School stalwart plans career change

TALIA SHADWELL
Last updated 12:03 06/12/2012
Rod Holm
WARWICK SMITH/Fairfax NZ
GUIDING LIGHT: Freyberg High School guidance counsellor Rod Holm is changing tack after being at the school for more than four decades.

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A Freyberg High School stalwart is leaving the school after 45 years - but for many pupils his is not a familiar face.

Rod Holm has been treading Freyberg High School's corridors almost as long as the school has been in existence.

But for the latter part of his career, his role has been as invisible as it is vital.

This year Mr Holm will step aside from his role as guidance counsellor at Freyberg to study restorative justice.

Aside from a three-year hiatus, he has spent the past 45 years at the school, where he began in 1968 as its first fulltime history teacher, 12 years after the school opened its gates. Mr Holm began counselling in 1996, and in 2002 turned his attention to listening to pupils' problems in confidence.

"It is an incredibly rewarding job, whatever happens, it is really about a relationship - there's no curriculum to get in the way. So if I am successful as a counsellor . . . it is because we have established a therapeutic relationship," he said.

Mr Holm has taken pride in introducing to the school classroom interventions based upon restorative justice techniques. And since 2003 he has been a funeral celebrant. Because of his role as a counsellor, he is sometimes sought to preside over funerals of people who have taken their own lives.

At 69, Mr Holm, who is also a keen woodturner, is far from retiring. Instead, he plans to study restorative justice at Waikato University next year, to discover ways in which the practice can be brought into the classroom. He will also continue his work with the Ministry of Justice, bringing offenders face-to-face with victims and their families.

Bidding farewell to his time as a counsellor, Mr Holm said teenagers' problems had not changed over the years - but their methods for inflicting despair had transformed dramatically in tandem with the introduction of texting and the internet.

"It has taken an ancient tradition - bullying - which has always been there, and given it legs."

The role of a counsellor was important, he said, because the "subtlety" of teenage relationships was difficult for parents to understand.

"Ordinary adults, they think ‘get real, pull yourself together, kid' . . . adolescence has its own culture, that's my view on it - it transcends cultural boundaries. What they experience follows them, even into adulthood."

Guidance counsellors like Mr Holm are rarely seen or heard. When they hit the media it's often as subjects of criticism - he is acutely aware of stories of parents demanding answers, for instance, over why they were not told of a daughter's abortion, or railing over counsellors' offers of contraceptive advice to teens whose parents presumed they were sexually inactive.

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Mr Holm said he understood their feeling of "helplessness", but school counsellors' code of confidentiality was enshrined in law for their young clients' best interests - a point sometimes misunderstood in the fallout.

"Counsellors expect to be complained about."

Mr Holm estimates he meets less than 1 per cent of his school's population, but those he has met have made an impression.

"As a counsellor you hear atrocious stories from time to time and you think you've heard it all, then somebody else comes in and you think ‘oh, dear God' and your professional defences are just blown . . . Every counsellor has a shelf life, there is only so long you can listen to that stuff, and I think it is my time."

- Manawatu Standard

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