Stepping out of Your SLP Comfort Zone: Taking Over A Position with High SLP Turnover

Let's give a warm welcome to Jackie from Speech Sanity, who is guest posting today for the latest installment of, "Stepping Out of Your SLP Comfort Zone!"

Stepping Outside of Your SLP Comfort Zone: Guest Blog Post for Natalie Snyders
It was December of this school year and I was comfortable.  I was working for a charter school in in upper middle class neighborhood where I knew the staff and had amazing parent support.  I had my own little speech room with adorable ocean-themed bulletin boards, hot pink chevron borders, and a plush office chair.  I loved my students and was invested in their growth and progress.  Over the past two and a half years, this was my work home. 

The problem?   The school’s target population was “academically excelling” students.  Therefore, it did not draw many families of students with special needs.  My caseload consisted of primarily articulation students.  Now, I can fix an /r/ and /s/ like any respectable SLP, but does not capture all of my professional skills.  Also, if I’m being honest, artic is not my favorite type of therapy.  I wanted more.  I missed my SPED students like crazy!  I wanted to feel part of a SPED team again, working with Resource and Special Ed Teachers, Psychologists, OTs, Pts, etc.  (I realize some of you are rolling your eyes right now. I get it, believe me! But I really did miss it! Those are my people!) 
So, just as I was thinking about making a change for next school year, an opportunity came up through my contract company for a position beginning in January.  It was a part-time position working with two self-contained classrooms for children with intellectual disabilities.  The hours and pay were exactly right AND I would get to work with my SPED students again!  After a quick interview process with the new school, I was hired!  I took a few weeks to transition the new SLP, tie up any loose ends, and say my goodbyes at my old school.  Then that was that.  I was moving on.  For the first time in a while, I was genuinely excited for this new challenge. 

In January, I arrived for my first day at my new school, full of excitement and anticipation.  I met with the SLP I would be sharing an office with and she was wonderful!  She showed me around the school and introduced me to the staff.  I unpacked all my things and set up shop in our shared space.  I got down to business looking through all my student files and acquainting myself with my new caseload.  I walked down to the SPED classrooms to meet the two teachers I would be working closely with.  I greeted them with a smile and was really excited to get to know them.  They greeted me with what I can only describe as a “guarded” welcome.  Come to find out, I was the 4th SLP to work with these classes since the beginning of the school year! The kicker was that the last SLP, #3, had just stopped showing up.  

Needless to say, these two teachers did not have a high opinion of SLPs.  This was going to be an uphill battle for sure, but I felt up for the challenge!
So, while it has not been easy, I have made it work and had success.  Here are my suggestions for taking over a caseload in a position with such high turnover:

1.     You must let go of any sort of need to be accepted and liked right away.  I am by nature a people pleaser, so this was tough, but I knew I would have to be patient with these teachers and build their trust over time.  I think they have appreciated my patience.
2.     Meet with the teachers and make sure to listen to their needs and ideas.  While you may be the speech and language expert, they are the expert on their student’s personalities, likes, dislikes, family history, medical history, previous school experience, etc.  You need their help!
3.     Collaborate with the teachers about scheduling and be flexible.  While scheduling feels like a massive Tetris game at first, it ALWAYS works out in the end.  Also, be prepared for your schedule to change…possibly multiple times.  As you live the schedule, you will want to make changes and there will always be assemblies, parties, absences, etc. to work around.  Your perfect schedule will almost never come to be…and that’s okay!
4.     In my case, I was going to be using a Push-In model with both classes to meet their needs in the most functional setting.  So, I spent my first day with students just observing and helping out in their classrooms for most of the day.  I highly recommend doing this if you have the opportunity.  It will give you a wealth of information about how the classrooms run, which students work well together, and what kind of behaviors you will need to help manage.
5.     Try to hold off on giving too many suggestions too soon.  After my first day or two with these teachers and students, I had a million ideas about how to change things up to help these students be more successful.  However, I knew that if I came at these teachers with all my suggestions, they would be overwhelmed and probably offended.  Instead, I wrote down my ideas and have slowly shared them when the time was right. 
6.     Take the time to get to know your students and let them get to know you.   I have shared information about my family, my dog, and my favorite things to do.  I also like to share stories of what I did over the weekend and bring in pictures for them to see.  My students all LOVE to see pictures of my kids and what I have been up to lately.  I truly believe that you have to build a relationship with a child before you can make progress in therapy.  For students who have seen many SLP faces come and go during the year, it may be tough at first and may take longer than you are used to.  If you are patient and stay invested, it will come.  I can attest to that!

To my fellow SLPs out there in a similar situation, hang in there!  Have faith in yourself and your abilities and you can make great things happen!  I wish you all the best!

- Jackie

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