: providing that space for students. If it’s something that helps them, they’re welcome to come and work with me and talk. If it’s something they’re not comfortable with, then, I hope they get their support in other places as well. We never make a student come and force them to talk. It’s always just there as a resource for them.

Q: How do you think you are impacting students’ lives? 

A: Hopefully, no matter how big or how small they feel that their issue is, they know that we’re available to talk to them. By doing that, I hope we’re impacting them in a positive way [so] that they can then be the best version of themselves on campus. You guys spend so many days and hours on campus, or now so many days and hours virtually. We want them to feel that they have the support to be the best they can be or be what they want to be, during their four years in high school. High school can be really challenging sometimes. My greatest fear is that students just accept that it’s four years of suffering that they just try to get through, hope it ends and they can get away from Walnut. That’s my worst case scenario. No matter how strong you are as a studentit doesn’t matter what kind of classes you take, it doesn’t matter what program you’re inwe want you to find a place on campus where you feel accepted, you feel comfortable and you feel that the campus belongs to you. That’s a bias of mine. I know not every school and not every staff member may agree with that, but I believe the campus belongs to you guys. It’s not for me. [It’s] for you guys to come and be our guest for four years. I’ve had my high school experience, it was difficult, I survived it and I want your experience to be better. My support is something that is only there for you.

Q: What fond memories would you like to share?

A: I’m the luckiest person, in terms of my job, coming to campus and getting to work with our students is the best. It’s not a job, it’s something that I really value spending my time doing and I happen to get paid for it. But it’s really beyond the job. Some of the best memories are graduations. When we see someone that struggled very intensely over the course of the four years and to see them achieve that at the end is sometimes the best. A lot of times, life can be very hard and can be cruel. Students have to go through very, very difficult things that they don’t always share with other people. So I’m very blessed that sometimes they trust me with that and let me walk with them through those difficult times. And when we get to graduation, it’s a great moment. My other fun memory is [that] we’ve actually had 12 of the students that I’ve worked with in different ways, whether they were pure counselors, or students on campus, become school psychologists just like me. And so it makes me feel very good that they feel what I do is valuable. And in some way then they wanted to pursue that and make that their life’s work as well. In fact, both of the other psychologists that work with me, on campus, were Mustangs. Both of them went and became school psychologists and we were just lucky enough to eventually hire them both back. They were my students, and now they’re my colleagues.

Q: What advice would you like to give to all students here at Walnut High? 

A: I think the advice I would give is to make sure that you understand if you need support, or feel that you need support, that it’s okay to reach out and ask for that. And to understand that we don’t measure our students’ problems as big ones or little ones. We don’t ever look at students as being overly dramatic or complaining for no reason we don’t rate things in that way. If a student needs support and asks for support, we’ll do our best to provide that to them. There is no virtue in suffering through a problem by yourself. Sometimes people think that means strength. But I believe actually the opposite. It takes more strength to reach out and to connect with someone and to let them walk with you through that while you guys learn how to handle these challenges. So the advice would be to make sure that you reach out, connect and resist the feeling that you should be able to do it all by yourself.

 

Tara Lizarraga

Q: How long have you been working as a school psychologist? 

A: This year is my tenth year working as a school psychologist.

Q: What does your job mean to you and why did you decide to pursue it? 

A: I truly feel I have the most rewarding job there is. I get to work with amazing students who inspire me every day. I am a Walnut High School alumni, class of 2004. This is where I first met Mr. Coad while I was in the Peer Counseling class my senior year of high school. He absolutely inspired me to become a school psychologist and the cherry on top was coming back to Walnut High School to work alongside him.

Q: Can you describe what a day in your job is like?

A: Each day in the life of a school psychologist is so different. On any given day we could be assessing student’s learning abilities, counseling students for a variety of social emotional needs. We assist with crisis prevention, intervention [and] working closely with Peer Counseling and providing support for our students to feel successful at school.

Q: What do you think is the most important aspect of your job?

A: I feel putting students first in all we do is the most important aspect of being a school psychologist. Each morning I go into my day thinking about all my students, ways I can put them first and show how important each student is to us.

Q: How do you think you are impacting students’ lives? 

A: The students I am honored to work with everyday impact my life in more ways than they know. The impact I hope I am able to make with my students is allowing them to see themselves the way the significant adults in their life see them. If a student that I have been working with over their high school years can leave WHS knowing their worth, strengths and abilities. I feel like I made an impact in their life.

Q: What fond memories would you like to share?

A: A funny memory I will never forget is my first couple weeks as a school psychologist at Walnut High School, nine years ago. I was fresh out of graduate school and nervous to be back at Walnut as part of the faculty instead of a student. I still called every teacher by Mr./Ms. even though they kept reminding me to call them by their first name now that I am their colleague. One day during the first couple weeks of school the tardy bell rang, one of the GLC’s yelled over to me from across the quad, Get to class! and I immediately panicked. Then he laughed as he saw my face and remembered I was the new school psychologist, not a student. [Another] memory that stands out is about one of our amazing peer counselors. After working with this particular student [for] over a year, I knew she would be an incredible asset to our peer counseling class and I encouraged her to try out and put in an application. She said she didn’t think she would make it but I still urged her to turn in her application. The day before the applications were due, I called her in my office to see if she had turned hers in and she said she didn’t. She ended up filling out the Peer Counseling application that night, went through three rounds of intense interviews and earned a spot in the class. At the end of her second year as a peer counselor, she came into my office and shared how she didn’t think she could make the class. If it wasn’t for me believing in her and encouraging her to try out, she would have never have got an opportunity to be in the class for two years. I will always remember her and the impact she had on so many fellow peers over the years.

Q: What advice would you like to give to all students here at Walnut High? 

A: My advice for all the Mustangs is to always choose kindness. We all need to be kinder to ourselves. Some of our students are so hard on themselves. I encourage our students to be kind to your fellow peers. If you see someone who is experiencing a challenging season in their life, come alongside them and show them kindness. In a world that sometimes doesn’t feel too harmonious, if we can choose kindness every day, it will cause a ripple effect to those around us. A simple smile or wave to someone who looks like they are having a difficult day can do more for that person than you know.

 

Jena Muhr

Q:  How long have you been working as a school psychologist?

A: This is my sixth year as a school psychologist and my fourth year at Walnut High School.

Q: What does your job mean to you and why did you decide to pursue it?

A: I love my job, that I get to work with people and do a variety of things every day. I decided on school psychology because I enjoy working with young people and the mental health field. It is a really good fit for me.

Q: Can you describe what a day in your job is like?

A: Every day is different, which is something that I really enjoy. I am able to work with a variety of students and school staff. My ultimate goal is to do what is best for students so that they can succeed and learn to the best of their abilities.

Q: What do you think is the most important aspect of your job?

A: To me, the most important aspect of my job is to support Walnut High School and its students to the best of my abilities.

Q: How do you think you are impacting students’ lives?

A: I always hope that I have a positive impact on my student’s lives and that I can help them to be able to go out into the world after graduation and succeed in the world.

Q: What fond memories would you like to share?

A: I’ve been very fortunate to meet a lot of great students and to work with a lot of great professionals. I am very happy to be a Mustang.

Q: What advice would you like to give to all students here at Walnut High?

A: My advice to students would be to always try to be your personal best whatever that may be on that particular day.

Compiled by Remy Wong, Staff writer
Photo courtesy of Robert Coad, Tara Lizarraga and Jena Muhr