Providing kids good counsel

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Barbara Ruben
Joseph Monte (left), shown with student Noah Tondani, has served as a guidance counselor for 50 years at Einstein High School in Kensington, Md. Older counselors have remained popular at a number of area schools, showing that even a large age gap doesn’t keep kids and their elders from relating well and understanding each other.
Photo by: Frank Klein

When Joseph Monte began his counseling career at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Md., John F. Kennedy was president, Latin was a requirement for graduation, and nearly every student lived in a household seemingly straight out of “Leave it to Beaver.”

Flash forward 50 years, and Einstein’s students now hail from 45 countries, computerized records have long since replaced the carbon copy files on each pupil in Monte’s office, and even the title of “guidance counselor” has shifted to “school counselor” to be more inclusive of the array of issues they encounter — from suicide to cyber bullying.

But some things never change. “Kids are kids are kids,” said Monte. “They are always searching for what gets them going, what they are going to do next with their lives. Counselors are the ones who have the privilege of working with them at this time of their lives.”

Accolades from a noted author

Monte, 80, is one of several school counselors who spoke to the Beacon about their long careers. The father of five and grandfather of nine began at Einstein as a teacher when the school opened in 1962 and was appointed its first counselor soon after.

Monte’s influence as a teacher still resonates. Novelist Pat Conroy, author of such books as The Water is Wide and The Great Santini, took an English class from Monte when he taught at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. before moving on to Einstein.

Conroy devotes several pages of his memoir, My Losing Season, to Monte, crediting his teacher with inspiring his literary career.

“When the scholarly, charismatic Joseph Monte walked into 2A that first day, he radiated an owl-like authority and passion for literature I’d never come across in a classroom….He thunderstruck me with the mesmerizing power of his teaching,” Conroy wrote.

Numerous former students come back to Einstein to visit Monte. A surgeon walked into his office and thanked him for steering her onto her career path.

“All I probably did was tap the thing that was already there, say the right thing, and convince her that this was her vocation. I listened and spotted something,” he said. “I was just thrilled she wasn’t too busy to come back and say thanks.”

With hundreds of students to advise each year, some counselors use a fill-in-the-blank form letter method of writing college recommendations. But not Monte.

He sits down with each student as they’re working on their college applications. He talks to them about their accomplishments and aspirations, shaping these into an individualized recommendation.

“One thing I’m proud of, I look on each kid as a unique human being. You might get all the technology in the world, but there’s no shortcuts to do the job right. You can’t reduce a person strictly to a GPA and a test score.”

He recalled one student who wanted to be a vet and loved horses. “Boy, did she have her head screwed on straight. I remember writing her letter so clearly,” he said as he rummaged through a manila file to find it.

“She has the temperament, tenacity, kindness and willingness to become a healing horse whisperer,” Monte wrote.

He also keeps a folder full of letters from college admissions departments that tell him it was his personal recommendation that helped the student gain admittance to the school.    

“I almost fall in love with these boys and girls because they just seem so wonderful,” he said.

Monte is now busy with helping Einstein High School celebrate its 50th anniversary. He is leading an effort to raise $1 million from alumni to augment its education programs. He also recently worked to pull together a room to honor the school’s sports stars from over the years. Its name? The Joseph A. Monte Athletic Hall of Fame Lounge.

All this means Monte has put thoughts of retirement on the back burner.

“I’m the oldest teacher [at Einstein], but I think I have the most vitality by a gift of God or genes or something. I’m often the first one here and the last one to leave.

“I haven’t set a date [for retirement]. The day I wake up and my health is gone, I’m turning in my resignation.”

Counseling kids with issues

Julie Edstrom was born the same year Monte began his counseling career, but at age 50, she still has more than 25 years of teaching and counseling under her belt. She began her career working as a health teacher in schools in Fairfax County, Va.

“I started to realize that I was so tuned into the kids who were suffering emotionally and socially and with family issues. I so wanted to be able to help them,” she said.

