A while ago a FB discussion began discussing caseloads (yes, again). One SLP mentioned how she had managed to advocate for both the students she serves AND the SLPs in her district, so of course I asked her to guest blog how she did it. We know caseloads and advocacy are major problems with many SLPs afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they speak up.
Here is one SLP’s suggestions for solving that problem! I hope we can all learn from her!
10 Ways SLP’s Can Affect Change in the School Setting
By Christine Bainbridge M.A., CCC-SLP
I know from reading posts from fellow SLP’s around the country, that working conditions in some of the schools are downright disheartening. Some of our fellow SLP’s are laboring under gigantic caseloads, mounds of paperwork, lack of decent workspaces, and under unreasonable expectations of administrators and colleagues who don’t really understand what the school SLP actually does. Some have called for ASHA or state organizations to step in to broker better working conditions for School SLPs. While this is a worthy pursuit, it is unlikely that ASHA or state organizations will be quick to provide relief. So, what can we do in the meantime? Schools and school districts are like cruise ships. They can’t turn on a dime, but they can turn. In many situations, you can begin to turn the ship in a more favorable direction that makes your work life more livable. It may not happen quickly, but even small improvements along the way can vastly improve your working conditions and quality of life.
1: Believe that you can affect change:
The first step in affecting change at your school is the belief that you can have impact. It’s easy to see a situation as hopeless and intractable. If you truly believe that, then it might be time to head for greener pastures somewhere else, but in most circumstances change is possible, especially if you take the long view. If you can begin to make changes on the small scale, eventually you will make changes on a bigger scale. Start with small actionable steps, and move forward from there. Change is a journey, not a destination.
2: Let go of “us” vs “them” thinking:
It’s easy to fall into this trap. We feel misunderstood many times in the school setting. Teachers and SLP’s come to the table with different training, jargon, and expectations. In an atmosphere so dominated by classroom teachers, it’s easy to compare our situations, and conclude the other one “has it easy” compared to us. The fact is, no one has it “easy” in the schools. Everyone (kids, teachers, parents, and administrators) has their own unique pressures, conflicts, constraints, and expectations. Everyone wants to feel appreciated and valued for the work they do. Practicing a more compassionate mindset toward your colleagues is a first step for building greater understanding and appreciation for yourself. When you make a point to verbally recognize how busy someone is, you will often see their attitude start to change toward you when you need a little support and understanding yourself. Over the years, I’ve made more of an effort to blur the boundaries between myself and my classroom teacher colleagues. The result has been better understanding and collaboration on both sides. This collaboration, instead of resulting in more work for me, has resulted in a much better understanding of me and my role in the school.
3: Put boundaries around your time:
In the school setting there can be a perceived culture of martyrdom. The image of the selfless teacher or SLP laboring away for hours on her own time, sacrificing her family, health, and well-being is one well-worn trope on social media. Sometimes it seems like we are in a race to prove that we work harder than anyone else. It doesn’t need to be that way. Sometimes we perceive everything to “important and urgent” when often that is not the case. Multitasking is a scourge of our modern age. When we constantly switch our attention, we don’t do anything efficiently. Practice checking and responding to emails only two, to three times a day. Practice saying, “I don’t check work emails at home.” It is possible. You will sleep better without that last minute problem weighing on your subconscious at 4a.m.
Schedule in time for dinner, exercise, sleep, and relaxation. We do the things we prioritize. Use your planner to schedule ahead of time exactly when you will write those reports, update those IEPs, do your assessing. Looking ahead and planning ahead means that you can relax and breathe when you do have some free time, because you know you have scheduled time later to do what must get done. I make a point to communicate to people exactly when I am going to work on something, so they don’t assume that I will be doing it immediately. Most people can accept that, even if they are in a hurry. For example, I recently responded to an email about a Medicaid justification letter that I received right before a much needed and anticipated school break by saying that, “Our district is off for spring break next week, and I will begin working on the report when we get back.” I resisted to urge to spend my break working on this letter, because it truly was not an emergency, and I truly needed a chance to relax and recharge.
4: Move out of your zone:
When I first started in the schools. I focused on doing my job. I stayed in my speech room. I didn’t volunteer for committees. I felt like much of what happened in the school didn’t really apply to me, because I wasn’t a classroom teacher. It was isolating, especially since I was the only SLP in the district. Over time however, I realized that I had a unique perspective to offer when it came to subjects as literacy, vocabulary, and grammar instruction, behavior, and trends in education. I read a lot, and I have more access to research and resources than some teachers. I stopped being shy about sharing what I know. I started to volunteer for committees, and started to look at more educational research and best practice. I became informed, not only about issues of speech/language pathology, but about the field of education overall. I presented workshops on conference days. Suddenly, I could confidently speak the the lingo of my colleagues and administrators, while interpreting the world of the SLP to them. Moving out of my zone to embrace collaboration with a broader range of professionals helped eliminate that feeling of being isolated and misunderstood.
