Working the System: School counselors aligning to advantage

Susan Braube Stillman, Ed.D.


This study, based in the substantive area of school counselors, was conducted using classical grounded theory, an inductive, systemic method of data collection and analysis. The core variable, or the school counselors’ main concern and how they were resolving it, emerged as the need to develop and implement a comprehensive program within the complex ecology of a school. Working the system: Aligning to advantage was discovered to be the school counselors’ resolving process. The data revealed that as school counselors work the system, they engage in strategic actions of aligning to advantage themselves, others, and/or the overall system. Working the system comprises three stages: accessing, engaging, and sustaining, each associated with aligning behaviors, which have personal, interpersonal, and structural dimensions. The theory is useful to school counselors and other leaders engaged in systemic change in complex ecological systems.

Keywords: alignments, systems, leadership, school counselors


In the past few years, the profession of school counseling has undergone a substantial transformation, culminating in the development of a unified program model (American School Counselor Association (ASCA), 2005; Stone & Dahir, 2006). School counselors, no longer focused solely on the provision of mental health services to a select group of students in need, are now trained to develop and implement comprehensive programs that align with the educational mission of the school and meet the developmental needs of all students. They are expected to take a leadership role in school reform efforts, work collaboratively to remove systemic barriers to achievement (ASCA, 2005; Educational Trust, 2003), and address the personal/social, academic, and societal challenges that impede learning (Brown & Trusty, 2005). Transformative changes have occurred as school counselors move from a position model to a program focus (Gysbers & Henderson, 2005; Stone & Dahir, 2006) and adopt a systems perspective (ASCA, 2005). Consequently, many school counselors struggle to understand their role and function within the school system. The purpose of a grounded theory study is to discover a theory that explains the main concern faced by people in a substantive area, and how they are attempting to resolve this concern (Glaser, 1978, 1998). The purpose of this particular study was to understand the main concern of school counselors as they attempted to meet the aforementioned demands and obligations within the complex ecology of school systems amidst challenging times.


Grounded theorists seek to develop a theory that explains a pattern of behavior “which is relevant and problematic for those involved” (Glaser, 1978, p. 93). This emerging theory is one of related abstract concepts, not descriptions of people, incidents, or results (Glaser, 1978, 2002). Starting with as few preconceptions as “humanly possible” (Simmons, 2008, p. 13), researchers systematically follow the data from the first data source, and, through theoretical sampling, decide where to go next to retrieve additional data, and see “what is there and emerges” (Glaser, 1998, p. 4). As the interrelatedness of concepts takes shape, grounded theory researchers discover, and then expand, a core variable that explains the main problem that people in a substantive area are facing and how they are attempting to resolve this concern. Researchers must continually ask of the data: First, does it “fit?” (Glaser, 1978, p. 4). Do the concepts derive directly from the data and skillfully reveal patterns? Second, does it “work?” (Glaser, 1998, p. 4). Do the concepts adequately explain the main concern of the participants and their resolving process, and third, does it have “relevance” (Glaser, 1978, p. 5), thereby provoking “grab” (Glaser, 1998, p. 18) because it is accurate and meaningful? Finally, does it have “modifiability” (Glaser, 1978, p. 5; 1998, p. 19)? In addition, grounded theorists seek “conceptual generality, not unit generality” (Glaser, 1998, p. 125), and, so, while starting in one substantive area, they frequently discover a basic social process that is applicable to many different units and fields, creating a theory that has “transcending” (Glaser, 1978, p. 6) power, and is relevant to people in many different areas and walks of life. In a classical grounded theory study, the methodology consists of: 1) preparation to enter the field, 2) data collection, 3) theoretical sampling, 4) constant comparative analysis (Glaser, 1965), including substantive and theoretical coding, 5) memoing, 6) literature integration, 7) conceptual sorting of memos, 8) creation of a theoretical outline, and 9) writing up the theory (Glaser, 1978; Simmons, n.d.).

