Holly Guelig leaning against a bookshelf in a grade school library
Holly Guelig has worked as a counselor at Greenwood Elementary School in Henrico County since 2013. (Owen Wachter, VCU School of Education)

Holly Guelig: ‘I get to be a game changer’

VCU School of Education alum and Virginia Elementary School Counselor of the Year found her dream job.

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Holly Guelig has always loved teaching.

“When I was a little kid growing up in Fredericksburg, I would gather the other kids in our neighborhood and teach them music lessons,” she said. “I didn't know anything about music. I just loved teaching. I created worksheets for the other kids. I took it very seriously.”

In May, the Virginia School Counselor Association named Guelig, a counselor at Greenwood Elementary School in Henrico County, as its Virginia Elementary School Counselor of the Year.

Guelig majored in psychology in college, hoping to become a child psychologist or therapist. She attended Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and thrived in her psychology courses, but the required math courses were another matter.

“Growing up, I had a learning disability in math. My brain works a little differently when it comes to numbers,” she said. “I love our school system, but I was in no way prepared for college math. I kept thinking, ‘If I can't pass math, I can't graduate.’”

She found a math instructor at Germanna who was willing to help her improve her math proficiency. Guelig earned an A in her first class with him, followed by another A, and then another. Her confidence built as her grade average improved. “My instructor completely disarmed my fears,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful thing when a teacher can reach that one person in such a meaningful way.”

Guelig was working full time in retail management the entire time. “Even on the job, I kept trying to find ways to help people,” she said. “It was never about just selling clothes. It was all about, ‘How can I help you feel good about yourself?’”

Her managers loved it, but her sales associates weren’t so sure. “They would say, ‘It's just selling clothes, so why make it about more than that?’” She decided to re-dedicate herself to truly helping others. She left that job and began working at a psychiatric hospital.

“That’s when I learned that I wanted to be on the prevention side,” she said. “I wanted to work with children, teens and families before they got into crisis.”

Guelig eventually enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University, majoring in psychology with a minor in religious studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences. She was talking with her undergraduate psychology advisor, who happened to be a school counseling student in the graduate program at the School of Education. Guelig told her advisor that she had always loved the idea of teaching, but didn’t want to teach math, science or reading. The advisor asked if she had ever considered school counseling.

“I still get chills thinking about it,” Guelig said. “It was like … game over. It was the perfect marriage of what I wanted to do – my dream job.”

It’s one of many fond memories Guelig has of her time at VCU.

“When I started at VCU as an undergrad, all of my professors were so incredibly helpful,” she said. “They saw that I was putting in the effort. They really, truly became my mentors. I felt very much at home. I felt like I had a whole team in my corner.”

By the time she earned her bachelor’s degree in 2009, Guelig’s grades had improved significantly. She considered many graduate schools.

“The VCU School of Education was one of the best in the country, and my advisor had great things to say about it,” she said. “I looked at the faculty and really liked what I saw. I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else.”

Guelig earned her M.Ed. in pre-K-12 school counseling from the School of Education in 2012. The following year, she joined Greenwood Elementary School as a counselor.

“Our ‘dream team’ works so hard to create a learning environment full of love, belonging and fun,” she said. “It’s a labor of love to be a school counselor, and I am beyond blessed that I get to serve my Greenwood students and families in this capacity.”

For Guelig, the most rewarding thing is helping – and teaching – children.

“The best thing about my job is that I get to be a game changer for kids and families,” she said. “I get to teach children that being mentally healthy doesn’t mean having to be perfect. I help them to understand that there’s no true normal, and that they’re not alone.”

As part of her job, she conducts weekly lessons with children on social/emotional learning. She incorporates mental health and wellness into those lessons, showing children how the brain works at their age and what that means for emotional regulation.

“I use the training from my master’s program in school counseling,” she said. “For a while, I thought something was wrong with my brain because I had a learning disability, but in grad school I learned that your brain can change. I wish I had known that when I was younger.

“Just because you have a learning disability in one area doesn't mean it's always going to be like that. I try to bring things that I’ve learned, and that we’ve all learned as an adult, to our children here at Greenwood in a way that’s beneficial.”