Counselor of the Year

The New Hampshire Counselor of the Year Award goes to a school counselor who has had a notable impact on the community, advocates of others, and embodies the 3 domains of school counseling: supporting students academics, actively pursuing career development, and prioritizing the social and emotional needs of students. This year, ORHS’s own Heather Machanoff won the award.

Machanoff has been the ORCSD Counseling Director for the past 13 years. Just this past year she stepped down from her administrative role to become a school counselor at ORHS. Her role as a counselor has greatly benefit students, through listening to their concerns and advocating for them at the state level. She has been instrumental in changing the counseling system in the district from that of a guidance counselor to a school counselor system, and making this system districtwide. These contributions are just a few of the many reasons she won this award.

After winning the award Machanoff has a few events coming up. There is the New Hampshire Excellence in Education Awards Ceremony (EDies), which come up in June. The EDies are to recognize and honor all of the educators statewide who won a state award. Then in January there are a few days of events in Washington DC, with all of the other school counselors of the year from each state.

To Machanoff, this award was very meaningful. “It definitely means a lot. You do work, and you don’t know if you’re impacting people. So I think that’s what I take from this, I can see the positives and the changes but it’s a nice feeling to know that your hard work is recognized and appreciated,” she said. 

Although she is very excited about the award, it has some slight drawbacks for Machanoff. “It’s definitely weird to be the center of attention, because it’s not my thing, I like to be behind the scenes, but it’s definitely appreciated, especially when I put a lot of time and energy into my work,” she said.

Kimberly Felch, the new ORCSD Counseling Director, was one of the two people who nominated her for this award. Felch along with Todd Allen, assistant superintendent of the ORCSD, thought she should be recognized for all of her hard work behind the scenes. “In particular her dedication to the fidelity of a school counseling program, and making sure that it is a program that reaches as many students as we can. She puts in endless hours to make sure we have a program that meets that. Also her role in mentoring me through this process, and really seeing how much passion, and heart and drive she has to do the best she can,” said Felch on why she nominated Machanoff.  

The award is well deserved, explained Kim Sekera, a counselor at ORHS. “I think she won the award because she doesn’t just think of her job in the context of what she’s doing with her students. She’s thinking much more globally. She affected change for our whole district. She definitely moved the school forward as far as making it a K-12 comprehensive program. It was well beyond the scope of her job,” she continued. 

As Sekera mentioned, Machanoff has made her fair share of impacts on students and the district as a whole. However, there have also been those who inspired her to get where she is today. Despite being a first generation college student, college wasn’t necessarily on her radar growing up, but it was for her teachers, which she later reflects on as giving her confidence in academics. She ended up going to the State University of New York at Fredonia for a Bachelors of both the Arts and Psychology. 

While taking an Introduction to Psychology class, she realized that school counseling was for her. “It was a meld of all of my interests. I like to talk, so communicating with people, and the creative side. I think everything we do with students is on the creative side because you’re all individuals and we have unique relationships and programs,” said Machanoff. 

Right out of college she decided to go to graduate school at UNH, and graduated in 2002. In that same year, she got a job at Salem High School in Salem, NH. She worked there as a school counselor, alongside some great mentors such as the counseling director at the time. “She was a great mentor. She showed me how to navigate students with challenging situations, and to be able to separate those feelings of wanting to help, and then the reality of how you can go about doing that,” Machanoff said.

Something super influential that her director at Salem taught her was that there is a time frame of when she started working as a counselor, in which she would not only help students but also take on their problems as well. Machanoff now stresses the importance of separating students’ problems from her own, because that can weigh very heavily on anyone. Her old counseling director at Salem was influential in teaching her this skill as to be able to do her own job better.

Although she really enjoyed her job at Salem, after six years of working there she decided to become the counseling director at ORHS in 2008. “I was in Salem as a school counselor and was kind of looking for that next step, and was looking around for directorship. The location was a good fit and the philosophy of school was a good fit and it all came together, so I applied and got in,” she said.