School counselors were the primary participants interviewed in this study. Six school counselors, from different geographic areas and with varying years of experience were interviewed, at length, in person, by phone, and online, before the core variable was discovered. Glaser (1978) asserted that once a core variable has emerged, the grounded theory researcher is free to use his or her theoretical sensitivity (Glaser, 1978) to sample other participants outside the substantive area, if the data suggest this would be useful. As patterns became evident, other participants working in different but similarly complex ecological systems, such as hospitals and non-profit boards, were also interviewed for this study. As “all is data” (Glaser, 1998, p. 8), in addition to interviews, I also used direct observations, records, literature, print and media sources as data for analysis. The rich data collected in this study from a variety of sources allowed for theoretical saturating of the codes, and the constant comparison of incidents, ideas, and properties of these concepts.

The core variable: Working the system

As the role of the school counselor has evolved in both theory and practice to be one of leadership, advocacy, collaboration, and systemic change (ASCA, 2005; Stone & Dahir, 2006; DeVoss & Andrews, 2006), the data revealed that the search for a way to accomplish these various and interconnected challenges was found to be the predominant concern for school counselors. Through theoretical sampling and constant comparative analysis, working the system was discovered to be the core variable, the “what,” or the mainconcern of school counselors, who need to execute a comprehensive school counseling program within the multifaceted surround of a school system. No matter what the struggles faced by these counselors, be they role ambiguity, job losses and insecurity, high case loads, crisis management, or the obligation to implement complex and innovative program components, the overarching problem emerged as one of needing to work the system in myriad and interlocking ways to win support from others, overcome obstacles, and produce desired outcomes. Working the system was, notably, an “in vivo” (Glaser, 2002, sect. 3) concept, meaning that this phrase was used by some participants in the study to explain what they felt they were doing. Once the core variable was discovered, then, through selective coding and additional theoretical sampling, the process of “how” counselors resolved this main concern of working the system became apparent. The data showed that counselors were able to work the system through aligning in order to advantage others, to influence outcomes, and, importantly, to protect or enhance their own status.

Aligning to advantage: Creating a mechanism for effectively working the system

The overall goal for individuals who work the system is to influence conditions to afford themselves and others the opportunity for advantaging or flourishing. Three dimensions of advantaging emerged in the data analysis. These were 1) personal advantaging, where one attempts to advance and promote oneself, although, in my data, not at the expense of others; 2) interpersonal advantaging, where one seeks connection, in an effort to assist, support, and further self and others; and 3) structural advantaging, where one works to advocate for, improve, and promote the system(s) of which one is a part. In personal advantaging, for example, one might be gaining requisite knowledge, developing professional expertise, protecting one’s job, or enhancing one’s career. In interpersonal advantaging, one might be developing relationships that further mutual goals, supporting clients’ and colleagues’ growth, or assisting others in overcoming obstacles. People advantaging on a systemic level might develop programs, resources, tools, and strategies to benefit the organization and its clients, to advocate for social justice, or to break down barriers that prevent optimum client outcomes or organizational effectiveness. Aligning to advantage was the mechanism used to accomplish these various goals and pursue the advantaging strategies. The data show that alignments are the vehicles that drive the three goals of advantaging within the three stages of the working the system process. These stages and their alignments will be discussed in the following sections.

The stages of working the system and needed alignments

Working the system is a basic social process that consists of three stages: accessing, engaging, and sustaining. Each of these stages is associated with personal, interpersonal, and structural alignments. As stated earlier, all stages of working the system are concerned with advantaging, or the balanced promoting of self, clients, colleagues, constituencies, and programs to maximum benefit of all. I will first briefly discuss the properties of alignments and the interplay of the three stages and their alignments. Then, I discuss each of the three stages of working the system and how the alignments support the process.

