In the fall of 1977, I had my first job as a speech-language
pathologist in a public school in northeastern Ohio. It was a job I loved—with
125 students on my caseload, more than 300 students on a watch list, and five
schools from kindergarten through high school. As a 23-year-old who felt she
could do anything, I thought I was ready for this challenge. I quickly learned,
however, that if I was going to do the job I was educated to do, I could not do
it alone. So, I proceeded to work in kindergarten through second-grade
classrooms, as well as the special education classrooms.
And the most extraordinary thing happened—with two-way
coaching, modeling and curriculum development, my teacher collaborators and I
were able to address the needs of a significant percentage of my caseload and
support the students' success in their respective classrooms. Although I continued to see students individually and in small groups depending on their needs, by the fall of 1979, my caseload was 45 students, I was delivering services in 13 classrooms, and the district hired another full-time SLP. Fortunately, I was surrounded by teachers who cared about the job they were doing and welcomed my "out-of-the-box" approach to supporting students in their educational environments. I also had principals and a superintendent who believed in doing the right thing for the right reasons!
My first job created lots of magic moments that I have
carried throughout my career as a practicing clinician, supervisor, educator
and researcher. My students taught me the value of listening to their stories,
understanding their desire to be a part of their peer group and supporting
their ability to be effective communicators. My collaborating teachers taught
me the importance of planning together, establishing trusting relationships,
sharing knowledge and sharing our respective roles for the good of our
students. My administrators taught me the value of data to support change, the
importance of advocating for what you believe and the power of engaging
As you prepare to start another school year, I hope you will
allow yourself to see the difference you make—whether small or large—and not be
sidetracked by your workload and the challenges that brings. Several strategies
might be useful.
- Share the contributions you make with teachers and parents.
Recognize the value of multiple perspectives and create opportunities for
everyone to share knowledge and skills. Leverage the talents you and your
colleagues bring to a situation.
- Align your purpose with your collaborators—teachers, parents
or other health professionals. Get agreement on your valued outcomes for the
students or the clients you support. Being clear on your purpose ensures
everyone is on the same page and working toward a shared understanding of what
is being done and why.
- Create processes that facilitate your ability to generate
ideas, make decisions and solve problems among your colleagues and
collaborators. With clear processes established, you can focus on what needs to
be done and not lose time and energy on the how of what needs to be done.
- Value the diversity of perspectives and knowledge to which
you are exposed. Find ways to be a catalyst for openness, respect and change.
Don't be afraid to listen to very different points of view and take risks that will mean something for your clients.
- Tolerate occasional tension on the job. Ambiguity, conflict
and a failure to achieve our desired goals are the realities of the work we do.
Remember to celebrate your successes and those of the teams with whom you work
and of the students who reach their targets.
- Finally, find the magic in what you do. In the words of
Charles De Lint, "That's the thing with magic. You've got to know it's still here, all around us, or it just stays invisible for you."
I offer a final story as a reminder of the power you have to
make a difference in the lives of the students you support. Nearly 35 years ago
as a school-based SLP, I met a 12-year old girl who had hearing loss and an
intellectual disability. One of the 125 students on my first caseload, she
somehow found a way to bring magic to my life. She put a smile on my face when
I had a rough day and made me laugh at the simplest things. She helped me see
it makes no sense to sweat the small stuff but it makes lots of sense to
celebrate the smallest of achievements.
She showed me the value of caring about and supporting a
friend with even greater challenges than her own. And she reminded me each day
of the privilege I had to know so many children just like her. This young girl
is now a woman in her late 40s, and although I have not seen her since I moved
from Ohio, we still have a connection. She shares what she is doing in holiday
cards, e-mail and Facebook—and never forgets to ask me how I am doing. It's doesn't get better than that!