5: Get to know how administration thinks:
If you don’t know your administrators well, make a point to introduce yourself and chat them up. It’s easy to take pot shots at administration. It can seem like they have all the power, and don’t really understand who we are, or what we do. After years of getting to know my administrators, however, I have come to the conclusion, that it kind of sucks to be an administrator. Administrators face a daily barrage of fires to put out, financial problems to deal with, unrealistic expectations from state and federal agencies and criticism from the public. Everyone has encountered good and bad administrators, but again, just like teachers, and other school employees, everyone wants to be understood and appreciated for the work they do. So, when you have a good working idea of the rules and regulations that your school administration is working under, and you can speak intelligently to issues that concern them, you are more likely to get traction when it comes to issues that you care about.
Also, often administration receives training in and around particular philosophies, paradigms, or books (think: Steven Covey, Growth Mindset, Grit, Teach Like a Champion, etc.) that helps define their process, or mindset. Find out what they are reading, and read it, too. I know this might seem hokey, but it’s important to understand the perspective of the administrators in your district, in order to communicate your issues to them in a way that they are more likely to listen. Also, bonus points if you can use the lingo from these books because they are already primed to pay attention to this language, which makes them more likely to pay attention to you.
6: Provide the evidence of your competence:
I think that sometimes we are not good enough at tooting our own horns. I think that we shouldn’t just track our professional development, but also all the other things that we do. Did you come up with new service delivery, organization/planning strategy, or data tracking method, this year? Write it down! Did you give a workshop, supervise a student SLP, start a book study, serve on a committee? Write it down! I keep a list of everything that I do that either makes me a better SLP, or provides benefit to the District. During self-reflections and end of the year reviews, I supply my administrators with the specific evidence they need to justify giving me a good review. A mistake that I see teachers making in writing end-of- the–year reflections is that they focus on their beliefs and passions, but don’t provide the specific evidence of what they do that shows professional competence. Administrators don’t have x-ray vision, or mind reading capabilities. We need to make it easy for them to see our value in the district. Write it down!
7: Do the Data:
When you have a concern about working conditions. Track it! I wanted to find out how much time I actually spent on Medicaid paperwork. I used a timer to track the exact amount of time that I spent doing Medicaid paperwork for three months, from that I was able to reasonably estimate that I spent the equivalent of 16 full school days every year just on Medicaid paperwork. This data helped my district come to the conclusion that the amount of Medicaid reimbursement we got did not justify the cost of BOCES contracts to process the billing and the loss of therapy time to paperwork. As a result, our district no longer bills Medicaid, and my working life is vastly improved. If you are trying to make a case for better working conditions, compelling data can make the argument for you. Every administrator answers to someone else. Principles answer to Superintendents, and ultimately Superintendents answer to the school board. No one is going to put their butt on the line for you without compelling evidence. If you can give administrators the data they need to make the case for you, you are more likely to get something you want.
8: Come to the table with solutions not complaints:
Administration fields complaints from all directions all the time. Have you ever noticed that when you complain to a group of people, their typical response to counter with their own complaints? It’s natural. Complaining triggers, a defensive reaction in many people in which they then focus on what is unfair or difficult in their world, and away from you. It’s a counterproductive strategy if your goal is to change things. This is why, before you begin to complain, especially to administration, focus on what you would like to happen, as opposed to what you want to see stop happening. Brainstorm ideas of what could happen, and present your idea as the solution to a problem. Bonus points if if doesn’t cost money! Financially unrealistic ideas aren’t likely to get much traction. Some years ago, my administration was reading a book called, “The Answer is in the Room” which focused on overcoming barriers to academic achievement in poor, and low performing schools. I came to realize, however when they said, “The answer is in the room.” It meant that I could do it if it didn’t cost money.
When I first started at my school, I was working in an upstairs storage closet on the opposite side of the building from the majority of my students. Instead of complaining about my cramped, impractical work space, I discovered a little used classroom that was used as an unstaffed “writing lab. The principal at the time didn’t seem particularly aware of what constituted a decent therapy space for me, but the writing lab had been her idea. Unfortunately, she hadn’t much more vision for it, other than to put six computers in it. It was located to far away from the older grades to be useful, and she didn’t have anyone to staff it, but it was centrally located to the majority of my caseload. I approached her with the idea of me moving my speech room into the writing lab and offered to help manage it, and schedule its use with teachers. She perceived my idea as a solution to something that she wanted to do and she agreed. There was no reason not to. Eventually, with more computers in classrooms, and a staffed computer lab, the writing lab was forgotten, and the spacious room became mine completely.