The properties of alignments

Aligning behavior is the principal strategy, within each of the three stages, to accomplish the multiple goals of working the system to advantage. In addition to its being a potent tactic for working the system, aligning is also a motivator for and a consequence of working the system. Many school counselors choose to work in and on systems that satisfy their interpersonal alignment needs. For many school counselors in this study, interpersonal alignments were the most important reasons for working the system. Not only did participants feel that interpersonal aligning advantaged others, but they felt sustained and enriched by their relationships, which, in turn, allowed them to continue their efforts at working the system. Aligning was found to also be a consequence of working the system, because the new conditions established by successfully working the system afforded fresh opportunities for school counselors to deepen their focus, build more potent relationships, and create useful structures to support their work (Stillman, 2007).

The interplay of stages and alignments

The conditions affecting the particular school system and the specific goals of school counselors working the system determine which stage school counselors are in and which alignments might be most useful. For instance, a student considering a school counseling career, therefore in the accessing stage, would need to use personal aligning to harness his or her personal goals and bring them into line with professional requirements and mission. An intern applying for a school counseling position or a counselor entering a new school system, also would be in the accessing stage, and would need to expend more effort on personal and interpersonal aligning than someone in the engaging stage, who already had connections to the district’s powerful allies and resources, had demonstrated expertise and dependability, and had earned trust. A school counselor who has already established solid interpersonal alliances, solid programming, and a good track record of outcomes might be involved in the sustaining stage, interested in creating sustainable structural alignments to effect systemic change. In each stage, personal, interpersonal, and structural alignments are used, but the emphasis varies by conditions and context. Since the process is recursive, a school counselor may be accessing one new issue within the school system, engaging in a different one, and sustaining a third. The following sections describe, in more detail, the same three alignments within each of the three stages of working the system.

The accessing stage

In the accessing stage, school counselors are approaching a system or an aspect of a system for the first time. They might, for example, be looking for a new job or might be in the first years of their position. Accessing the system is also required whenever one begins a new assignment or project, regardless of years of tenure. In the accessing stage school counselors make important alignments when they seek to enter a new system or community, or, similarly, when they
encounter new conditions, such as a new school year, new building, new students, new teachers, or a new administration. In accessing, as in all three stages, people are involved in a combination of personal, interpersonal, and structural aligning.

Personal aligning in the accessing stage

When accessing a new system, school counselors usually engage first in personal alignments. They often use self-reflection and envisioning, examining and reflecting on their evolving needs, values, passions, and abilities, and how those coincide with the school system’s needs. They may choose battles or even specific sub-systems within which to invest and work. School counselors align personally by accessing specific knowledge and skills needed to meet their goals, including gaining counseling and consultation proficiency and understanding the type of system, hierarchies, lines of authority, and favored types of communication used in the different subsystems of which they are or want to be a part. They frequently need to invest extra time and resources, often in the form of education and professional development to best enter the system of their choice. Many school counselors deliberate for a long time over which level (elementary, middle, or high school) they prefer to work in. Skill diversification is usually required to align properly with a given system in the accessing stage. In order to best access and enter a system or one of its parts, school counselors also need to align their unique personality, their personal mission, and their specific goals with that of the profession, the school counselors’ national association, the school, and school district. Personal aligning, at the accessing stage, if often aided by interpersonal aligning, as school counselors look to others for direction, inspiration, modeling, and coaching.

Interpersonal aligning in the accessing stage

When accessing the system, school counselors always engage in interpersonal alignments, where they create a network of working relationships, extending from other school counselors, teachers, parents, and students, to the principal, administrative assistants, and custodians. Strategies to interpersonally align at the accessing stage include making oneself easily accessible, assisting, supporting, and strengthening others, demonstrating responsiveness, expertise, and dependability, and making oneself appear valuable and even indispensable. Pursuing interpersonal alignments in the accessing stage, school counselors strategically place themselves in sight, face to face or virtually, developing and maintaining high visibility in order to “get business,” as one participant noted. During interpersonal accessing, school counselors actively learn from others and engage in mentoring and coaching, both of others and for themselves. Interpersonal aligning, when successfully accomplished, along with personal and structural components, leads counselors quickly to the engaging stage.

