Working as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) in a school is probably the coolest job ever. You get to work with children in the most authentic setting, and have access to support them (directly and indirectly) for up to 30 hours a week! It is a demanding setting and I see many SLPs posting on message boards that they get burned out and frustrated, so you have to be sure to come in with the right mindset to set yourself up for success.
It truly is in your best interest to stay at the same school for at least 3 years if possible. The first year you are learning the ropes, getting to know students, creating organizational processes, and becoming familiar with district/school procedures. In year two, you are refining your practice by deepening relationships with students and staff and exploring new systems and therapy techniques. By year three, you have the tools needed to really make some positive changes for the students, teachers and speech program on your campus.
But in order to make it to year three, you have to get through year one! With that in mind, here are 5 things new SLPs (and SLPs who are new to a school) should avoid during their first year on the job.
1. Don’t be a wrecking ball. When you’re new, you’re busting at the seams with ideas and may come in wanting to implement all kinds of new things. That kind of energy and attitude is great, but may not work for all situations. For example, if you will be working collaboratively with teachers in a co-teaching kind of situation, come in with an attitude of openness and flexibility. Ask what worked for them in the past, what didn’t work, and make a plan that works for all involved. Changes need to be mutually agreed upon, otherwise they can cause resentment, frustration, and likely won’t be implemented.
2. Don’t criticize the school’s previous SLP.
I have walked into some difficult situations: completely unorganized files, IEP goals that were impossible to decipher, practically blank IEPs, or tension about the role of an SLP due to the staff’s previous experience with professionals in our field. Your first year on a campus can feel overwhelming and it can be easy to to get caught up in the negativity. However, you can’t sum up the work of an individual by a snapshot of what you see. Instead, truly believe in your heart that the SLP before you was doing the best they could. If there are things you want to do moving forward to change the reputation of the speech program, or to reorganize the space, by all means put your energy there and not on things in the past.
3. Don’t skip out on staff meetings or duties.
SLPs are known as the princesses of a district, and one quick way to earn this title is by skipping out on duties that are expected for all staff. Duties, similar to household chores, are an inevitable part of working at a school. They are tasks that have to be completed for the safety of students (e.g. supervising the bike rack, walking students to the bus, supervising a playground). When we try to get out of these (when everyone else is doing them), it can give the SLP a reputation of not being a team player and cause resentment. Staff meetings are another expected community activity for a school staff. Although it may not seem like the content of the meetings are relevant to your role as an SLP, it allows you to learn about curriculum, support grade level teams with data review, receive general academic professional development, and learn about important school initiatives. For duties, attending IEP and MET meetings can interfere with your ability to do a daily duty, and this is a real thing to discuss with your principal. But offer a positive solution, such as taking on a duty that is less time intensive (one day a week) or offering to be a sub if someone is absent.
4. Don’t hole up in your speech room all year.
Even if the bulk of your services are in the speech room, be sure to get out there and start building relationships with the staff. This starts from day one. I like to put out a box of bagels or donuts in the staff room with a note that says: “Hi everyone, I’m Lisa Kathman, your new speech therapist! Can’t wait to meet all of you!” It sets a tone for the year that I am happy to be on that campus and am approachable. As the year progresses, I try to eat in the lunch room or with a grade level team at least once every two weeks so I can learn about my co-workers and have conversations that are not student-centric. This allows for better collaboration and discussion when those opportunities arise throughout the year.
5. Don’t get in a pissing contest.
Ultimately there will be a time where you have a professional difference of opinion, or lack of communication that results in conflict. Rather than putting energy into who is right, stay neutral, identify the problem, and come up with a mutually agreeable solution. Remain courteous and be sure to keep your conversation confidential. You can’t control how other people react in times of disagreement, but you can remain professional and courteous yourself. Always start with the source, but if you need support reach out to your principal and/or lead SLP for further guidance/resolution.
Our jobs as speech-language pathologists in the schools are so important. We have the ability to make a real difference in students’ lives by giving them the communication skills they need to access their curriculum. Welcome to your new job - you will rock it!