Wanda Murphy has worked for more than two decades as the school counsellor at Rockheights Middle School in Victoria, Canada. She announced her retirement this year and, when I heard, I proposed the idea of an interview. She accepted and we sat down to discuss her life and work, both of which have inspired me and contain gems of wisdom for future generations of school counsellors.
From Island to Island
Although Wanda spent her long career on Vancouver Island, she is a different kind of islander at heart. Wanda grew up in the middle of twelve children on a family farm in Prince Edward Island. Like many Maritimers, her Irish heritage is immediately evident not only in her red hair but also in her good humour and warm character. To her colleagues, Wanda is like an ocean stone: calm and steady even in a storm. Her rock-solid presence in Rockheights was even memorialized by her colleagues, who gave her a bench that reads “always steady” as a retirement gift.
When I asked Wanda about her family, she described her father in similar terms: “He lived to ninety-three and he was my rock. He was a calm person and he loved children. We would have a big Christmas dinner with our family and cousins and there’d be kids running in circles, screaming and laughing, and right in the middle of it my dad would lay down on a couch and have a nap like it was a meditation tape.”
Both Wanda’s parents were hard workers. Her father was a farmer while her mother was a teacher. Having a career was not common for women then, which limited opportunity for both Wanda and her mother. Wanda said, “[My mother] worked really hard to have a career at that time, which was outstanding and very unusual. I think in her first year teaching she made something like $52… When I grew up as a girl in that family and in that community, I was always asked, ‘Do you want to be a teacher or a nurse?’ Those were the two options, and I resisted both.” Wanda wanted something different. “I wanted to be a helper, to help out kids and at that time I didn’t think teaching was the helper I wanted to be.”
However, it was a long and winding road before Wanda would work as a helper. I asked her what kind of jobs she had before working in education, and she replied, “I did everything: pumped gas, waitressing, housekeeper, nanny, office work, assaying rocks for minerals, ICBC (Insurance Corporation of British Columbia), post office, the library for an oil company… I had so many jobs, but here’s the interesting part: I never stayed longer than one year until I got this job.” Nothing held Wanda’s interest long enough to stay and, for her, there was one important criterion for a job: “I cannot be bored.”
While working one year here and one year there, Wanda met her husband, Jim. Over the years, they have moved all over Canada. While in Vancouver during her twenties, Wanda completed a B.A. in Psychology. Eventually, they moved to Calgary where Jim did a fine art degree and Wanda completed a teaching degree. When Jim was accepted into architecture school, they moved to Halifax and Wanda took up teaching. It was during this time that they had their two beloved daughters: Emily and Claire. Wanda was in her forties and the girls were teenagers when they arrived on Vancouver Island. She had been accepted into the Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology program at the University of Victoria (UVic).
The program at UVic was fruitful for Wanda, especially her thesis study. However, she had two disappointing practicum experiences. “I taught a class on family planning, did some paperwork, and worked in the resource room,” she said of her first practicum. No counselling at all. During the second practicum, she was allowed to counsel young adults, but had a difficult relationship with her supervisor. Not long thereafter, Wanda graduated and began to work as a school counsellor.
“By Just Being with Somebody You’re Making a Difference”
Early in her career, the school administration asked Wanda to take on practicum students. She enthusiastically accepted, wanting to provide them with a different kind of experience from her own. Wanda mentored me on my counselling practicum at Rockheights during the 2019-2020 school year, and, even then, I knew that she had mentored many other students before. So, the first question I asked her was, “How many practicum students have you mentored?”
Wanda replied, “I think it’s about… 30.” In fact, during the 2020-2021 school year (a year when COVID-19 was a constant stressor) she mentored five practicum students. Her students have gone on into careers in child and youth care, counselling, school psychology, social work, and several have even invited her to their weddings!
During my practicum experience, Wanda led by example, empowered me to do individual and group counselling, and always made time for supervision. Each time I left her office, I felt more confident and well-prepared for the challenges of counselling adolescents. What I remember most fondly were our friendly, and often hilarious, conversations. These talks and Wanda’s role modeling helped me to find my own approach as a new school counsellor.
Asia Wilcox, who completed a social work practicum under Wanda’s supervision in 2019, said, “Wanda’s presence really stays with me—the talks in the hallway, the encouragement to go out and try new things, all the chats and check-ins about how I was doing, and her care for the students. She really loves them.”
