Chantilly: Otal Named Elementary School Counselor of the Year

Chantilly: Otal Named Elementary School Counselor of the Year

Brookfield’s Otal Honored

Brookfield Elementary counselor Kathleen Otal (back row, center) with students in teacher Tracy Foster’s third-grade class.

Brookfield Elementary counselor Kathleen Otal (back row, center) with students in teacher Tracy Foster’s third-grade class. Photo by Bonnie Hobbs.

Brookfield Elementary counselor Carole Zendle wanted to nominate Kathleen Otal, the previous school year, for the FCPS Elementary School Counselor of the Year.

But, saying she doesn’t do her job for recognition, Otal wouldn’t let her. This school year, though, Otal — also at Brookfield — relented. Zendle nominated her and Otal won.

“In my 30 years as a counselor, I’d never nominated anyone for this — but I’d never worked with anyone like her before,” said Zendle. “Kathleen is just phenomenal; she motivates by example, never asks anyone to do what she wouldn’t do and she’s just a great person.”

Otal’s been at Brookfield for more than 15 years and went into counseling because she loves “children, schools and helping people. After college, I taught first grade for a year and that helped me understand what teachers go through — it’s really a hard job.”

Counseling also enables her to work with all different grade levels at once — as individuals, in small groups and in classes. “I love supporting teachers and parents, and I have an opportunity to do all these things as a counselor,” she said. “To help the kids, we all have to work together.”

Otal said the skills required of a good counselor included patience and love. “You have to never give up and be willing to try lots of different things,” she said. “And you have to see the best in every child and have a positive attitude and a sense of humor.”

Furthermore, she said, “You have to be able to multitask, balance a lot of things at the same time and prioritize things. There’s so much going on; needs pop up and change your schedule. You want to prevent problems from happening, as much as possible. The purpose of a counselor is to help students learn, so you put elements in place to help them do that.”

With 830 students, Brookfield has several such programs, including one-to-one mentoring of students by staff members or the school’s business partners. Also important are Brookfield’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIs).

“It’s giving students positive reinforcement and telling them they’re doing a great job,” said Otal. “Praise works for everybody. Brookfield has its own ‘three Rs’ — students are respectful, responsible and ready [to learn].”

She’s is one of that program’s coaches, along with kindergarten teacher Melissa Amory. “We see it as a big, prevention piece,” said Otal. “We recognize students for doing these things, for example, holding a door for someone or helping a friend who feels sad. The students get stickers and, when they receive a certain number of them, they write their names in the Book of Honor.”

This program acknowledges behavior above and beyond the norm. “We try to catch children being good, as much as we can,” said Otal. “It’s our school’s identity — it’s how we behave, and it sets a positive culture in the school.”

“We laugh, instead of cry, when we can’t change anything,” added Zendle. “But we try to do our best for the students and stay positive. And Kathleen always get it that it’s about the child and helping the teachers, parents and caretakers get involved for the child’s best interests to help him or her do their personal best. And Kathleen always has that focus to not give up.”

Also important, said Zendle, is that the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) encourages school counselors to apply for its Recognized ASCA Model Program designation. Getting this designation signifies that a school has a certified counseling program dealing with student academics plus social, emotional and career development.

“Brookfield was the first elementary school in Fairfax County to receive it,” said Zendle. “We had to submit 160 pages of data, plus videos. We got the designation last summer, and it was a really big accomplishment for Brookfield. I think this is another one of the reasons Kathleen was selected Counselor of the Year.”

Added Otal: “I knew we’d get it because I knew we have a great program here.”

Delighted with her colleague’s honor, Zendle said, “Kathleen has endless energy and enthusiasm. She inspires me — and I’ve been a counselor 34 years.”


Brookfield counselor Kathleen Otal in front of the school, this fall.

School Principal Mary Miller was also thrilled. “I can’t think of another person who deserves it more than Kathleen. I’ve known her five years, and she and Carole are both such a strong team. But Kathleen is one of a kind; there’s always a smile on her face and her positive enthusiasm is infectious.”

Calling Otal the school’s “cheerleader,” Miller said Otal even makes videos with students and puppets to model good behavior. “It helps so much,” said Miller. “And in any situation when we need help, she’s there. She always makes sure the students’ needs are met and works closely with the families.”

This school year, Brookfield has a new attendance initiative, also striving for success by helping the students get to school every day and on time. “Data shows that students attending school consistently are more likely to read on grade level by third grade,” said Otal. “They’re also more likely to graduate from high school, so the local middle- and high-school counselors are also excited about our initiative.”

To reinforce it, each Brookfield student received a bracelet in the school’s blue-and-white colors with the words, “Strive for 7:45” and “8 is late.” The first bell rings at 8 a.m., and that’s when the children should be in their seats. Otal’s the attendance team leader, along with Assistant Principal Jennifer Drummond.

Regarding her counseling award, Otal said, “I don’t like things to be about me. I do what I do for the kids, not for recognition. And I couldn’t do what I do here without the other staff members at Brookfield because it’s an amazing school. But I was excited — it means I’m recognized for the hard work I do and it’s appreciated.”

She and her husband, Juan Otal, live in Arlington and have a son, Lucas, who attends Washington-Lee High, and a daughter, Carrie, who attends Kenmore Middle. But Kathleen Otal isn’t the only award-winner in their family; her husband teaches fifth grade at Carlin Springs Elementary in Arlington and, two years ago, he was named his school’s Teacher of the Year.