When Jason Thompson was approached to speak at the inaugural School Counseling Summit by CharacterStrong, he was thrilled to be part of a select group of 18 counseling professionals from across the nation.
“It was a huge honor because it’s an inaugural time for them,” Thompson said. “This the first time they’re doing something like this. You only have one first, so definitely a major honor.”
One that was well deserved.
Thompson is a school counseling veteran who has served local districts including the Normandy Schools Collaborative, the Riverview Gardens School District and, mostly recently, the School District of Clayton; taught as an adjunct professor at several area universities; and guided professional development in the state as an emerging leader with the Missouri School Counselor Association and a board member for the St. Louis Suburban School Counselor Association.
In addition to that work, Thompson is also working toward a PhD in counseling in the College of Education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Due to his work and growth in the doctoral program, he was the recent recipient of the counseling department’s Dean Ricky George Award for the 2022-2023 school year.
The School Counseling Summit is a free, virtual event that will be held from Feb. 6-8, during National School Counseling Week. The summit’s theme is “continuing to answer the call,” centering on how school professionals can serve the “whole child, whole school and whole community.”
The three-day event aims to address challenges faced by school counselors in providing support to students in a rapidly changing world and also will emphasize advocacy, collaboration and systemic change as key drivers of progress. Attendees will have access to several videos with experts in school counseling each day.
Thompson has already recorded his segment for the summit and said it will focus on the ways in which he assists teachers, students and families and promotes school counseling at local, district and regional levels. In his opinion, one of the keys to being an effective counselor is proactively engaging with all stakeholders in the school and remaining approachable.
“I’m a firm believer that we have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we talk,” he said. “My goal really is to listen to stories and hear individuals – both their pain and their progress. I normally tell my students, ‘Please come in because I want to hear your story. I want to hear your narrative and be able to support you whenever I can.’ Same with adults, too.”
Thompson takes any opportunity he can to support the counseling field, whether it’s speaking at events like the summit, being involved in the Missouri School Counselor Association and the American School Counselor Association, or planning professional development opportunities for the St. Louis Suburban School Counselor Association.
“This was made for me, and I was made for it,” he said. “Any way that I can promote the field and add to it and glean from it, I want to do that.”
That wasn’t always the case.
Earlier in his career, Thompson was an adjunct professor for school and professional counseling at Missouri Baptist University and Saint Louis University. He also has been a guest lecturer at Covenant Theological Seminary and Ponce Health Science University. As a result of his students’ course evaluations and leadership in the counseling department, Thompson received Lindenwood University’s “Adjunct of the Year” award in 2019.
His favorite class to teach was an internship course, where students were stepping into schools for the first time and getting hands-on experience. During that course, he always pushed his students to be leaders and to use their voices to uplift themselves, their students and the profession. It caused him to reflect on his own contributions and to examine if he was truly practicing what he preached.
“Then I look back and challenged myself, ‘Well, Jason, what are you doing? Honestly, you’ve done things for your school, but what are you doing for school counseling?’” he recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘You know what, I’m not.’ So I started finding ways that I could get involved. That way, when I tell my students this is something you should be doing, now I can say these are things I have done and this is why you should be doing those.”
As improbable as it might seem considering Thompson’s zeal for the counseling profession, he wasn’t always so sure he wanted to walk that career path.
Thompson initially enrolled as a biology major at Morehouse College with ambitions of becoming a marine biologist. Those plans hit a roadblock when Thompson couldn’t pass his required chemistry courses. He switched tracks to psychology and fell in love with it but still had no plans to be a school counselor.
An internship with a mentorship program changed that. Thompson was paired with a third-grade class in inner-city Atlanta. He was required to be at the school one day a week but started going in multiple days a week because he enjoyed interacting with the kids.
“I remember a school counselor at that building stopped me one day said, ‘You know what, you would be an excellent school counselor,’” Thompson said. “I said, ‘Oh OK, well, thank you.’ I wasn’t thinking about education or anything like that. It’s just that the seed was planted in me.”
After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in psychology, Thompson went on to earn a master’s in counseling from Saint Louis University. He worked as a substance use counselor for 2½ years before a client sparked an epiphany.
“He was a young guy, maybe 22, 23, who unfortunately made some really bad choices that he was going to go to jail for some time,” Thompson said. “One of our last sessions – I’m so glad that he was in my life – we were just talking, and he just paused and said, ‘Mr. Thompson, man, stop for a second.’ I answered, ‘Yeah, what’s going on?’ He said, ‘Why are you here?’
“It’s such an interesting question. I said, ‘You know, I’m here to give back, to help, to use my expertise to be able to help others live better lives and be drug free. He said, ‘You know, it sounds good, but you should really help kids because we’ve already messed up. Get them from getting in this chair.’ That resonated with me. I thought I was doing good work, but he was right. Not that adults can’t change, but why not exhaust my resources and time and expertise helping students maybe not get to that point?”
Thompson immediately took the steps necessary to become a certified school counselor and hasn’t looked back. He began his career as an elementary school counselor at Riverview Gardens School District and transitioned to Normandy Schools Collaborative. He also served as a lower school counselor at Westminster Christian Academy and has been a counselor at Wydown Middle School in Clayton, Missouri, since 2014.
From his experience in elementary and middle schools, Thompson knows that accessible mental health services are especially important for young students. When they feel that they’re not being seen or heard, it can cause them to experience emotional difficulties and possibly lead some to vices such as drugs, alcohol and crime. He’s seen firsthand the difference early intervention can make.
“I almost got teary eyed just today,” he said. “I received an email from a student who’s in high school now, and he wanted me to know that he was doing something really cool at his high school. He put at the end, ‘You really helped change my life when I was with you, so thank you for all the time you spent with me.’”
Those moments prove the impact Thompson is making, but he is always looking to challenge himself and striving to improve his practice. That’s why he joined the doctoral counseling program at UMSL, which he views as the most rigorous in the state because of its accreditation by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs.
The program has already helped him become a better researcher, writer and therapist, which he attributes to the approachable, knowledgeable professors as well as his cohort members. He said his classmates have been able to challenge and push each other, which has helped them all grow as professionals.
Graduation and the conclusion of his research are still a few years away, but Thompson’s Christian faith and his family – a wife and three sons – provide plenty of encouragement as he endeavors to make his “best better.”
“I want to be a mentor to not just my students, but my own children,” he said. “That’s my first assignment, letting them know to always push yourself. Having one of the first PhDs in their family, to me that’s meaningful to let them know they can do it, too.”