Structural aligning in the accessing stage

Structural alignments in the accessing stage include defining technology use, time management, scheduling, public relations, and making programmatic decisions, such as deciding if and how to use the ASCA National Model (2005), which is the National Association’s template for developing comprehensive school counseling programs. The structural accessing strengthens image and visibility, benefits communication, and enables the school counseling work to proceed in earnest. Structural accessing is aided by interpersonal aligning, as others, both within the school system and elsewhere, often provide suggestions, advice, and practical assistance to a newly minted counselor, or anyone entering a new system or facing a new challenge.

The engaging stage

As in the accessing stage, in the engaging stage, school counselors also use personal, interpersonal, and structural alignments and build on the alignments started during the accessing stage. During the engaging stage, school counselors are actively involved in developing, implementing, and evaluating their comprehensive programs, advocating for client needs, and using their expertise and leadership competencies to meet their long and short-range goals, as well as protect their often vulnerable positions. Anyone in the engaging stage of a complex project or advocacy effort must rally their personal commitment and zeal, accumulate program resources, and connect with would-be supporters, whether working a room, working a crowd, or, in this theory, working a system. The engaging stage consists of alignments wherein school counselors, who are comfortably accessing the system, are now actively and rigorously pursuing their personal, interpersonal, and programmatic objectives.

Personal aligning in the engaging stage

When school counselors personally align at this stage, they clarify their purpose, prioritize, focus, make decisions, and demonstrate assertiveness. Following the previous stage’s initiation to the system, in the engaging stage, they professionalize and develop the personal dispositions and capabilities needed for leadership (DeVoss & Andrews, 2006), which become especially necessary to get the job done. Flexibility is a crucial personal engaging alignment for accomplishing one’s goals (Costa & Garmston, 2002; Covey, 2004; Hatch, 2006). At this stage, school counselors must not only have an action plan going in, but also must be flexible enough to align with what is needed or demanded in the system in order to be able to work it most effectively. Additional personal engaging strategies include juggling tasks and roles, stretching beyond one’s comfort zone, working around obstacles, and diversifying one’s skills, knowledge, and contacts.

Interpersonal aligning in the engaging stage

When school counselors align themselves interpersonally, they communicate, nurture, provide feedback, develop and invest in others, advocate, persuade, and collaborate. Gaining trust and support are critical aspects of this stage of alignments, which sometime requires “hooking” (Stillman, 2007, p. 94) principals, colleagues, and clients, before the systemic work of advantaging can be done. Socializing was seen as a key investment in the interpersonal engaging stage, in order to “cultivate relationships” (Simmons, 1993, p. 4) needed for collaboration. Another way to cultivate relationships was found to be through brokering knowledge and assistance. For example, school counselors might support a teacher through empathy or expert handling of a student’s issues, and this action strengthens the counselor’s relationship with the teacher and allows the counselor to make a deposit in a “relationship bank account” (Covey, 1998, p. 131) to be drawn upon at a later time. One school counseling supervisor said she spends her day, “insinuating” herself, wherever and with whomever she can, so she is prepared to leverage her relationships when needed for advantaging.

Structural aligning in the engaging stage

Structural aligning is a powerful practice, in the engaging stage, which involves developing processes, programs, and initiatives, and connecting subsystems and resources. Thus, school counselors build community, develop partnerships, educate, evaluate, and invest in systems. Many structural tools used by counselors, such as progress reports, curriculum plans, “closing the gap” action plans (ASCA, 2004); data analysis templates and other accountability measures are available to help work a school counseling system during the engaging stage. Structural aligning might also be seen in such varied public relations measures such as National School Counseling week, annual presentations to school boards, monthly newsletters, and a school counseling website. Structural aligning in the engaging stage is essential to support program development in the four obligatory domains of service delivery: responsive services, individual planning, guidance curriculum, and system support (ASCA, 2005). The data demonstrated that school counselors spent much time and effort in the details of developing these interrelated structural components of service delivery, in order to impact and advantage themselves and therefore their ability to make a difference with their constituencies: students, parents, teachers, and the system as a whole.

