By Terry Dean
Jeremiah Wiencek fondly remembers how one of his high school counselors was able to help him figure out what he wanted to do as a career—Wiencek was inspired to become a counselor himself.
That career path has led him to Oak Park and River Forest High School as the school's assistant principal for student services. The Indiana native and married father of two—a three-year-old and six-month-old—oversees a staff that includes 12 counselors, four resource managers and two school nurses. Wiencek, 36, was hired from Plainfield High School where he was an associate principal for student services. He likes to be out in the building as much as possible, in between doing necessary paperwork and going to staff meetings.
He greets kids at the front door in the mornings and chats with them around the building. Wiencek believes that being sociable is one aspect of being a good school counselor. But there is more to it than that, he said.
"I always say that counselors have to know the answer to every question and if they don't they need to know where to find it because they get asked everything. They're the go-to people," Wiencek said.
That may seem very lofty but Wiencek defines counselors as well-rounded mental health and educational experts. They actually do more than help students figure out where they want to go to college—a very important responsibility, particularly at OPRF, Wiencek said.
A good school counselor, he said, can make or break a student's career. That is, if kids utilize them, he said. Then there's helping kids with their emotional needs. Wiencek noted the recent discussions in Oak Park about substance abuse in the village and high school, something he and his counselors are dealing with.
But students face other issues, he said, like being a surrogate parent for their siblings while they're parents work long hours. Wiencek stressed that such outside pressures impact how kids do in school.
"You tell students, 'Get better grades and get better test scores.' But if their basic needs aren't being met they're not going to care about their grades or their test scores," he said. "So they need that safety. They need that support and to feel welcome. They need to have all of this in place in order for them to focus on their classes."
Another consistent thing the counselors face is helping kids stay motivated about school, Wiencek said.
"Motivation for school is, I think, the most difficult thing to try and come up with a solution for because everybody has control over themselves, and to try and tell you, 'OK, school is important,' is difficult, especially coming from an adult," he said.
One of the things he likes about OPRF is the school's use of students helping to mentor other students, mainly involving older kids helping younger students. But the counselors are always there when kids need them, Wiencek said.
Just like his high school guidance counselor, it wasn't until after college and working odd jobs that Wiencek chose to become a counselor. But he traces it back to his high school experience.
"Their job isn't to go in there and tell them 'OK, this is what you're going to do,'" he said of school counselors. "It's about helping them discover themselves and what path they want to go down to be happy and successful."