Edstrom went on to get a Ph.D. in counseling, and now works at Chantilly (Va.) High School. She also has a private counseling practice in which she specializes in grief and trauma.

At the school, she started several groups to help struggling students. One is a mentoring group for African American girls who weren’t achieving to their potential. She matches younger girls with seniors who can share insights and tips to help them succeed in school.

Another group works with students who have lost a loved one. “These kids are struggling daily to see the sun and heal and be able to continue their education. To help them do that is very rewarding,” she said.

While Edstrom feels students have remained the same over the years, she says she can’t say the same thing about their parents.

“What I have seen is a huge change in parents, where their anxiety level and their fears are such that they’re very involved in every detail of their children’s lives. Where ‘helicopter parents’ wanted to hover, now they call them ‘snow plow parents.’

“Snow plow parents want to smooth out everything and manipulate everything so their kids don’t have to feel any heartache or disappointment.”

This mode of parenting is particularly obstructive as students apply to colleges, Edstrom feels. While there is more competition for top schools than 15 or 20 years ago, Edstrom said that nearly every student can find a college that fits his or her needs.

“Now we have parents who decide in second grade that their kids need to go to UVA [the highly selective University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.]. It’s caused a lot of anxiety in kids, stress-related mental and physical illnesses,” she said.

Nonetheless, Edstrom greatly enjoys working with the students. “I learn from all of them. They’re fascinating,” she said. “It’s a wonderful profession, and I feel blessed to be around these kids every day.”

Bowing out at 90

While Monte may be the oldest counselor at Einstein, he’s not the oldest in the Washington area. That distinction likely goes to Annabelle Jaffe at Wheaton (Md.) High School. Jaffe turns 90 in May and plans to retire the following month.

She’s been a counselor for Montgomery County Public Schools for 50 years, and taught school in Washington, D.C. and northern Virginia for a decade before that.

“I love working with children and love seeing them grow up. I love helping plan their goals and prepare them for life beyond high school, and plan the course that’s most meaningful,” she said.

Jaffe said she became a counselor “quite by accident.” She was teaching at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., when the principal observed a few of her classes and felt that her affinity working with teens might make her a good counselor.

Jaffe said a counseling career hadn’t occurred to her, but she got a master’s degree in counseling psychology from George Washington University and hasn’t looked back.

“If you can get a job that you enjoy and spend most of your life in it, I don’t think there could be a greater blessing. I’ve been very fortunate,” she said.

Her devotion to her career helped Jaffe cope when her son Barry died of cancer last summer. “I was so blessed to be able to go back to the work I love,” she said.

Like Einstein’s student population, Wheaton’s has also changed greatly over the last 50 years. Many students are immigrants and will be the first in their families to go to college. Their parents work two or more jobs and haven’t had time to learn English, but still want the best for their children.

“They have the same aspirations, the same needs, the same requirements, the same goals as I think we did and our parents before us. They need to feel a sense of security and acceptance. They need to feel needed,” Jaffe said.

Guiding students through the maze of college testing and applications can be more challenging when the families don’t have money for application fees, let alone tuition, or the students work until midnight to help pay the rent, she said. Yet the rewards of seeing acceptance letters and scholarships come in for these students is all the more satisfying.

She recalled a girl whose family had been among the “boat people” fleeing Vietnam after Saigon fell to the Communists. The father repaired bicycles at a shop in Wheaton. His daughter managed to do well in enough AP courses to not only go to Harvard, but to enter as a sophomore.

“I feel so good when they’re so successful, because their success is my success. I don’t know if there is anything more gratifying in a career,” she said.

That has made it all the more difficult for her to retire, Jaffe said. She has students who beg her to stay a few more years until they graduate. So Jaffe does plan to continue in the schools as a substitute counselor or teacher after she formally retires in June.

“I now have some children whose parents also graduated from this school,” Jaffe noted. “If I stayed any longer, I’d be getting some of their grandchildren,” she laughed.

“I’ll give a younger person a chance for this wonderful career for which I’ve been blessed for so many years.”