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Face of the Week: Michelle Bell, school counselor, Chesapeake High School

Team BCPS is made up of thousands of accomplished and interesting students, employees, and community supporters. "Face of the Week" introduces you to some of the people who make BCPS such an amazing mosaic of talent, caring, and commitment.

Michelle Bell, school counselor, Chesapeake High School

The average high school student would do well to have Michelle Bell on his or her side. To start with, Bell would tell you that there is no average high school student.

“There are similarities, but every one is different,” says Bell, chair of the counseling department at Chesapeake High School in Essex. “I think that they’re all looking for a little bit of direction in their life, and they’re at an age when they don’t necessarily want to listen to their parents. But I went through that rebellious stage when I was a teenager, too. I think maybe the biggest reason I love working with them is that there’s just a realness to a high school student that you don’t see anywhere else.”

As a veteran school counselor, it’s Bell’s job as well as her passion to be a tenacious advocate for students. Now in her ninth year as a school counselor – and her first as department chair – she sees more need than ever for someone to be “a safe person to confide in” for today’s high schoolers.

“We’re seeing more anxiety in our students, more external pressures on their mental health,” Bell, 37, says. “It may come from family situations. It may come from poverty – that’s big. It’s a lot of things. They’re really resilient, but sometimes it’s not easy to focus on school.”

Even as department chair, with all its attendant paperwork, Bell says her favorite part of the day is checking in with as many students as she can. At Chesapeake, she’s helped to start a successful peer-mentoring group, and she and her staff work hard at assisting students from families who are new to the country.

“She definitely brightens the day of our students, staff, and parents with her infectious smile, ability to problem-solve, and positive attitude,” says Chesapeake’s principal, Jess Grim. “Ms. Bell is an integral member of our Chesapeake team.”

Being student advocates

In fact, each one of Baltimore County’s 112,000 students has an advocate like Bell. With about 300 counselors in schools across the county, the BCPS Office of School Counseling is dedicated to providing students with the resources they need should life become more challenging than normal.

Yet counselors also provide more than a sympathetic sounding board for students, says Dr. Hope Baier, coordinator of the office for BCPS. “School counselors focus on academic advisement, career and college readiness, and social emotional learning,” she says. “Our goal is to connect with every student each year in the completion of a 6-Year Plan, classroom guidance on social emotional learning, and the coordination of schoolwide programs.”

And today is a great time to thank a school counselor for their caring; February 6-10 is National School Counseling Week, according to the American School Counselor Association.

“Everything we do comes back to being an advocate for students,” Bell says. “We’re an advocate in an academic way, and in a social way, and in a college and career readiness way. That’s what the staff here at Chesapeake is all about, and that’s what I would hope all counselors would be about.”

A different calling

Yet Bell’s path almost became about something radically different than counseling high school students. An eastern Baltimore County native, she hailed from a BCPS family – her mother, Paula Pyecha, just finished a 40-year career as a kindergarten teacher, most recently at Chase Elementary School. And her sister, Lisa Deiaco, is currently a school counselor at Gunpowder Elementary School.

But upon graduation from Perry Hall High School and post-graduate study at the University of Baltimore, Bell found herself doing corporate communications for a mortgage company – a job she soured on quickly. “My morals did not match those of the business,” she says, diplomatically. “I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

What she did enjoy doing was working with youth at her church, Towne Baptist in Joppa. “It felt like I had a natural gift for it, for talking with the kids,” she says now. “As much as I gave to them, they gave back to me.”

Talking with her sister, she thought about the possibility of working as a school counselor in BCPS. Enrolling at Loyola University of Maryland to prepare, she soon found and won an opening at Chesapeake. She hasn’t looked back.

“Working at the high school level allowed me to be who I am with kids, blunt and honest,” Bell says.

Today, her typical days are “whirlwinds,” Bell says. Working at Chesapeake has taught her the importance of loyalty in her students; often they will open up to her because she counseled an older brother or sister who came through the school years before.

Her days are also exhausting; “you have to love it to do it,” she says, noting that her husband, the Rev. Dr. Andrew Bell of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Essex, “can’t believe what my day consists of.”

But with the help of her supportive staff in the school counseling office and throughout Chesapeake High, Bell says she looks forward to continuing the work, of making sure students understand the resource they have in her and her staff.

“I hope they know,” she says, “I’ll back them up, no matter what.”

Do you know of a special person who would be a good candidate for the BCPS “Face of the Week”? Let us know! Send their name, contact information, and what makes them special to  

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