Jenna Bursey recently completed a child and youth care practicum at Rockheights under Wanda’s supervision. Before her practicum, she did not know what direction she wanted to take her career; now, she wants to become a school counsellor. She said, “I was immediately impressed by the fact that she clearly knew, and had a strong relationship, with each student at the school. She also took the time to build a relationship with me and set me up for success... Because I was there for the last months of her career, I witnessed the love each staff and student had for her, too.”
Evidently, Wanda has made a difference in the lives of her practicum students as well as the teaching staff at Rockheights. Annie Armstrong, a teacher at Rockheights, created a film which she showed at Wanda’s retirement celebration. It featured numerous students and staff from over the years who all said, in their own way, “thank you.”
Yet Wanda’s experiences as a girl with her own teachers was different. She said, “There was favouritism in the classroom… I had that feeling of not being noticed and appreciated.” Her experiences motivated her to research the effects of teachers’ preferences for certain students for her graduate thesis study. She described feeling amazed by how fast the adult participants signed up. Their stories, too, were powerful.
She remarked, “The long-lasting memories and effects for those people were shocking. Adults told me how they felt walking up the hall to enter a classroom where they felt there was a teacher who didn’t like them… there was no physical abuse, but their memories were so clear about what those teachers said.” Recent research corroborates many of Wanda’s findings, showing that low teacher preference predicts declining grades, loneliness, and peer rejection (Murphy, 1999; Mercer & DeRosier, 2008). Regarding Wanda’s personally-driven research, Asia Wilcox stated, “It is interesting to see how this formed the foundation for her to really care about all students.”
Over Wanda’s career, she developed her own approach to counselling. I asked her, “So, what is the ‘Wanda Theory’ of counselling?”
“It’s very close to Rogerian,” she answered, “by just being with somebody you’re making a difference. If you sit with them and you accept every part of them and you do not judge them and you value them, then you’re helping (Rogers, 1959). Once in a while you might give them a gem and say something helpful, but I think non-judgment is the most important thing.” The gems Wanda offers her clients are practical cognitive-behavioural techniques and psychoeducation. She said, “If I had something I thought I could teach a kid about their anxiety, then that would be a part of two or three sessions, but then I would go back listening and accepting [the therapeutic relationship].” Finally, Wanda emphasized the importance of patience. “Don’t look at your watch! Give kids time—non-interrupted, focused time. Really listen and pay attention to them.”
Listening to Wanda, I was reminded of someone else. I said, “It sounds similar to the experience you had with your dad—being with somebody who is calm and accepting, who can have a meditative sleep in a storm of children!”
“Yes that’s true,” she replied.
The attitudes of acceptance, non-judgment, and patience that Wanda embodies in her counselling practice are also visible in her actions as a catalyst and educator. She worked to advance anti-homophobia initiatives over a period of 15 years through the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) both at Rockheights and in the Greater Victoria School District. Wanda invited Jenna Bursey to co-facilitate the Rainbow Ravens LGBTQ+ group during her practicum as well. Jenna said, “Wanda facilitated the group with love, enthusiasm, and an open mind, creating a safe space for so many students.” Another initiative Wanda led was the Roots of Empathy Program, which she said has had a powerful impact on the students. This program brings babies into the classroom with parents, using the power of the secure attachment between parent and child as a model of empathy. Wanda has also been a key member of the district’s Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT), providing on-site debriefing and counselling. For more than a decade, she has provided a safe relationship for children and adults to acknowledge the pain of grief and connect with others who need time and space to accept the loss (Worden, 1996).
Creating positive change and growth through relationships is the common thread across Wanda’s professional life. From her work as a counsellor with individuals and groups, to her mentorship of practicum students, to her initiatives in classrooms and across the district, Wanda has distilled numerous practical applications of the power of the relationship. These practices are the gems of wisdom that have inspired my work and may energize the practice of other new school counsellors.
Keep It (Self-Care) Simple
Wanda told me, “We have to be healthy because, if we’re not, we could actually be detrimental to kids.” Asia Wilcox said of Wanda, “[She] leads a balanced life: she models boundaries, a sense of humour, [and] the ability to work in practical, everyday, and grounded ways.” During my practicum, I was also impressed by Wanda’s ability to maintain a positive relationship with herself and family in such an emotionally intense career. She and Jim regularly went to plays together, they visited their daughters and new grandchild often, and she swore by an early bedtime.
