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Interview with Barbara Gruner, School Counselor and Author of What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind

Barbara Gruner is a career educator and counselor who has fulfilled many roles over the course of her 30-year career. In addition to her passion for helping children and her fellow counseling professionals, Barbara is also an author. Her book, What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, was released in 2014. Barbara has a Bachelor of Science degree in English and Spanish from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, as well as two Master’s degrees – one in Education and another in Counseling – from the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

1. What led you to pursue counseling as a career?

barbara-grunerThat’s an interesting story, actually. From the very start of my calling as a teacher, students routinely came to me to talk through their personal issues. I even supported one of my first students through rehab and sat in on family therapy sessions with her. Perhaps it was because I was approachable, or maybe that they sensed I’d been through my own struggles and would understand, but because I felt unqualified to help beyond just listening and holding their hearts, I found myself offering passes to the school counselor. A lot. So, six years into my journey growing alongside these teenagers, I took a year-long leave of absence from my high school teaching position to begin my MS in Counseling.

2. How did your upbringing in Wisconsin influence you as an adult?

I use the lessons I harvested on my family’s farm every single day. It’s where I learned about respect, responsibility, gratitude, cooperation, growth mindset, work ethic, resilience, and grit – to name a few of the core values that ground me. It’s where I was encouraged to always give back by making wherever I go better because I’m there. It’s where I lived the kind of love that grows so beautifully with seeds of influence and inspiration from making a living off the land. It’s where I experienced that, in life, what we plant will grow. And it’s where I watched life be as harsh as the extremes of the four seasons, but also as bountiful as the annual autumn harvest that we wholeheartedly rely upon to sustain us during the long winter months in the frozen tundra. Wisconsin is an incredible place to cultivate, plant, and grow seeds of passion and purpose, and I’m grateful to have those strong roots still today.

3. What qualities or skills do you think are most important for success as a counselor?

So many, but first and foremost empathy, compassion, kindness, hope, and love. These are the foundations of connection and relationship. We are called to be hope dealers, to love unconditionally, and to listen to understand so that we can respond with compassion and kindness. Head, heart, hands, health. I first learned about this core four as a child through my membership in 4-H Club and it has served me well as an educator, school counselor, wife, mother, volunteer, mentor, friend.

4. What inspired you to write your book?

I’ve been a writer since I started filling diaries and journals as a child; I took that writing to the next level when I started writing articles for magazines and then publishing my reflections on my school’s website and eventually over at The Corner On Character, all of which opened up more opportunities to write, present growth sessions, and give keynotes. After participating in my workshops, educators often asked if I had a book and I’d tell them that they could read my writing regularly on my blog. Things shifted in the fall of 2012 when an independent book publisher came to a workshop and asked a slightly different question: Why don’t you have a book? She wrote up a contract right there and nine months later What’s Under Your Cape?, filled with stories and strategies to sharpen the superpowers in our elementary-aged superheroes, was born.

5. You’ve worked with children of all ages in the public school system, but found your niche as at the elementary level. Can you explain what you found most rewarding during your time as an elementary school counselor?

The most rewarding thing to me is helping children find themselves in the service of others. I loved modeling and teaching how to go from me to WE. Watching my third graders knit baby hats, for example, to save the lives of underweight newborns in developing countries? Nothing better! Check out our Knit One, Save One video and feel the students’ compassion and love. When we can become connected and centered enough to step out of ourselves and to use our strengths for good, that’s when you know we’ve arrived. It was such a gift to be able to help my littles find their voice and live their purpose with passion and joy.

6. You recently retired from working full time in public schools to pursue an “encore career.” Can you explain what you’re currently doing and why you find it fulfilling?

I spent the last year doing a lot of reflecting, visiting schools and leading assemblies, traveling around the nation presenting workshops and planting seeds of inspiration and joy into the hearts and minds of other educators, and helping create Character Strong’s new PurposeFULL People, a Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and Character Toolkit resource for school stakeholders. As the year went on, I realized that I missed engaging relationally with my littles, so I prayed for and found a part-time position in a neighboring school district serving as an SEL support counselor. It makes my heart so happy to be able to nurture, stretch and grow with not only the children but also the staff and the stakeholders of my new school family.

7. What advice would you share with new graduates who are just beginning a career in counseling?

Be where your feet are as you unwrap the present. Light up for the people in your path, especially the children. Listen to what they’re not saying and assure them that you see them. That they matter. That they are loved. Don’t waste your energy trying to fix stuff; just hold space with people. Be authentic and real. Trust with your whole heart. Love unconditionally. Give grace lavishly to others and then to yourself. Apologize and forgive. Fall down and get back up again. Celebrate mistakes just as you share your successes. Make gratitude a verb. Put your own oxygen mask on first; you simply cannot serve from an empty vessel. Savor every second because time is non-refundable and self-care isn’t selfish. It’s self-honoring, and that’s important. In all things, be intentional. This holy work is too important to leave anything to chance. Read my Dear Me letter, then write one of your own, to a past or future self. Reflection is key to deep and sustainable learning. Connect and collaborate. Laugh often, have fun and choose joy. Every moment of every day.

Thanks to Barbara for sharing her insights and experience with us. To connect with her or learn more about her book, visit Barbara’s blog, The Corner on Character.