Sheffield Elementary School counselor honored with Grinspoon award

  • Kevin White, the counselor at Sheffield Elementary School, is the Gill-Montague Regional School District’s 2020 recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/12/2020 7:07:01 PM
Modified: 3/12/2020 7:06:47 PM

TURNERS FALLS — It can take a village to raise a child. But just as often, it takes a whole school.

Kevin White, the counselor at Sheffield Elementary School, knows this as well as anyone. He’s been a school counselor with the Gill-Montague Regional School District since 1990, and has been a social worker in Franklin County since 1982.

This year, he is Gill-Montague’s recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award, a yearly award sponsored by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, in which the winner is nominated by colleagues. Gill-Montague is one of 45 school districts in the Pioneer Valley that participate, with each district naming a recipient.

Having lived in Franklin County since he was a teenager, and having worked as a youth counselor for nearly four decades, White has seen the social changes — how poverty can erode families and neighborhoods; how each new wave of addictive drugs disrupts the social fabric the same way every time; how the rise of electronic entertainment has altered children’s social awareness. He admitted it can be a lot to deal with.

“We just have to keep coming back to, ‘In our school, this is how we treat people,’ and start there,” he said.

White started his career as a youth counselor with Community Action after graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1982. Over the course of about eight years he moved through the organization, into its administration. When he found he was no longer working with kids, he said, he went back to UMass for a graduate degree. He has been working with Gill-Montague ever since, always at the elementary level.

Going from teenagers to elementary-age children, there are certain differences, White said: older kids are more sophisticated in thinking abstractly, while younger kids may not even have words for their feelings.

But at a certain level, it’s still the same.

“My approach has always been, ‘How do you find what kids are strong at? What are their strengths?’ And build on that,” he said. “Yes, they have all these struggles. But what can we build on?”

As an elementary school counselor, a case may last one or two days — a student has a sick family member, or a pet just died, and the student needs emotional support — or it could take years. Sheffield Elementary, where White now works exclusively, covers second through fifth grade. Some students work with him for their entire time at Sheffield, and transition to a different counselor upon graduation.

Because the students are so young, some of them lack emotional or social skills that otherwise might be considered very basic. Classroom teachers, because they only work with students for one year at a time, sometimes find this frustrating, White said. But, working with a student for several years, he said, he sees progression where others may not.

“You can’t assume kids know all that stuff,” he said. “If you get stuck in, ‘Here we go again,’ that’s not going to work. But if you’re like, ‘They’re starting from the beginning, let’s do the basics,’ you know from experience that it may take a while, but they’ll get there.”

The problems students face are, to some extent, the same as they’ve ever been, White said. Familial dysfunction, poverty and drug addiction may warp and mutate over the years, but essentially they remain the same.

But he has noticed, in the last decade, that students seem to be affected by them more deeply. In the past, families and neighborhoods typically had at least one stable support a child could depend on; now that seems less of a sure thing, White said.

“As a culture, sometimes I wonder where the heroes are for the kids,” he said. “Outside of (school), it might be, you turn on the TV, or you’re watching a sporting event, and they seem to be getting put up on a pedestal for who can trash talk the most.”

There’s also a strange effect that computers, video games and social media have had on children’s emotional awareness. On the whole, elementary students are less developed now than they used to be, White said. In some cases, students may not understand the difference between talking face-to-face and talking online. That’s only happened in the last five or 10 years, he said.

Whatever may have changed over the years, the schools’ role is the same: to provide a stable environment for students, even if only for seven hours a day, White said.

“It takes the village. It takes the school full of adults to be there for support every day,” he said. “I appreciate the award, but I also realize, on a day-to-day basis, everyone here is working very, very hard to support these kids and their families.”

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.




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