Ben Graham: Skyline High School guidance counselor


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Ben Graham in his office at Skyline High School. Photo by Jo Mathis.

Ben Graham was born and raised in Ann Arbor, and attended Burns Park and Slauson before graduating in 1994 from Pioneer High School.

He attended the University of Michigan’s Residential College for drama; LS&A for English; and the School of Education for English and Spanish certificates. He student taught English and Spanish at Forsythe.

After graduation, Graham taught Spanish half time at Huron, then taught performing arts full time at Tappan. Both were long-term substitute positions. Graham realized that while he loved getting to know the kids, he hated classroom management. So he then got a full time job with benefits as a medical records clerk at an outpatient mental health clinic. He enjoyed the people there so much, he ended up staying six years and decided to become a counselor like his co-workers.

Graham went on to earn his school counselor endorsement and master’s in counseling from Eastern Michigan University; and became a teacher’s assistant in Ypsilanti after grad school. He accepted a counseling job at Skyline High School in the fall of 2009.

He and his wife, Sara, live in Saline with their four-year-old daughter Sophie, and one-year-old son Austin. His 26-year-old brother Robert often stays with them as well.

What would surprise people to know about a day in the life of a high school counselor? We deal with a lot of serious mental health issues like anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and actions, abuse, and more. There is a clerical component to the job, but that is not what we went to school for and not why most of us became counselors. We are trained mental health professionals and we need to be because any day of the week can be the day a kid wants to hurt themselves or someone else.

How has the role changed in the past decade? This is only my sixth year so I’m not sure. But even in my time here things like dual enrolling, split enrolling, and online classes have exploded.

What makes you well suited for the job? I really enjoy getting to know kids and I think my natural immaturity makes it very easy for us to relate to each other.

How does the fact that you use a wheelchair affect your work and the way you relate to students, if at all? I’ve been using a chair since third grade as a result of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which I’ve had since age three. I’ve always tried to lead my life without using JRA as an excuse for anything. This has been the most challenging year, however. Due to my JRA, I sustained a spinal cord compression causing me to have surgery and be out from August to January. In high school, I was the fastest guy on my wheelchair basketball team, but since my injury I have become very, very slow in a chair. Two years ago I could walk at least 100 yards unassisted. Now I cannot walk a yard unassisted. So now I use a walker whenever I can, my manual chair when I am too tired, and a power scooter when too tired for that. Again, I try my best not to use JRA as an excuse. It has caused me to miss work this year—for the first time in six years with AAPS—but when I am here I try to be as effective as my colleagues.

What is the most rewarding part about the job? Working closely with kids for whom graduation is not a certainty. They need guidance, empathy, genuine connection, and unconditional support. When you watch them walk across the stage it’s great, because they really might not have made it there without help.

What are your biggest challenges? Balancing clerical responsibilities against spending time with kids. I spend more time than I’d like doing the former at night and on weekends so I can do the latter as much as possible during the school day.

Is it easy to get burned out? Yes. You can soak up other people’s trauma like a sponge and it can wear you down emotionally. Working evenings and weekends can wear you down physically. Staring at schedules for 10-12 hours a day seven days a week every fall (I promise that’s not an exaggeration) wears you down intellectually. So … yes!

If you weren’t a counselor, what would you be doing? I tried to be a writer, but my book did not exactly fly off the shelves. Shameless plug: It’s on Amazon and is about growing up in Ann Arbor, going to Slauson, Pioneer, and UM. It’s called “Ending in Angels” and it’s a pretty fast, funny, heartfelt read I like to think. I also tried to be a professional live/online tournament poker player but cannot seem to do much better than break even. And that’s a good year!

What would you change about the profession if you could? It will never happen, but I’d love to have a couple dozen kids on my caseload instead of over 20 dozen. And I think most of the state has like 600, so I can’t complain. If there were a counselor for every 20ish kids, nearly every kid would graduate and have a solid plan for what to do next.


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