Middle School Counselor Stacy Gross is a Heathwood "Lifer" who graduated in 1995 and then returned to work in the same Middle School she attended. In between, she earned a B.A. in Psychology from Randolph-Macon Women's College, and Ed.S. and M.Ed. degrees from the University of South Carolina, and worked as an Early Childhood Associate and Afternoon Express teacher at Heathwood, a School Counselor at E.L. Wright Middle School, and a stay-at-home mom to her children Savannah, '26, and Blake, '28.
Here she talks about her unexpected path to becoming a middle school counselor, her appreciation for Heathwood, and the things she wished she had known when she was in middle school.
What inspired you to go into school counseling, and to work with middle schoolers in particular?
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher. But as I spent time in elementary and middle school classrooms during my education program in college, I found myself wanting to learn more about each student as an individual, from family history to strengths and challenges, rather than teaching a curriculum. I thought back to my time in Upper School at Heathwood when I trained and served as a peer counselor and recalled how I felt that I was making a difference by being there to help others through difficult times. By my sophomore year of college, I recognized that while I still wanted to be an educator, I could fulfill my longing to be a counselor and an educator by pursuing a School Counseling degree. So I majored in Psychology in preparation for a post-graduate Counseling program at USC.
During graduate school, I told everyone that I would work in any division except middle school. As luck would have it, my first job offer came from…where else but a middle school. I accepted the job and never looked back. I feel that I was called to this age group for a reason, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m so grateful that God’s plan for me was different than I had imagined.
What do you remember most about your middle school years at Heathwood?
Although I remember how challenging middle school was for me and for my friends, I also have some great memories from my time at Heathwood. I loved Mrs. Swick’s English class, and I still remember the unit on The Outsiders evoking strong emotions and teaching important lessons that carried through my life. I remember camping trips with my class that helped us to develop a bond that still holds strong to this day. Even now, my friends and I look through photo albums from our 8th grade class trip to Washington, DC and talk about the great memories and learning opportunities that we shared.
Some people may find it hard to believe that I was very shy when I was younger. But one of my ultimate dreams was to become a Heathwood cheerleader. I longed to wear those cute little plaid skirts and Block-H sweaters. However, I didn’t make the squad after my first try-out, and I was told that I needed to work on projecting my voice and becoming more confident in myself when cheering and dancing. That was the wake-up call that I needed, and I worked hard to move out of my comfort zone for the next try-out. I made the squad that year and every year afterward until I graduated. I think back to that first failure to make the squad as one of the defining moments of my life. It allowed me to work on becoming more confident and taught me that success can grow from failure.
How has the middle school experience changed since you were a student? How is it the same?
Although our world has changed so much since I was in middle school, there are some things that still remain the same. Students still struggle with the transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, while juggling academic, social, and extracurricular obligations. Parents still wonder if they will be able to survive the stress of raising a middle school student and the heart-wrenching realization that their babies are growing up and gaining independence, and that all of this is natural. The teachers in the middle school are still the best in the business who know their students as individuals and bring life to their classrooms.
But oh, the differences. The obvious one is technology, and with this comes more pressure, more anxiety, and higher expectations for students. Instead of phone calls, there are now group texts and instead of printed photos, every image has the potential to be shared for all the world to see. Each generation has had to learn to navigate through new and different challenges, however, and I know that our current kiddos will be able to do so with success.
What attracted you about returning to Heathwood as a counselor?
I had hoped to return to Heathwood in some way since the day I walked out of Trinity Cathedral in my white dress after Commencement. This place has been such an integral part of my life and has shaped who I am in so many ways. Driving through the Swampland on Heathwood Road, walking across campus with the birds chirping and breeze blowing, even that smell from the Water Treatment Plant when the wind turns all remind me of home. Heathwood is home and always has been.
From a professional standpoint, I quickly learned that Heathwood’s mission and curriculum would give me the opportunity to spend most of my time in direct contact with students, teachers, and parents. In my previous counseling position, I was asked to spend so much time scheduling and testing that I lacked the opportunity to spend time with people, and that wasn’t what I was trained to do. At Heathwood, I am allowed to develop a Counseling curriculum based on the needs of the individuals and the community as a whole, and there is an incredible culture of caring, support, and dedication. I can’t imagine a better environment in which to do my job as a counselor than right here.
What do you find most rewarding about your job?
