Elbridge Gale Elementary School counselor Nicole Martinez was recently recognized as the top school counselor in Palm Beach County.
“The award was given through the Palm Beach County School Counselors Association, and they’re the ones who recognize counselors every year,” Martinez said. “They give an award for the elementary school counselor, the middle school counselor and the high school counselor of the year in Palm Beach County, and it’s the only counselor-based award.”
Martinez was also nominated for the teacher of the year award. Nominations for the counselor award come from school principals, while nominations for teacher of the year come from a teacher’s peers.
“I nominated Nicole for this award,” Principal Gail Pasterczyk said. “I have never seen a guidance counselor who does so many things for the students and staff as Nicole does. Nicole strives for perfection in all that she does, and always goes above and beyond what is required.”
The nominated school counselors have to fill out a packet of information that is looked over by a committee. Then, the counselor of the year is recognized at an annual luncheon.
Martinez has been a school counselor for six years, all of which have been spent at Elbridge Gale. Her first two were full-time, followed by two part-time years, and now, two more at full time.
“I’ve always raised the bar pretty high for myself,” she said.
Prior to working in the school system, Martinez worked in a retirement community and was always an overachiever, earning employee of the year in a company with 120 employees.
“This is actually the first year that I’ve been eligible for the award,” she said. “It was really neat.”
When the description of the elementary counselor was announced, Martinez turned to Pasterczyk upon realizing they were describing her story. She was thrilled, and got up and accepted her award in front of 600 people.
“It was definitely a really cool honor,” Martinez said. “They’re telling me that I’m being recognized as the best, at least this year, elementary school counselor in the county.”
Though accepting the honor in front of such a large crowd was slightly daunting, cheers of support from friends and fellow counselors rang with special satisfaction for Martinez. “Knowing I had their backing was really cool,” she said.
Elbridge Gale was No. 1 in Florida and the Southeast Region in fundraising for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society through its school fundraising program.
“One of her main accomplishments was to coordinate our LLS fundraiser for the past several years,” Pasterczyk said. “Last year, she set a goal to be No. 1 in the southeast region and, with her assistance, we raised more than $27,000 to reach her goal and to earn us No. 8 in the entire U.S.”
Martinez has accolades and posters around her office, including little lights around her desk and other fun decorative items.
“I want this office to be a place where kids feel comfortable, and they always like coming in here,” she said.
In the beginning of the year, when she meets students, she makes it a point to tell them that anytime they are called to her office, they are not in trouble.
“This has to be a trusting relationship,” Martinez said. “You have to be able to trust me, and you have to be able to be comfortable to tell me anything you want without being fearful of discipline.”
Most elementary schools have only one school counselor, she explained, though some schools have two. The role of a school counselor, she said, is to meet the personal, social and sometimes academic needs of the students.
A reason one of the 1,070 students at the school would come to Martinez, for example, would be if their parents were getting divorced, if they lost someone in their life or they were having conflicts with their peers.
Martinez offers a friendly, nonjudgmental ear and works to help with conflict resolution. Interpersonal clashes, grief and family changes are all subjects Martinez covers. She also works to help connect homeless students with programs and organizations to meet their needs.
For part of the day, she teaches a guidance class on the fine arts wheel. For each half of the year, she teaches three grades, allowing Martinez to reach all of the students.
“My role is to help them be better people. That’s what I try to tell them guidance is. I help them try to be better because we always have room for improvement,” she said. “Everyone can be better at who they are and be a better person.”
Conflict resolution, stranger safety and other important life skills are part of her curriculum.
If a student ever needs more in-depth counseling services than Martinez can provide, she will refer them to an outside counselor.
“If I can’t meet their needs, I want to make sure that their needs are being met,” she said. “The greatest thing is, we have a lot of agencies that we refer out to… I always have somewhere to refer them to.”
Some of the agencies, Martinez pointed out, work with insurance companies, and others are free of charge.
The two nominations were an honor for Martinez, who said her goal is truly to help the students.
One of the projects she had her students do during Random Acts of Kindness Week was to write a letter to someone at the school, be it a teacher, custodian, principal or anyone else, who they felt was kind to them.
All of the teachers have posted the letters on their doors, but to Martinez, the letters on her door are extra-special.
“Some of the letters on my door are from kids I would have least expected to write about me,” she said.
That kindness, from the students, who could have written a letter to anyone, shows Martinez what an impact she makes in their lives. Having the adults around her recognize that impact was just an added honor.
“I was nominated for this and for the teacher of the year award for Elbridge Gale at the same time,” she noted.
Her peers, the teachers at the school, nominated her for the teacher of the year award.
“I never thought I would be nominated for something that is teacher-based,” she said. “Counselor is different from teacher, but as a counselor, you are a teacher, because you’re teaching them to be better people.”
ABOVE: Elbridge Gale Elementary School counselor Nicole Martinez.