The sustaining stage

The final stage, sustaining, includes alignments geared to making the goals of working the system, or the three-tiered advantaging, last, as well as ensuring that one’s own sustainability within the system is made possible. As part of the working the system process, the data revealed that school counselors feel the need to sustain their work, in the same domains of the personal, interpersonal, and systemic alignments. Many school districts faced with budget cuts are having to eliminate school counseling positions, and school counselors must work hard to maintain their focus, relationships, and programs, while stress levels are high (McCarthy, Van Horn Kerne, Calfa, Lambert, & Guzman, 2010). In the sustaining stage, school counselors are equally concerned with their own long-term personal alignment and growth as school counselors, as well as their interest in preserving long-standing relationships, helping build capacity in others, and insuring their programs will be maintained for the future.

Personal aligning in the sustaining stage

In personal aligning during the sustaining stage, school counselors persist in overcoming newly arisen obstacles and continue to feel an authentic passion for the work. Transitioning is often necessary, however, for dealing with change so that one’s goals and abilities for working the system are not disrupted, although they may re-emerge in a new system, position, or challenge. Many school counselors engage in ongoing professional development, attend state and national conferences, and pursue advanced degrees to maintain and enhance their skills for same positions or for new challenges such as administration or counselor education. School counselors and other participants spoke of the need to continue to feel an authentic joy and passion for their work.

Interpersonal aligning in the sustaining stage

Like the old adage about teaching a person to fish instead of just providing a fish, in interpersonal sustaining, school counselors focus on providing autonomy, self-direction, and choice to constituents, thereby developing adaptive capacities for them to be able to “work the system” for themselves. As Stone (2005) wrote, “self-awareness, autonomy, and independence are watchwords for school counselors who value their role in helping students move toward functioning, self-directed adults” (para. 3). This aspect of interpersonal aligning through supporting autonomy is at the core of school counselor ethical standards, which state that counselors have an obligation to move students toward self-direction and self-development. School counselors also consider their work with parents to be crucial for the long-term impact on their students, and understand that making collaborative alignments with parents is critical for supporting students’ sustained positive outcomes. At the same time, in interpersonal aligning in the sustaining stage, school counselors, themselves, continue to align with peers—in order to maintain their energy to work the system in order to get results for students. People who interpersonally align in the sustaining stage, connect to other people and groups, sometimes within and often outside the system, sometimes branching out, such as changing levels or schools, becoming counselor educators, or serving on school counseling association boards. The focus is always on helping to sustain their own interest, while supporting the autonomy and development of others. School counselors at the sustaining stage find that the directive for collaboration and teaming (ASCA, 2005) in accomplishing the systemic program goals is of paramount importance at this sustaining stage.

Structural aligning in the sustaining stage

In structural aligning in the sustaining stage, school counselors find resources for ongoing projects, as well as investigate diversification and program flexibility, which allow them and the school counseling programs to sustain for the long-term. Flexibility and adaptability are needed in the sustaining stage, to nourish one’s program during organizational change and to be “comfortable with the ambiguities of organizational life” (Goleman, 1998, p. 254). School counselors often use the aforementioned accountability tools as additional structural sustaining efforts. Technology is a useful structural tool that is utilized in sustaining alignments to help extend the reach of the program and deliver ongoing services in a changing environment. Sustaining alignments are used for the long term “institutionalization of an innovation” (ASCA, 2004, p. 4), such as a comprehensive school counseling program, and for permanent advantaging and removal of barriers to academic and life success for clients within the system.


