‘I wouldn’t change a thing about my career’

CHS guidance counselor uses own experiences to reach students

Special to The Sun: Educational Services Professional of the Year Suzanne Connolly, a guidance counselor at Cherokee High School for 15 years, gets a celebratory photo with her family.

A great guidance counselor, according to Suzanne Connolly, is non-judgmental and leads with compassion.

She should know: The Cherokee High School guidance counselor was recently named Educational Services Professional of the Year.

“The most important things, I think, are to be warm, considerate, caring and respectful, and to make your office a place where students feel that they can tell you anything,” Connolly posited. “You’re not judgmental, and you make your students feel like your door is always open.”

And even though Connolly always endeavors to be the empathetic ear and steadfast shoulder all of her students need, she had no idea her peers had nominated her for the annual honor.

“I was extremely surprised,” she said. “I thought I was having a meeting with my supervisor, but then there were balloons and flowers and photos. It was amazing.”

Fellow guidance counselor Carmen Zekaria knows it’s an honor that’s well deserved.

“Suzanne is worthy of the ESP of the year honor because she goes above and beyond for her students and the Cherokee family regularly,” Zekaria said. “Not only is Suzanne a wonderful school counselor, she also manages the Cherokee Food Pantry. Suzanne serves not just her students but the entire Cherokee family.”

According to Zekaria, Connolly organizes the pantry’s food donations and then coordinates distribution. Beyond that, when schools closed in March, Zekaria relayed how Connolly wasted no time relocating the pantry to her own garage, as well as tapping into her network to identify families in need, delivering food on her own and coordinating with local food trucks.

“Everyone that knows Suzanne recognizes her humility and generous heart,” she said. “Our community is blessed by all of her efforts.”

Lenape Regional High School District superintendent Dr. Carol Birnbohm agreed that Connolly’s efforts to help through the food pantry make a significance impact.

“Cherokee’s Educational Services Professional of the year, Suzanne Connolly, is a leader in our counseling department, bringing an upbeat personality and enthusiastic energy to work each day,” she said. “In addition to the outstanding support she provides as a school counselor, she also garners donations, organizes and delivers supplies for our Cherokee Food Pantry, providing a much-needed resource for our families with food insecurity.”

Connolly, a Marlton resident, is in her 15th year at Cherokee but actually got her start in the classroom 20 years ago. She had worked toward her psychology degree with the intention of becoming a school counselor, but during her studies, she found out that she would need some hands-on educational experience first.

“I learned how to be a teacher on the job, but it was a great experience — I was deathly afraid at first, but everything turned out OK,” Connolly said with a laugh.

The guidance counselor admits it was frustrating at the time to have to delay her dreams of working as a school counselor, but getting to know an educator’s role proved to be an enriching experience that provided her with a wealth of firsthand knowledge, both to her students’ benefits and her own.

“It really helped me understand students, what they go through and how much work they have to do and the stresses they have,” Connolly noted. “It helped me especially when I’d go into the classrooms and make presentations. I felt more comfortable because I was used to addressing a classroom.”

Connolly’s own unconventional route to following her dreams includes taking six years to receive her master’s degree. But she said sharing her own ups, downs and detours with her students helps them see that success is never a linear path.

This year, Connolly has 241 students in her care, slightly less than last year’s 250. All of the students assigned to her stay with her from ninth through 12th grade, and Connolly loves seeing them grow from new freshmen to seniors ready for their next chapter.

“When I started, I just had ninth and 10th graders,” she explained. “This is so much better because I really get to know them.”

And it makes the commencement ceremony — one of Connolly’s favorite milestones for her students — all the more meaningful when she gets to be a part of students’ entire high school experience, right on down to their first walk from the football field to the Cherokee High School building as newly minted alumni.

“I love graduation,” Connolly enthused. “I get tears in my eyes all the time. I know how hard it was for some of my kids to get to that point, but they got through it and they’re so excited for the future. I can joke with some of them, saying, ‘You did it, even though I had to hound you all four years.’”

Connolly is sensitive to the fact that an individual’s high-school performance is in no way a sentence they’re resigned to for the rest of their lives.

“Some people have a slower start, and some people don’t do well in high school and then go on to do phenomenally in college — they just had to grow up a little bit,” she observed. “I always tell them that there’s no right way. Everybody has their own path they follow.”

The pandemic and remote learning have made every school employee’s job inherently different than it used to be, and Connolly is no exception. Instead of the two in-person meetings she tries to have with all her students, as well as the visits with those who need a little extra support, Connolly has to settle for connecting with them virtually.

“I have a lot of Google Meets with my students now, but at least I get to see them without masks on,” she said. “We still get to talk and I do try to see as much of my students as I possibly can. It’s definitely a more stressful year.”

What hasn’t changed, though, is how in-tandem Connolly works with teachers to ensure that students in need of a guidance counselor’s care and assistance are on her radar: “Teachers are constantly emailing me about students; I’m constantly emailing them just so we can work together to contact the parents or to set up a meeting if we have to.”

Connolly’s 15 years at Cherokee exemplify all the reasons she wanted to become a guidance counselor in the first place.

“I really love working with all kinds of students,” she explained. “I love the high-school students because they’re so different. It’s exciting because, even though some of them have difficulties and some have an easier time, they all have different things they want to do. I learn something every day from them.”

Being receptive to learning not just from her students but her own experiences, too, has given Connolly a perspective ruled by gratitude as she considers her own professional journey while ultimately guiding hundreds of students a year toward theirs.

“All my experiences have been fantastic,” Connolly said. “I wouldn’t change a thing about my career.”

If Connolly has accomplished anything in her 15 years at Cherokee, she hopes that her students feel cared for under her watch and face their next chapters with pride.

“If I have to be remembered for anything, I hope it’s because my students know I cared and that I went the extra mile to help them solve a problem,” she said. “I want them to be hopeful and optimistic about the future, and I hope I helped them remember that they should never give up.”