Imagine you could teach in a comfortable environment working with students 1:1. There is no lunch duty, no bus duty, a fraction of the paperwork that you normally would have to do. While you do assessments and write progress reports, you don’t have to worry about grades. While accountable to your professional organization and perhaps one supervisor, you are not pressured by NCLB, high stakes testing, IDEA or other regulations. You have greater access to needed resources. You also stand to make more money. The downside is that you might not get the vacation breaks, and the medical benefits might not be as good. You also might be working later in some afternoons and some on weekends. If you had the opportunity to do it, would you?
This is the sort of choice several of my colleagues face every year. Namely those who are occupational, physical and speech therapists. At the present time, the 2 PTs that serve students in Magnolia county have a leg in both, as they do 2 days per week in the school system and the rest of the time they see students/clients privately. We have 6 or 7 OT’s, with a couple of those working part time. The one that serves my students is mostly working for the benefits, since her husband is self-employed. The SLP that serves Magnolia County High School does it for the love of the job, although she also likes the medical benefits. Each therapist has a caseload of at least 60-75 students, in addition to any new referrals that happen to come in. Which means they are writing goals and reports and attending IEP meetings for all of those students. The facilities they work in consist of closets, storage rooms or an empty classroom, if they are lucky. The therapists get paid on the same scale as all of the other teachers, so there isn’t any extra money to be had for treating more students. The difference between working in a private clinic and in a school setting can often be dramatic.
These therapists, in addition to being in demand treating students with disabilities, are also in demand at hospitals and nursing homes around the country. The training required to become an OT, PT or SLP is extensive and rigorous. There are not many places that offer the necessary training to become one of these therapists, and getting admitted into a program is competitive.
Basically, I’m highlighting some reasons why there is a shortage of all of these professionals in school systems across the country. The largest shortage is experienced most keenly in the area of speech language pathology, which requires the most training of the three therapy areas I’ve mentioned. In Magnolia County, we are short about 3 therapists due to one being on maternity leave, one who is on medical leave, and one who left the county. We are on the lookout for SLPs as is just about every other district around the country. Because of this shortage, the SLPs that we have working have to pull an extra heavy load. Most of the SLPs we have in the county have been around for years. Our SLP, Miss Cleotis, has been in the system over 25 years, and each year I hear her talk about how she is thinking about retiring. In fact, there was a rumor that she had retired last year, which surprised me. But she was back on the first day of school and I was glad of it. She has been a close colleague and friend over the years, and we have both been through a lot with these students. She has always been supportive of me, although I can’t say that I have always supported her in everything. In fact, it has taken me a few years to learn how to work with all of these therapists who come in to my room and give me more work to do. But I have learned to appreciate all of them, and they have helped me grow in my knowledge and skill in teaching the students I work with. They have all also been very supportive in helping out with my own children, where my oldest (Thomas) was getting PT, OT and speech when he first started. While he no longer gets PT, the therapist is always willing to give advice if I bring up an issue. My youngest (Percy) is being evaluated for OT by the same therapist who works at the high school, so it is nice being able to consult with her on a regular basis.
With baby boomers aging, there will be increasing pressure on the limited number of these therapists as the demand increases. You can read teacher Sol’s treatment of the subject here. You can also read about the trouble the Baltimore schools are having in delivering services here, where the controversy about students not getting services is a direct result of the shortage of service providers. What do you do when the law mandates that certain services must be provided, but there is no one around who is qualified to provide it?