What I Learned as a Public School SLP
If you’re reading this, it means I’ve quit my job as a public school SLP.
As I sit writing now, it’s the middle of January during my ninth year as a public school SLP. I’m actively considering quitting my part-time job and pursuing a career in… something else. At the moment, I’m thinking about doing a bit of contract work doing teletherapy or something similar for a while. But I’m working towards no longer bringing in money as a practicing SLP.
And so, it might seem an odd time to consider what I’ve learned in my tenure. After all, it’s easy when considering a career change to lament wasted time and wasted dollars. As I stood contemplating my own life decisions while standing in the shower (as one does), I started to realize the ways in which the last 15 years have not been wasted. I realized that even if I’ve never felt the passion that other SLPs experience, I’ll be leaving a better person. Here’s how.
1 | I learned how to be confident.
I’ve always been a shy, reserved human. My husband would often nudge me to talk to the people we were hanging out with. I was perfectly content to just sit back and listen. And while I was genuinely content to listen, I was also too shy to contribute my thoughts to people I didn’t know like the back of my hand.
Consequently, my first year or so of working as a public school SLP was dreadful. Not only was I fully in charge of my therapy room at all times, but I was also tasked with both leading and participating in IEP meetings. Over time, I found my stride. And upon leaving, I felt completely confident leading therapy sessions, leading IEP meetings, and participating in meetings. That confidence came with the realization that I was the expert in my room and in those meetings. That didn’t, however, mean I had suddenly decided I knew everything.
2 | I learned to admit that I don’t know what I don’t know. And I learned to learn.
A huge part of the confidence I discovered was that I didn’t know everything and that was okay. I became comfortable asking questions of my fellow SLPs and the other professionals that I worked with. I understood that I was the expert in my own room and in my own meetings, but that didn’t mean I was the expert in every area of Speech-Language Pathology. And I certainly wasn’t the expert in special education, educational systems in general, and many other things.
The old me would have felt crushed and belittled when realizing I didn’t know something and sought to do anything to hide my lack of knowledge. But the new me will drop an email, send a text, or march down to a colleague’s office at the drop of a hat. I just don’t know what I don’t know yet, and I know that I don’t know. That’s hugely liberating as a professional.
But it’s always hugely transformative as a human being.
Learning to admit what I don’t know and being willing to learn with an open mind has helped me become genuinely open to being wrong and learning to be better. It’s affected my work, yes.
But it’s also helped my response and involvement in religion, politics, social issues, and more.
3 | I learned that reality doesn’t exist only within the box of my experiences.
Working in a public school exposed me to people whose life experiences were vastly different than my own.
Students with disabilities. Co-workers with different personal beliefs. Families who lived in dire poverty.
Perhaps the most eye-opening moments came from talking with LGBTQ+ high school students. In my small, southern, religious town, this was a new experience. And whatever beliefs I had been raised to uphold, no written rulebook compared to being brought into the lived experiences of people I cared for.
That’s been true in many ways.
My work as a public school SLP changed the way I view the world in innumerable ways. It’s helped me understand how other people live—their struggles, their pride, their dreams, and their love. And it’s helped me to care about what reality looks like outside of myself.
4 | I learned that what I do at work is a very small part of me.
It’s become increasingly clear to me lately how important our identities are. Even though I’ve been slowly and quietly pursuing different career paths over the last few years, my primary identity was still that of a public school SLP. My part-time, salary job with my local school district was my main identifier—anything else I did on the side was “extra” or a “hustle.”
As I started exploring what I wanted to do after leaving my school district, I began to wrestle with those age-old questions: Who am I? What am I?
As I wrestled, I began to tell myself that all of who I am does not have to be reflected in how I make my money.
In fact, it should be.
Yes, I spend a third (or more) of my day working. But that’s not who I am. It’s what I do with my working hours.
And that can change and grow and shift, just as I do. And it’s okay.
5| But I also learned that what I do (no matter what I do) matters.
However much my identity is not my job title, what I do as my job matters.
It matters in the practical ways, such as how I pay my bills and support my family and participate in my hobbies.
But it also matters in ways that can seem more abstract.
What we do and put out in this world makes a difference. When you’re working directly with students in a school, the “making a difference” part seems obvious.
But what if you leave?
Especially right now, with teacher shortages and public school chaos, leaving can make you feel as though you don’t care. As though you’ve abandoned what is important—in fact, I’d argue that some school districts make us feel this way on purpose.
But I’ve come to realize that my worth is not solely in my role as an SLP. There are important things that I can share with the world that aren’t improving speech and language skills. It might not even be helping you improve speech and language skills.
This realization has started to shape a lot of what this space will become.
A New Adventure
I’m finishing this post in August 2022. My school district started back two weeks ago, and I wasn’t there. My role as a public school SLP officially came to an end in June, when I finished serving ESY students for the summer (side note: probably the most fun I’d had as an SLP in years).
A couple of weeks ago, I arranged to meet up with the SLP who took my place so I could return the materials I had borrowed for ESY. The night before I met her, I dreamed about the first week of school. They were nightmares, really. My husband said I tossed and turned all night. Even though I’m no longer in it, my body’s memories of the anxiety I experienced over nine years were still strong.
There will always be pros and cons to any job. In this post, I’ve chosen to record the positives of my time working as a public school SLP, but I can’t ignore that there were negatives. And there undoubtedly will be negatives on my new journey as well. Still, let’s make an effort to find the positives in our working lives while embracing change and growth as good.