Tracey O’Connell: UMaine alumna honored with Maine School Counselor Association Lifetime Achievement Award

In late January, Tracey O’Connell, school counselor at Leonard Middle School in Old Town, started getting emails from her principal about an upcoming Zoom meeting that nobody was allowed to miss. She thought it was going to be a regular staff meeting, nothing terribly exciting.

As it turned out, the Feb. 5 meeting was a virtual schoolwide assembly to announce that O’Connell was the recipient of the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the Maine School Counselor Association.

“It was all very hush-hush, so it was a big surprise and I feel very honored,” says O’Connell.

The Lifetime Achievement Award is given to school counselors who have made a positive impact on students and school counseling, and who demonstrate leadership, advocacy and professionalism. O’Connell, who calls herself a humble person, says the honor is not just hers, but a reflection of her hard work for everyone in the Leonard Middle School community.

“I feel a lot of gratitude for all my college learning and support and I think having this award shows that doing a really good job at something you love is important and that school counselors are integral for school communities,” she says.

O’Connell’s journey to becoming a school counselor began in a one-room school in tiny Aurora, Maine (population 70 when she was growing up). She attended the Airline School until eighth grade, then Brewer High School. For college, she initially attended the University of Maine at Farmington before transferring to the University of Maine where she completed a degree in child development and family relations in 1983.

She worked as a kindergarten teacher and had other jobs before returning to UMaine for graduate school in the early ’90s. She ultimately completed a master’s in counselor education in 1994, and a certificate of advanced studies in 1996.

“I was a nontraditional graduate student. I remember I was pregnant and had a little kid, and we lived in University Park,” O’Connell recalls.

After earning her master’s, O’Connell got her first school counselor job back at the Airline School, where she had grown up. It was one day a week to start, eventually increasing to two. She also got a job working two-and-a-half days a week at the Dedham School.

“I loved it,” she says. “School counseling can sometimes be a job that people worry about, like ‘Who’s going to be teaching my kids about the important stuff that school counselors teach?’ But those communities trusted me, and the schools were wonderful.”

After about six years, O’Connell got a full-time job at Leonard Middle School, closer to where she lives in Orono. She’s been there ever since.

School counselors wear many hats, and that’s just the way O’Connell likes it. She teaches a class once a week, but she’s also there to provide support for students going through everything from the routine challenges of being in middle school to more sensitive matters, such as the death of a parent. She’s the suicide prevention trainer for her school, providing training to staff with other counselors in the district about warning signs and other things to be aware of when it comes to people — particularly young people — in distress. Other roles include, leading the garden club and the Civil Rights team, Operation Breaking Stereotypes adviser, and serving on school councils and committees.

“Being a school counselor is all about building strong relationships, and I really believe in that,” she says.

“I think math and language arts are important too. But every meeting I’m in, I always ask, ‘What’s the social-emotional learning aspect?’ Because if you can’t be emotionally healthy, then it makes it really hard to do the other stuff.”

O’Connell says she feels lucky to live and work so close to UMaine. Over the years, her alma mater has been a resource she has turned to frequently.

“Any type of educational support that I need, I know I can call over and ask someone to give a talk or send resources. Black Bear Mentors have come into our school a lot over the years, and we’ve had several student teachers and interns from UMaine as well,” she says.  The Food Sciences department has been a yearly participant in the annual wellness fair.

For young people considering a career as a school counselor, O’Connell offers this advice: “Jump right in. Go volunteer, get an internship, do some type of program to get experience.”

“Whenever I get an intern,” O’Connell says, “I know I can get them on board to love middle school. They’ll want to be a middle school counselor.”

Contact: Casey Kelly,