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School Counselor Profile: Michael Hess, Pikesville Middle 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.

Face of the Week

The way Michael Hess sees it, middle school students “need allies and a port in the storm.” As one of three school counselors at Pikesville Middle School, Hess seeks to provide that to the school’s Grade 7 students.

In his office, with desk drawers full of toys, humorous posters lining the walls, and shelves overflowing with more toys, the port that Hess offers vibrates with color and wordplay. His port also offers heartfelt compassion, a sense of wonder about the dramatic growth that takes place during middle school, and a deep appreciation for public education.

The ‘prop’ counselor

Hess describes himself as a “prop counselor,” who uses lots of objects and toys to build connections with, inspire, educate, and sometimes even distract or reward his students. For example, he keeps goofy glasses handy so he can surprise and calm an upset child. He uses a small plastic puzzle ball to talk to students about focus and perseverance. He sometimes even uses tennis balls to teach juggling as he talks to students about handling life’s challenges. A mirror hanging by his door helps students really see and think about themselves as individuals. A white board reflects the life lessons that students have learned.

“You don’t like me? Cool. Thanks,” writes a student who has learned to walk away from negative comments and people.

“Hope + courage = strength. Be creative,” writes another student who has found the power to overcome a difficult year.

Hess entered the field of school counseling after teaching Grade 4 at Gilman School for nine years. “I started finding,” Hess says, “that more and more students had emotional needs, and I realized that I wanted to work with students in smaller groups or as individuals. I also felt like, as much as I loved the classroom, working with students who had experienced trauma or who were dealing with life challenges would be more rewarding to me.”

To prepare for this career change, Hess earned a graduate degree in school counseling from Towson University while he was still teaching at Gilman. He found his way to Baltimore County Public Schools through Carol Batoff, a BCPS administrator, whose sons were his students.

Hess joined Team BCPS as a counselor at Randallstown Elementary. He has since worked at Meadowood (an alternative school), and then again at Randallstown Elementary before moving to Pikesville Middle in 2009. While at Meadowood, Hess became a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) and started seeing private clients in the evening. He also joined and for a while led the school system’s traumatic loss team.

Learning to fly

“Middle school is all about adapting,” Hess says, when he begins speaking about making the move to Pikesville Middle School. “I tell the students that they must adapt or perish. Elementary school is like a nest. You have the safety and security of one teacher all day. Here you must learn to fly.”

A good part of Hess’ day is spent meeting individually with students. A firm proponent of cognitive behavior therapy, Hess sees his role as “teaching them how to counsel themselves.” Students come to him with all sorts of issues – some academic, some personal. He describes students dealing with family upheaval, adoption, peer relationships, cutting (self-abuse), and more.

“I try to get them to feel understood,” he says. “It’s important for me to keep it real and relatable. These kids are going through challenging times. It’s helpful to remind them that everyone does, that I have, too. Kids make a lot of assumptions that everyone else is fine, and they are not.”

To promote better communication and conflict resolution among students, Hess and the counseling team at Pikesville Middle use community circles and restorative practices.

Designing their own futures

Another significant portion of Hess’ time is spent helping students look ahead. So far this year, Hess has worked with 258 students to complete their 6-year plans, which help them plot a course of academic classes and other activities to help them achieve their college and career goals. Beyond his work with the students assigned to him, Hess is involved in several aspects of the Pikesville Middle community. This is his third year as head tennis coach at the school, and he is proud to report that the team was county doubles champions for the first two of those years, and it came in second last year.

As the school’s homeless liaison, Hess works with the school’s students who are homeless. He says that the number is usually between 15 and 20. His role is to make sure that their needs are met, including transportation, meals, school supplies, and field trips. In addition, he arranges for special treats for the students near Thanksgiving and the winter holidays.

91 to 9

Although Hess did not attend Pikesville Middle, he has a very personal connection to the school. His wife went to Pikesville Middle and Pikesville High. Although he enjoys his work greatly – “It’s like playing and working. It’s plorking.” – he also understands the tremendous responsibility of teachers, counselors, and school administrators and staff.

“Ninety-one percent of the time students are not in school,” he says. “We have to do as much as we can to support them in our nine percent of their time.”

A few Hess – isms

  • When in doubt, check it out.
  • Tennis is all about the moment. Hitting a ball is making a decision.
  • Calm is strong.
  • In my office, you are not in trouble.
  • You are who you hang out with.
  • The last word is the worst word.
  • Sometimes you need to build a door to knock on.
  • Don’t turn a speed bump into a wall.
  • Like attracts like.

Some Hess thoughts for middle school parents

  • Encourage kids to think before they post. What happens online is very hard to undo.
  • Encourage kids to spend part of their weekend offline and face to face with their friends. They need to spend more time learning to read other’s social cues and using their imaginations.

A few random things to know about Michael Hess

  • He is the father of two daughters, ages 21 and 24.
  • He can ‘joggle’ – jog while juggling. He used to be able to do that for a 5-mile stretch.
  • He used to write school plays.
  • He once met one of his idols, Dr. Seuss -- just by knocking on his door. “I was in San Diego with a friend, and we knew where Dr. Seuss lived. So we knocked, and his wife opened the door, and Dr. Seuss sat and talked with us for a while.”

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Interim Superintendent

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