Sincere. Effective. Outgoing. Positive. Respected.
Those are accolades bestowed upon Cortez Middle School counselor Carrie Schneider-Lemay, a semifinalist for the 2015 School Counselor of the Year.
“Carrie is very passionate about her work and makes all of her decisions based on what is best for students,” said Cortez Middle School Principal Glenn Smith.
The only West Slope semifinalist out of more than 60 nominees, Schneider-Lemay will be recognized for the professional achievement at a Colorado School Counselors Association’s annual conference next month in Colorado Springs.
“I’m both honored and thankful for the nomination and the recommendations,” said Schneider-Lemay. “I feel blessed to be working in this amazing community.”
Smith added that Schneider-Lemay was a creative and critical leader who was widely respected and trusted by peers and students.
Jill Carlson, a parent to a former student of Schneider-Lemay’s, praised the counselor, writing in a recommendation letter that her support for students went above and beyond the profession’s guidelines.
“Carrie exemplifies the position, and if I have to express one frustration with her, it’s that she is not going to be working at the high school that my child now attends,” said Carlson.
Meet the counselor
A native of Johnsburg, Wis., a rural community between Green Bay and Milwaukee, Schneider-Lemay graduated from the competitive University of Wisconsin-Madison with a master’s degree in school counseling. She and her husband, Aaron, relocated to Cortez in 2009.
Schneider-Lemay said her own high school guidance counselor, Jane Lefeber, helped motivate her toward the profession.
“She saw the best in me,” said Schneider-Lemay, who is entering her seventh year at Cortez Middle School.
“I remember spending time with her, and she would say, ‘The important thing is to always be yourself, because that’s the best you are,’” she recalled.
Lefeber also encouraged Schneider-Lemay to join Kids Teen Institute, a peer mentoring and leadership program. Schneider-Lemay has tried to replicate the program via the Positive Youth Advocates (PYA), a program aimed to inspire local middle school students to recognize their self-worth. The leadership project is a student-led initiative that encourages charitable activities across the community.
“One year, some of the boys in PYA went to visit a local Alzheimer’s patient,” Schneider-Lemay recalled. “She referred to the boys using her son’s names. They developed an amazing connection.”
After the woman passed, Schneider-Lemay said the students were extremely upset, but she reminded them that they had helped to brighten the woman’s life during her final days. At the same time, Schneider-Lemay said she hoped the boys became empowered to make stronger personal choices in the future.
“We’re changing how students view themselves,” said Schneider-Lemay. “We’re also changing how they see counselors. A lot of time there’s a stigma.”
A counselor’s duty
As a counselor, Schneider-Lemay added that her role isn’t to analyze “everything that is wrong” with a child, but rather empower students to create greater self-esteem.
“My role is to show students what amazing things they can do,” she said. “That’s the lens I see things through.”
Local child activist Chuck McAfee applauded Schneider-LeMay’s perspective, also writing in a recommendation letter for School Counselor of the Year honors that she was an “untiring advocate” for students.
“Carrie is committed, she is consistent, and she is effective,” said McAfee.
In addition to PYA at the middle school, Schneider-Lemay has also been instrumental in instituting district-wide changes. This academic year, Re-1 schools adopted what’s been coined as Social & Emotional Intelligence (SEI). The aim is to build resiliency and positivity via healthy relationships between students and teachers.
“Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like,” said 40-year elementary teacher Rita Piersen in a TED Talk.
Schneider-Lemay referenced Pierson’s remark to better describe the basic principle of an SEI approach to learning. The initiative, she added, hopes to positively influence the climate and culture of schools.
“When a student believes that a teacher is their ally, that they feel like they aren’t being ignored or being treated like they are just a grade, then they are less likely to be bored, unhappy or even angry,” said Schneider-Lemay. “When teachers talk to students it’s so important that they use the language, ‘I care about you.’”
The SEI approach is believed to be a key in helping to stop America’s shrinking educated labor pool. Research shows that students receiving high-quality SEI learning demonstrate better academic performance, motivation to learn, school behavior and attendance.
On the front lines trying to combat the social ills that come with generational poverty, Schneider-Lemay knows all too well the struggles that this community’s children face.
“I want to give students a voice, help them discover their strengths and then connect them with the resources so they can bring out the best in themselves,” she said.