Before classes began at Vista Middle School one April morning, school counselor Bryce Zofkie was already meeting one-on-one with a couple of her students. Zofkie provided a comfortable space for these students to start their day, gently smiling and asking follow-up questions as the students talked about their family, their friendships, and their emotions.
During these quick chats, she offered some affirmation – “It’s absolutely okay to have that feeling!” – or help them brainstorm solutions – “What are some things you can do to help you when you’re feeling mad?”
“My goal is that I want students to learn those tools so that they can advocate for themselves,” Zofkie said afterwards.
After these appointments, Zofkie popped into the hallway to greet students as they walk to their first period class. As she caught up with a student about her art project, the first bell rang and the student darted off to class.
“Bye, Ms. Zofkie – I would love it if you visited me at lunch!” the student shouted as she walked away.
“I would love to visit you!” Zofkie responded.
Being a highly visible, friendly face at Vista is a key part of Zofkie’s role. She said this makes it easier for students to find her if they or a friend needs help.
“I make it a point that every student in this school knows who I am, and how to get a hold of me,” Zofkie said. “The more trusted adults students have in their lives, the safer they feel.”
Zofkie is in her second year as a school counselor at Vista, and she loves helping middle schoolers navigate what can be a complex, emotional time in their lives.
“They are in this age where they are learning and changing and growing so much,” she said. “Some of them act too cool for school, but they also really want connections and relationships.”
After graduating from Western Washington University, Zofkie stayed with the Vikings as a coach and academic advisor for the volleyball team. For that job, she helped first-year college students transition into college – and this role sparked her interest in becoming a school counselor.
“I realized the best part of my days are those one-on-one connections,” she said.
When a student visits Zofkie, it can be for a variety of reasons, but she emphasizes that privacy will be upheld. The only exceptions are mandatory reporter situations (if someone is hurting the student, or if the student wants to hurt someone or hurt themselves) or if the student gives permission for Zofkie to tell another trusted adult.
Zofkie starts slowly with students who visit her, instead of forcing deep conversations immediately.
“It’s all about building that relationship, so I can’t expect for a student who’s never met me to tell me what’s going on,” she said. “That’s why it’s important for them to see me in their hallways and classes, so this doesn’t feel like the first interaction we’ve ever had.”
One way Zofkie connects with students outside of one-on-one sessions is through classroom visits, where she’ll lead interactive lessons on topics like grief and resilience or planning for high school. For example, that April morning, she had Meghan Elliott’s class try some stress relief exercises like tensing and slowly releasing muscles, then she had students partner up to talk about the highs and lows of their day and create a secret handshake.
“In middle school, sometimes you don’t have enough time to connect with your peers, so I like to give you guys that time,” she told the class. “Plus, handshakes are silly and fun!”
On Wednesdays after school, Zofkie leads Vista’s Natural Helpers club. This club is similar to student leadership, minus the elected positions – students do teacher recognition awards and plan fun events like Kindness Week and school dances. Zofkie also teaches them how they can help their peers with tough social situations, as well as how to know when to get an adult involved.
“The group is full of those silent leaders who are trying to make connections,” she said.
An important part of Zofkie’s job is more behind-the-scenes. Along with Principal Heather Leighton, she creates Vista’s master schedule every year, which determines how many periods of each subject and class will be offered. She also works with Registrar Hilleary Sorenson to create students’ schedules.
Kristle Craft, the intervention specialist at Vista, frequently collaborates with Zofkie to build plans for students who have academic, behavioral or social-emotional needs. Craft said Zofkie was “wicked smart” and a strong advocate for students, but also praised her for making Vista’s staff feel heard and appreciated too.
“She’s not just here for the kids, she also checks in on us!” Kraft said of Zofkie. “She believes the whole school needs to be healthy and together in order to help everybody.”
Zofkie said she feels lucky to work at Vista with wonderful school staff, students and families.
“I cannot do my role without those people, so I’m very, very thankful for everyone that’s at this school,” she said. “We can’t do it alone!”