The most rewarding part of my job would be the relationships that I build with my students. In my role, I get to really know and understand my students and their families. It’s so special to see students gain confidence and overcome obstacles as they maneuver through the difficult middle school years.
What are some of the unique personal/emotional needs of middle school students, and how does Heathwood help address those needs?
Middle school students are caught in a trying position as they struggle to maneuver themselves in the transition from childhood to adulthood. Some middle school students still love to play with dolls, watch Disney Channel, and hang out with their parents, while others are interested in dating, playing sports, and looking forward to driving. There are also many social struggles as friendships change and are sometimes lost while students find new interests and passions that may not align with friendships from the past. While navigating all of these changes, the adolescent brain is still developing. The prefrontal cortex controls personality, reasoning, and impulse control, so it should come as no surprise that this area of the brain is the last to develop. Research has discovered that the PFC doesn’t fully develop in most people until they reach their mid-20s. So middle school students are working through all of these changes without the tools that adults have for rational thinking and decision-making.
We try to recognize the unique and wonderful characteristics of middle school students and work to help them feel more healthy, safe, and confident. I teach Adolescent Skills classes in which we focus on the topics that are most difficult and concerning for our students: conflict resolution, stress and anxiety management, value systems and how they relate to your past, present, and future are a few of the issues that we tackle in this informal, fun, small-group setting.
Because parents also struggle to understand how they can best help their children navigate through this tough developmental phase, we also offer Parent Round Table discussions in which resources are shared and parents can discuss concerns such as Drug and Alcohol Awareness, Depression and Anxiety in Teens, and How to Talk to Your Teen.
What excites you about being in the HHES middle school right now?
I am very excited about the ideas that we are pondering about best ways to nurture our middle school students in mind, body, and soul. Mrs. Nagy and I will be attending a conference in April focusing on positive emotions, empathy, grit, and gratitude. During Skills classes and in my work with individual students, we are beginning to work on very simple mindfulness practices, taking 3-5 minutes to focus on breathing and focusing on the present moment. I’ve also finished an online class on Mindfulness as well, and I am looking forward to sharing newly acquired knowledge with our Highlander community.
What do you know now (about life, about yourself, about adolescence) that you wish you’d known in middle school?
If I could go back to tell my middle school self a few things, I would tell her that even when it seems that everyone is focused on me and waiting for me to say or do something silly, in reality all your friends are worried that the same will happen to them. I wish I would have known then that the “cliques” that existed would someday go away and everyone in our grade would one day come together into a group of friends who enjoyed the special gifts of one another.
What advice do you have for parents when they’re concerned about their middle school children’s emotional or social wellbeing?
I would love to reassure parents that the angst and difficulty that they see their middle school student going through is very likely “normal” and expected. I would encourage parents to trust their intuition when making tough decisions about parenting, even if it may anger their child in the short term. Let your child play. Listen to him or her and let your child know that you feel vulnerable at times as a parent because this adolescent thing is new to you too.
Research shows that having meals together as a family is a simple way of improving the likelihood that a child will resist drugs and alcohol for longer, develop higher levels of self-confidence, and engage in less risky behaviors in high school and college. So whenever possible, make time to eat meals together as a family.
Why did you decide to send your own children to Heathwood? What makes it so unique and special?
I feel strongly that with the proper amount of love and support from home that a child can thrive in many different types of educational setting. However, we wanted our children to enjoy a path that facilitated creativity, kindness, and compassion, and we felt that Heathwood fit our family’s value system best.
Something special happens when you drive on campus. You can literally feel the spirit and warmth that emanates from those who are here. When you walk around and observe classes, it’s easy to see joy and inquisitiveness and community.
One day my daughter told me about something embarrassing that happened to her classmates, and I asked her if anyone had been unkind to the student or made fun of the student over the incident. Savannah looked at me with a very funny look and said, “No, Mama. In all of my years at Heathwood, I have never heard anyone make fun of someone else.”
Last September, my HHES graduating class celebrated our 20 +1 year high-school reunion. Our classmates came into town from Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and even California. Although it had been 10 years since our last reunion, it felt like we hadn’t been apart. We shared stories about Mr. Gasque and Mr. Pulford, Homecoming tailgates, the Christmas sing-along, and even some tragedies that struck during our years together. The common theme within every story, between the laughter and the tears, was family. Heathwood fosters a sense of respect and community, and it’s clear in everything that we do. I thank the Lord every single day for Heathwood Hall and the blessings that it has brought to our family.