Wanda’s attitudes about her work are also examples of self-care. Viktor Frankl once wrote, “Facts are not fate. What matters is the stand we take toward them” (1969, p. 105). One of the difficult facts that school counsellors face is the experience of not knowing. Wanda reminded me, “Very few kids will come back to say, ‘thank you,’ so you have to be confident and feel good about yourself without [acknowledgement]. You have to trust that you were helpful and that you did everything within your capacity to do the right thing.” Another common difficulty that school counsellors face is working with challenging students. Wanda said that she has lived by the mantra: “Be amused [by the student], even if other staff are pulling their hair out. Be curious. Find them interesting.”
More Than Just Words
Building a therapeutic relationship can be difficult with quiet and reticent clients. But clients do not always have to share their own words. Wanda said, “I remember one girl who communicated with me by having me listen to songs... [and sometimes] she’d show me quotes that meant something to her.” The spaces between words can be just as important. “With another girl, we would colour and chat but there was a lot of quiet time when we were both colouring and that was how we bonded.” When students started to give poetry to Wanda, she learned that there is great power in sharing words with others. “I encouraged them to read it to an assembly. It was a powerful experience for the kids—the subject matter was difficult but the [audience] listened without a peep… they were listening because they could relate.” This empowering experience not only served as a way to strengthen the therapeutic relationship, but also the client’s relationships with others in the school.
Wanda told me long before my first day of practicum, “It is critically important to have relationships with the teachers and families.” She also emphasized the importance of working together with youth outreach workers, saying “They have been a godsend for the most vulnerable kids at my school.”
Working together is also an important part of ongoing assessment as a school counsellor. Wanda said, “You really want to know what you can find out, because you’re working with the student in your office, but you don’t see the kid the rest of the week. You have to consult the teachers and families. ‘How are they doing?’ ‘Have they been able to develop friendships?’ ‘Are you still seeing signs of anxiety?’ These are the questions you’re asking.”
Relationships between adults can also serve as a catalyst in school counselling. Wanda has a useful phrase for this purpose: she says, “Your teacher tells me you’re having a hard time with (whatever the thing is). You’re not specifying “your teacher said you’re not doing your work”; you just use vague words so the kid can answer whatever way they want.” This phrase opens up a potentially difficult topic, it directs attention to the problem, and it helps to overcome avoidance. The “hard time” phrase may also enhance relationships between the student and the adults in their life—it signals that the teacher sees and notices them; it also highlights the net of caring adults who surround the student.
Tea With Mrs. Murphy
“Tea means we are relaxing, we have time, and we are not in a rush. I can remember kids from decades ago that I had tea with… I remember two boys, one of the boys was Indigenous and the other one was not, and every Friday afternoon we would have tea. We all looked forward to it. They were friends and they were goofy and when I would ask, ‘What did you do on the weekend?’ they would both start talking at once. But I wanted to help them develop conversation skills. So, I would say, “Davie, what did you do on the weekend?” and I would have Joe listen (with his tea).” Tea is a simple and effective non-directive counselling intervention. It is a symbol of bonding, or, as Wanda put it, “You don’t share tea with somebody you don’t care for.” In fact, Wanda has shared so many cups of tea with students over the years that it featured prominently in the film shown at her retirement. (For the curious palate: Wanda recommends peppermint.)
The Legacy of a School Counsellor
Wanda’s approach to counselling is distilled from her life experiences and twenty years working with students at Rockheights. Many of these elements of her approach coincide with evidence-based principles of therapeutic change (see Figure 2). Yet, what makes school counselling so impactful is something much greater than these elements alone. At the end of the interview, I asked Wanda, “What is it that makes school counselling so powerful?”
She replied, “The school is the central place that every kid walks through, and you have access to every kid when you’re there. You get to see the kids who need extra help and, if you don’t notice a kid, there are lots of adults who will, and they will bring that kid to you.” She added that many parents do not know how to find counselling services for their children, or they may not have the financial and transportation means to access these services. But, with school counselling, “The parents know where to find you. It is so easy: you phone the school, ask to speak with the counsellor, and done. [That is why] it just makes so much sense to have the mental health services for kids in schools. The mental health services for kids should be in schools.”
So, what kept Wanda at Rockheights for twenty years? Her parting words offer a hint of an answer, as well as encouragement and inspiration for the next generation of school counsellors. “If I go meet a kid and they are not there, what do I do? I go find another! There is lots of kids and there is lots to do. You will never get bored! You will never say, ‘There is no kid here who needs something from me.’ They need you. That is why I think it is a great career—if your passion is to work with kids, then this is the place to be.”
Thank you to Wanda Murphy for your guidance, humour, and encouragement.
Thank you to Chelsea King as always for your amazing editing and style skills.
Thank you to Asia Wilcox, Jenna Bursey, and Annie Armstrong for your contributions.
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