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Jones honored as Middle School Counselor of the Year

Jackson Newspapers
Jackson Newspapers

A counselor is, by definition, one who advises, who is trained to give guidance.

When that counselor is Ripley Middle School’s Susan Jones, it is far more than that. It is a calling. That passion and dedication to her students saw her honored as the 2019-2020 West Virginia School Counselor Association Middle School Counselor of the Year.

Jones, who began her career as a first-grade teacher at Kenna Elementary, saw the need for counselors in the early grades.

“I had 29 students with no support personnel,” she recalled. “When one student unexpectedly lost her father, I had no one to consult, no lifelines to help her and her classmates.”

That crisis led Jones to take counseling classes at night, eventually resulting in a master’s degree in school counseling and psychology from Marshall University.

Jones said she “wanted to be a better teacher, better prepared to help other students who might one day face trauma.”

During a hiatus that allowed her to stay home with her children, Jones said she got a life-changing telephone call.

“The county was going to add two elementary school counseling positions and I was offered one of those,” she said. “For many years Keitha Graham and I had all the elementary schools in the county.”

During those years, Jones and Graham established guidance and counseling curriculum, abuse and neglect protocol, and other details of counseling on the elementary level. Jones eventually was able to narrow her service to Henry J. Kiser Elementary and Ravenswood Grade where she served for 15 years.

Her move to Ripley Middle School came after much prayer.

“Butch Varney, a Ripley Middle administrator, asked me to consider coming on as counselor when Bernita Epling retired, but I was planning to stay at my two elementary schools forever,” she said with a smile. “He called again the next year and I said I’d pray about it, and to my surprise, I felt led to go.”

Before finally making the move, Jones said she talked to then principal Jim Mahan about the position’s possibilities. She was assured that other than working with student and master scheduling, she would be free to do what she felt called to do, face-to-face counseling.

“I am extremely grateful that each principal at Ripley Middle has allowed that priority to remain,” she said. “We have a very strong advocate for school counseling at the helm now in our principal Tim Brown. In fact, he’s the one who nominated me for the school counselor award.”

Brown said that the school counselor is greatly involved in the transition from elementary to middle school.

“Susan Jones reaches out to our kids in such a caring way, they immediately navigate to her,” he said. “She builds a level of trust that is essential for this age. She works well with our other counselor, Jay Huffman, making them a very strong team and our kids benefit tremendously.”

In her role as counselor, Jones works with a three-tier program.

“Tier One’s character education program focuses on values like respect, responsibility, and caring which help create a more positive school climate,” she said. “We have Character Color Day competitions and special lessons and activities. Kindness, success in life, and friendships are just as important as academics.”

Natural Helpers is a program that is integral to Tier II. These student helpers are selected by their classmates as ones they think will be able to help others with issues that arise.

“Peers can help more effectively sometimes,” Jones said. “They recognize a need and often figure out the best solution or way to help. Natural Helpers are also reporters of more serious issues like bullying, self-harm, suicide threats, or abuse.”

With the pandemic, Natural Helpers had to be creative. Last spring, Jones said the group completed a video showing ways to help others during quarantine. More recently, they created a photo collage of encouragement for their fellow students and teachers. Both the video and the collage were shared on Canvas which is accessible to students online.

Tier Three is where Jones shines. She says those one-on-one services are her favorite.

“One worry at a time, one failed class at a time, one heartbreak at a time, one intervention at a time,” Jones said. “My greatest reward is hearing from a parent or a student letting me know that I made a difference. That reminds me of the ‘starfish on the beach analogy.’ If I’ve helped to return one of them to the safety of the sea, then I’ve fulfilled my mission.”

Moving from elementary to middle schools is often a stressful, scary experience for children.

Principal Brown and counselor Jones work together and with the staff to try to ease the fear. The two visit each fifth-grade classroom to address any misconceptions and for Jones to tell the students that they can come to her for anything. Fifth graders are then bussed to the middle school for a special day, followed by an open house before school starts in the fall.

“The final step is that I greet each student at the door every morning, I visit classrooms and the lunchroom where I can have good conversations,” Jones said.

Having students being at home far more than in school this year has been a challenge for everyone.

“I’ve seen the struggle many of the students are having with distance learning, I see the weariness of parents and grandparents,” Jones said. “My deepest concern is for children who are not safe at home. I try to stay in touch with parents and students by phone, Google meets or Remind but I can’t wait until these hallways are noisy again.”

This caring, concern and going the proverbial extra mile made it easy for Leslie Haynes, reading specialist at Ripley Elementary, write a letter of support for Jones’s award nomination.

In her letter, Haynes said her two children faced some issues while in middle school. She credits Jones with providing the social, emotional, and mental health support they both needed.

Haynes wrote, “When I send a student whom I know is suffering to Ripley Middle, I know I can contact Mrs. Jones and she will give her entire being to protect and assist that student.”

Principal Brown sums up his feeling for his counselor by saying, “Susan Jones is the best face of Ripley Middle School.”

For Jones, it comes down to one wish for each child she encounters.

“I may not always be able to help you in that moment,” she said. “But I pray you leave knowing I care and maybe that’s enough for now. If I can plant that seed, that someone truly cares for you, then there is hope.”