9: Do your research:
When I started working as an SLP 18 years ago, I didn’t sit down one day and memorize all the state, federal, and Medicaid regulations. Nobody does. So, what do you do when you work for a school system and these questions, continuously pop up? Look it up yourself! I can’t stress this enough. The only way to develop a really good working knowledge of the various regulations is for you, yourself, to google away until you find the source, and find the answer. Many school SLPs rely on their supervisors, collogues, and yes, Facebook groups to deliver the answers to their questions. I think this is a really bad idea. First of all, you are denying yourself the opportunity to better understand the giant system in which you play a part, but also, the people you seek out for advice are often wrong. A few years ago, I had an opportunity to go through CSE Chairperson training. The trainer told me about a NY state listserv that I could join to receive NY State Special Education updates. What I learned from that listserv is that NY State Special Education regulations change and are updated all the time! What your coworker or friend on Facebook knows might be totally outdated or incorrect for your state. Each state has its own Medicaid handbook. Track it down! Most of all the resources you need are available somewhere on the web. When you have questions, make a point to find out the answers yourself. I once had the director of an ESY program and former administrator ask me to sign off on Medicaid for speech therapist who was not licensed by the state. It was at the end of the summer session, and I had had no part of supervising this person. The administrator keep emphasizing to me on the phone that this therapist was “very qualified!”. Of course she wasn’t, or she would have been able to sign her own paperwork. I explained what “under the direction of” meant in terms of Medicaid regulations, and that my signing off on her Medicaid would constitute fraud. He wasn’t asking me to commit fraud, right? That ended the conversation quickly. I really don’t think that he was intending to commit fraud, I just don’t think that he had kept up with the regulations. Fortunately, I had. Knowing the regulations well can help keep you out of sticky ethical situations.
10: Change your systems:
If you find yourself spending hours doing something that is an everyday task, you are probably looking at a problem with your systems. Refining systems is probably one of the most powerful ways that you can make your life at work more worth living. It can also be one of the most challenging. The effort to work “smart not hard” is one that continues in my life to this day. The difficulty with systems is that they really need to fit the the individual. I’ve changed and refined my systems almost ever few years, which I think is ok. Systems should be responsive to the therapist, setting, and client population. One pitfall I’ve learned to avoid are systems that are too complicated to maintain. I’ve actually devised through trial and error, and stealing ideas from other people my own system for consistently taking data, providing feedback to my students, and using the data for planning next steps in the the most, quick and dirty fashion possible. The result is that my students are making faster progress and, I am getting them off my caseload faster, which has made my life demonstrably better. I spend very little time on planning, because my systems do the planning for me. Some systems that warrant examination are service delivery, data collection, feedback systems, goal formation, behavior management, physical environments, and paper vs electronic.
First of all, know thyself. For example, I know I have a terrible memory. I write down everything immediately, and transfer it to one main planner, that I check everyday. I schedule everything immediately. I know exactly when I am going to do certain tasks, and I know I will have the time to do them. I am also lazy. I like to do things the easiest way that gets the results that I want with the least amount of effort. For example, I backed away from fancy, digital data management systems that took a lot of time at the end of the day, to quick paper methods using mailing labels, and hand drawn data bar graphs that are completed with the student in the session. My data and plan for the next session are completed before I go to the next student. I’d like to say that I finally have the systems in place that will last me the rest of my career, but I know that’s probably not true. My goal is to just get a little better every year and learn from what didn’t work.
I’ve been an SLP in the public schools for 15 years. For most of those years, I’ve been working alone, or with just a little contract help. My district is rural and poor. There has never been enough staff, enough money, enough supplies, enough time, or enough room. Over time, however, I’ve learned to become a happier, more efficient, more invested member of the school community. I’m grateful for all the challenges and opportunities that working in a school district has afforded me. I believe most SLPs have opportunities in their individual districts to affect some positive change, and begin to steer the ship toward a better outcome.
Thank you Christine! It’s wonderful to hear how changes can be implemented successfully. I sincerely hope that many of our fellow SLPs will be able to make some changes in their own situations.
Are you willing to implement some changes? I’d love to hear what changes you will try (or won’t for that matter)…drop me a note in the comments.
Until then…Adventure on!