INDIANAPOLIS — Throughout the school year, school counselor Aaron Munson teaches inside classrooms, hosts small groups and offers individual counseling to more than 400 students at IPS Butler Lab School 55.
Munson describes the school counselor’s office as the heartbeat of the building. During the pandemic when school went virtual, however, that heartbeat moved into the homes of students and families.
“In every building that I’ve ever been at, it is just an expectation for counselors and social workers to visit homes to support families on an as-needed basis. We don’t do that a lot … but there are occasions,” Munson said. “But [with] the pandemic … everything changed with the role, with the expectations of what the role was supposed to be.”
Munson estimates he made nearly 100 home visits to check on students and show them how to access programs for attendance and schoolwork during virtual learning.
“I am pretty decent with technology and I got a lot better over COVID because parents would not know who to contact at the school to get help and support with computer issues,” Munson said. “I would sometimes try to help them over the phone, but often that wouldn’t work, so I would go and fix it for them and try to support the student in that way. That was just one small part of the whole year.”
Now, Munson’s work is being recognized. He was named the Indiana Elementary School Counselor of the Year for 2022 by the Indiana School Counselor Association Conference.
He’s been a school counselor for nine years.
“When I was in high school or even before, the counselors that we had were really more for test prep, AP things [and] college applications. That is still part of a counselor’s role, but it has expanded into so much more,” Munson said. “With the pandemic, it’s really the counselors and social workers’ time to shine because we’re also supporting students in their mental health, their social-emotional learning.”
Munson and an assistant lead social-emotional learning lessons monthly in each Pre-K through 8th-grade classroom. He wants each student to know his name and who he is.
“This has just been my favorite job because I think that it takes a person with a deep well of feelings to be able to sit with the pain and the suffering of so many children day in and day out without it always completely wrecking them personally,” Munson said. “I know that it is a gift and a strength that I have … I hope that people are seeing that I want to be a gift to my students and my community.”
Support comes in different ways for Munson’s students. Recently, a coalition of pediatric health experts declared kids’ mental health a national emergency, something Munson says he is “absolutely seeing” with his students.
“Never have I seen so many students with suicidal ideation starting with as young as fifth grade,” he said. “I just can’t put into words how much children need love, nurture, care, being honored in where they are. They need coping skills and tools to be able to be the best learners that they can be … children deserve that and they need that.”
Data from Mental Health America shows a 200% increase in the number of people who completed an online mental health screening in 2020 compared to the year before.
Munson started a Gay-Straight Alliance Club, got resources from the Indiana Youth Group and wrote his own small group curriculum that is being used by other counselors and social workers.
Munson was nominated for the award by instructional coach Becky Tarnowski.
“The week before we returned to in-person school for the first time since the pandemic, Mr. Munson created a social story for students to proactively prepare them for the many changes to expect at school. His social story ended by reminding students that while many things have changed this year, one thing that will never change is how much we love and care about our students,” she wrote in her nomination letter.
Munson will be honored at the Indiana School Counselor Association’s annual conference on Nov. 12. He says he’s still shocked that he was chosen and was encouraged by Tanowski’s letter.
“I’m glad and honored that I get to be a small part in this chapter of these children’s lives and I hope that they will remember how much Mr. Munson loved them and cared about them for many, many years to come,” he said. “My students and Indianapolis Public Schools, they deserve the best teachers, the best counselors, the best administrators and the best chances.”