Several grounded theory researchers have explored the area of school counseling (Amatea & Clark, 2005; Brott & Meyers, 1999) however, what distinguishes this study is that it is the only classical grounded theory (Simmons, 2008) study in the substantive area of school counselors. As distinct from a descriptive study where the researcher talks about individual events, elicits descriptive themes, and gives participants “a voice,” (Glaser, 2002, Sect. 3) the data from this study was studied using constant comparative analysis to reveal the core variable and the theoretical relationships between incidents, between incidents and generated concepts, and between concepts and their properties. The data revealed complex and abstract processes at work as people endeavor to accomplish their vital goals within a system. The analysis further demonstrated the interrelated patterns within systems, where personal, interpersonal, and structural alignments intertwine and coalesce in the service of resolving the main concern, perpetuating a workable plan to advantage self, others, and the organization.

As the study unveiled conceptual properties that capture a behavioral pattern evident when people work their respective systems, the study is useful not just for school counselors, but also for others working in complex organizations. As is required in a classical grounded theory study, the results, while fitting the realm of school counselors, also transcend the substantive area, and are thus “abstract of time, place, and people” (Glaser, 2002, Sect. 3). Benefits of this study may be of use to scholars studying educational leadership (DeVoss & Andrews, 2006, Elias, O’Brien, & Weissberg, 2006; Patti & Tobin, 2003); emotional intelligence (Druskat, Mount, & Sala, 2005; Goleman, 1995; Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002; Mayer & Salovey, 1997); systems thinking (Laszlo, Gregory, & Raffanti, 2006; Stillman, 2006; Vander Linden, 2006); curriculum and instruction (Palloff & Pratt, 2005), advocacy (Chears, 2008; Kiai, 2007), working relationships (Glaser, 2010; Simmons, 1993), and systemic change (Maddy, 2007; Raffanti, 2005).

Many directions for further research can be derived from this grounded theory study. Research related to the theory of working the system might be carried out through studies focusing on particular dimensions, stages, and strategic processes such as accessing a system, interpersonal aligning, advocating, community building, or authenticating for sustainability. While staying open to the discovery of new variables, researchers who are starting off with specific concepts in the theory of working the system have many directions in which to focus their attention, furthering knowledge of how to effect change in complex ecological systems. For example, Cicero (2010), in her phenomenological study of school counseling supervisors’ leadership awareness, acknowledged the power of the working the system theory in her own work. Other researchers in diverse fields have suggested to me that the core variable, working the system, helps sensitize them to processes in their own research areas or systems, such as parents battling school policies or young officer candidates entering a military training program. As stated previously, researchers studying any problems in organizational or educational systems can benefit from attention to the stages and dimensions of working the system.

One can also infer many implications for practice, for school counselors and for all those endeavoring to succeed in any given organizational system. School counselors face numerous challenges as they strive to do their best work while implementing sustainable comprehensive school counseling programs. While guidance is available for school counselors on the elements and themes of the National Model (ASCA, 2005), the theory of working the system may assist school counselors in identifying the personal, interpersonal, and structural attitudes and values they need to implement it, as well as the alignments they must seek. The theory may assist school counselors in identifying what stage of the process they are in and what alignments they might need to strengthen in order to meet their goals. All school counselors, as well as most people in organizations must be prepared to encounter obstacles to successfully working the system of their school or organization. This study may help them to identify their current alignments, or what they are already doing well, and see areas where they could grow by strengthening alignments detailed in this study.

As stated before, the theory of working the system fits the substantive area of school counselors but does not reside there. When the alignments discovered in working the system are used strategically and in concert with each other, any system and its stakeholders are advantaged, and results are sustainable. I have used concepts from this theory, not only in presentations to school counselors, but also to coach my own doctoral students, who are diligently working multiple interlocking systems, such as their dissertations, their committees, their work, their families, and their various institutions. When all people who are working the system are personally aligned with their work and see the positive outcomes of their actions, and when they feel connected to others and find meaning in what they do, they are personally advantaged and find they can sustain their work. When people feel personally and interpersonally aligned, they also have more motivation and attention for creating structural alignments. These structural alignments, in turn, may present important tools for connecting with others, using resources strategically, forming partnerships, and building community.


Susan Braude Stillman, Ed. D.
Fielding Graduate University


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