Denise Mahoney says the year working as an assistant in the counseling office was perfect preparation for her new position; also wants to focus on the school mission and reducing stress levels for students.
Student-teacher ratios in the classroom garner a lot of attention when assessing educational opportunity and the potential for success for students. For many schools, especially public schools, the ratios usually are not good. It's a similar story in counseling departments in the state and nation. In fact, in Michigan, the average ratio of counselors to students is 732 students for every one counselor — one of the highest in the nation, according to data from the American School Counselor Association, which recommends a ratio of 250:1. Nationally, the average ratio is 491:1.
Fortunately, for NDP students, that ratio is lower — much lower.
"Certainly we feel fortunate that we have a very supportive administration and an ideal student-to-counselor ratio that has allowed us to deliver student services with greater efficiency," said Vlado Salic, who heads a group of five counselors in Notre Dame Prep. "More importantly, it has allowed us to develop greater empathy with what our students are experiencing and we're able to focus more on each individual student and their needs."
Denise Mahoney is now part of that group that is focusing more on Notre Dame students, which for her and each of her fellow counselors now means students in all four grades of the high school.
"New this year, the counselors have responsibility for a number of students in all grades, 9 through 12," said Mahoney, who last year worked as the counseling office's administrative assistant. "The kids we are assigned to are now separated by alphabet versus by grade, which is how the students had been assigned for many years. I am responsible for 9th-12th grade students with last names beginning with S-Z. I believe that this will allow us develop longer and better relationships with students over the entire four years they are with us at Notre Dame."
Mahoney's move into a counselor position became available when Stacy Golliff left NDPMA for position at another organization, according to Salic. "Denise has always had the credentials and this position is a much a better fit for her skill-set," said Salic, who also noted that Debbie Privert, the mother of a Notre Dame 7th grader, has taken over the department's office assistant position.
For Mahoney, even though she's got extensive experience as a counselor, the year spent as an assistant in the department was perfect preparation for her new position.
"Working as the administrative assistant to the counseling office last year was exactly what I wanted," she said. "I was able to be around the students and keep my foot in the counseling world. However, by mid-year, I really began to miss working directly with the students. I missed being able to help them and interact with them on a more personal level."
Listen and do not judge
She said she loves the students and is very happy she's now able to more fully support and guide them.
"It is just what I feel I'm called to do," said Mahoney, who has had previous stints as a counselor or teacher at Shrine Middle School, the Academy of the Sacred Heart, Edison/Oakland Public Schools Academy (Ferndale) and Pontiac Public Schools. "I also think it helps that I already have a relationship with some of the students as well as a number of parents. They're already comfortable with me as a friendly face and I know the ins and outs of the counseling office."
Mahoney also said there definitely is one, single most important thing she and the other counselors must do whether they're in or out of the counseling office.
"Listening to students is by far the most critical thing we must do as counselors," she said. "Simply put, we should stop talking ourselves and take the time to listen and hear what the students are saying. Some of them could be undergoing stressful times, whether it be with personal issues or school-related issues. They want to be heard and our job is to allow them to have that opportunity."
She also says it's important that counselors listen without judgement.
"High school students can see through us when we're trying to add our own agendas to the conversation," she said. "They will shut down and shut us out. It's not the way to be of any help or guidance to them. They need to know that we are open to hear their stories and that we will not judge them for their thoughts, feelings or decisions."
"I also think we need to be able to communicate openly and honestly toward them," said Mahoney, who has a teaching degree and a master's degree in counseling from Oakland University. "Once a student opens about his or her feelings or experiences, we as counselors need to be able to express our own thoughts and feelings as well to the student. That open dialogue is what builds trust, growth and understanding."
Currently a resident of Troy, where she lives with her three boys, Seamus (15), Quinn (13) and Aidan (12), and a dog named Cooper, Mahoney grew up in Rochester and attended Rochester Adams High School. During any free time she can wrangle out of a day or week, she said she loves to read and write and is a devoted Detroit Lions fan.
"I also love to travel and try to do it as often as possible," she said. "Last year, I finally fulfilled a bucket-list trip to London and Paris and it was a dream come true."
Now fully entrenched at Notre Dame in what she calls her dream job, Mahoney also is quick to point out how totally reliant she is on the school's mission to be able to do that dream job most effectively.
"I think the school mission is the perfect framework for working with children of all ages," she said. "It encompasses the idea of the whole person. It doesn’t put the entire focus on simply the academic talents of a student, but also looks at who they are as a citizen, and most importantly, as a Christian. It helps me do a better job of helping to mold these young people to be their best and to help guide them in how they share their God-given talents and abilities in the future to make the world a better place."
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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The school's upper division enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower divisions enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three divisions are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org