Award-winning counselor wants every student to be a happy camper

April 30, 2015

Award-winning counselor wants every student to be a happy camper

Koenecke embodies the College of Education and Professional Studies' mission to nurture leaders who are active agents of change.

Lisa Koenecke can't even tell you who her own school counselor was when she was growing up.

But no student at Stoughton's River Bluff Middle School is going to grow up without a strong memory of Koenecke, the counselor who greets them every morning at the door, hugs them during the day in the hallways and "high fours" them as they leave after school with four-fingered Mickey Mouse mitts.

"I'm not real shy," Koenecke said. "I hug - it's what I do."

She also treats her colleagues well.

"Every morning I walk around the building and greet the staff, asking them if they need anything, or giving them a heads up regarding a student situation," she said.

And she makes the rounds every Friday afternoon with a basket of chocolates to show her appreciation of her colleagues and to check in with them.

"It's a positive ritual and it lets me touch base with everyone. And I can cue the principal in about staff or student concerns," Koenecke said.

The one-time summer camp director says the ritual is based on her philosophy of what made for a happy camper.

"If the staff is happy, the campers are happy. If the campers are happy, the parents are happy. If the parents are happy, I'm happy."

The winner of the 2015 Wisconsin School Counselor Association Mary Gehrke-McAllister Leadership Award, Koenecke became a school counselor - and please don't call her a "guidance counselor," a term that has been out of favor since 1990 - after receiving her Master of Science in school counseling from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2008. She credits the strong foundation she received on campus for allowing her to later meet the academic, social-emotional and career needs of her students.

She completed her internship at Monona Grove High School and first worked at Verona High School. When looking for a permanent position, Koenecke only applied to schools whose mission included protections for sexual orientation. She found a good fit at Stoughton High School. When enrollment at the high school decreased, she was asked to move to the middle school.

"I've found my niche," Koenecke said of River Bluff Middle School, "it's like home, and I love it!"

"Being out myself means that kids feel safe, that I create a safe place," she adds, and explains that teachers - many of who had never met someone who identified as LGBT and struggled to support all of their students - have a person they could go to for advice.

Koenecke embodies the College of Education and Professional Studies' mission to nurture leaders who are active agents of change. She has presented nationally, from Philadelphia to San Diego, on creating safe schools for LGBTQ students and all youth. In 2013, the Gay Straight Alliance for Education named her as the Educator of the Year for Wisconsin. She's the one in a rainbow wig at the GSAFE walk/run/eat events, cheering the runners and walkers on as she oversees a stable of volunteers.

And she knows how to make an impact. Soon after joining Stoughton High School, Koenecke and fellow counselor Ann Cook learned that a group of boys in a woods class were regularly overheard using a gay slur. Koenecke and Cook assembled the students and provided each of them a two-by-four, a hammer and some nails.

"Pound a nail in the wood if you've ever teased someone," the counselors instructed. The boys complied.

"Pound in another if you've ever called someone a (slur)."

As the pounding continued, the two changed tactics.

"Take out a nail if you've ever stood up for someone who is being bullied," they said.

In the end, there were more nail holes than nails in the boards. And that was the point.

"Even if you apologize," the counselors pointed out, and even if you do the right thing in the end, "it still leaves a mark."


Jeff Angileri

Sara Kuhl

Written by Kristine Zaballos