The process of applying for the counseling director position was very different than other positions Machanoff had applied for previously. Because it was an administrative position, she explained it was a bit more complex and intimidating. 

Once she got to Oyster River however, the system in place for the counseling office was that of a guidance counselor. “I was here a year before her, under that old model of guidance it was all about course selection and college. It was really only about college prep and not really any other pathways,” said Sekera. 

For Machanoff, this was a huge shift from Salem, where her schedule was constantly booked with student appointments. “For me, that was a really hard adjustment. There would be days where we wouldn’t see any students, and in Salem our schedules were booked. This is not to slight the people that were working here. It was the system they were working in,” she said. 

Despite the challenge, Machanoff decided that she wanted to change this system. “You can’t have systemic change by being passive, and I think that is probably something that people like and dislike about me. I had to push against the grain when I first got here, and I used to hear “that is not the Oyster River way.” It took a lot of time to make some of the changes happen,” she said. 

She explained how Sekera was on board for the shift, and how the other two counselors at the time left due to other circumstances. This is when the counseling department brought on two new school counselors: Kim Cassamass, and Jason Baker, which brought in some new energy that helped a lot in starting change. 

The first step of changing the counseling system was by educating people about what the role of the job was. This shift was implemented by changing the name from guidance counselor to school counselor. Not only this was a name change, but this also was a mode of changing the entire system. “Yes, the name was important but that was the signifier that that change had happened. That was a pivotal change for people to realize that things were different. It came at the same time that people began to talk about mental health so it was sort of a perfect storm,” said Machanoff.

This new system consisted of three domains. There is academic, with choosing classes, along with letting students know what resources there are available. Then there is the career development domain, which is helping students think about career development and exploration. Finally there is the personal and social domain in which we try to meet students’ social and emotional needs, and having a place where they can come to. This new model aligned with the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) motto. 

It was around the same time that this was happening at the high school that the administrative team started to recognize that this was working, but that there was also a piece missing from the change Machanoff was implementing. This was that there needed to be a connection between the different levels of education from the younger grades up to the high school. Because of this Machanoff became not only the counseling director for the high school, but for the entire school district, K-12. 

She explains that making this shift to a K-12 program wasn’t very well supported by the community. “In terms of the K-12 piece it wasn’t as hard because everyone knew it was important. We didn’t have really any pushback, but we didn’t have much community support. We had a couple evening programs and only had 10 people but it was better than 0 and we had to start somewhere,” she said. Although there wasn’t much community support, Machanoff explained that both the school board and administrative team were very supportive and vital for this systemic change. 

Additionally, Machanoff had a very strong counseling department working by her side. Co-workers such as Sekera explained how she was a great director. “It was from a very collaborative element. I never felt like she was telling us what to do. She was and still is such a strong leader. She leads by example, she works hard and motivates us to work hard. When you have a leader who is that energetic and forward thinking and collaborative, you want to emulate that,” said Sekera. 

Although she was a great leader, she decided to become the fourth school counselor, for the 2019-2020 school year. This was a very tough decision for Machanoff because she enjoyed the big picture planning and relationships that she created with the administrative team. However, she explained how a huge piece she was missing was directly working with students. 

Many students at the high school really like having Machanoff as their counselor. “Mrs. Machanoff is super nice and a great listener, which is one of the most important aspects of a counselor. She’s always there to listen and also provides solid advice all the time, being realistic about things such as college, while also being encouraging and uplifting. She is also non judgemental and you can tell she has so much experience in the field,” said Mia Hricz (‘21). 

Felch agreed with Hricz on what makes Machanoff unique, and said, “She puts so many hours into everything she does, and is always making sure everybody gets what they need to be successful. I have so much respect for her and recognize how passionate she is about our program, and meeting the needs of students.” 

In the coming years, Machanoff will continue to positively impact her students and the counseling department through advocating for students and improving the department as a whole.