What to Avoid in Your First School Therapist Job

When you’re a new grad looking at listings of school therapist jobs, you’ll be asking about certain features:

  • Will the position let you work with the population of kids you want to work with most?
  • Is it located a reasonable distance from home?
  • How does the pay stack up against what you need your salary as a school therapist to be?

Only you can decide what to prioritize.

Smiling female school-based occupational therapist stands at chalkboard encouraging young girl to practice handwriting.

But we at Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS) can tell you what to avoid! 

For more than two decades, we’ve been helping new clinicians find great school-based positions. But we’ve seen some placements go sour. 

What are some potential problems you must avoid to make your first school therapy job a success?

Avoid Misunderstanding the School Setting and Your Role in It

School-based therapists deliver services to support educational goals. 

In medical settings, you can provide services to address clinical deficits—for example, physical therapy to improve a patient’s range of movement.

But interventions in schools must facilitate students’ access to their education. School-based physical therapy, then, would improve a student’s ability to sit upright at a desk, or move between classrooms in a wheelchair.

Remembering this distinction will help you write appropriate, student-centered IEP goals. Avoid drafting or agreeing to vague goals because other team members want them. Educate teachers, families, and administrators about why measurable, realistic, and relevant IEP goals serve students better.

At PTS, our School-Based Academy orients clinicians to the unique challenges and opportunities in a school therapist’s job. With the information and tools we provide, you can avoid misunderstanding where you’re working and what you’re there to do.

Avoid Letting Yourself Become Isolated from the School Community

When you’re at a school building for limited hours a few times a week, it’s easy to be disconnected from the rest of the school. But overcoming this isolation is on you!

Don’t wait for teachers to reach out. Take the initiative to observe students in class. Familiarize yourself with the curriculum. Talk with teachers about their challenges as well as their “wins.” 

Then, keep checking in with teachers on a regular basis (at least monthly). You’ll get a “heads-up” about issues to address. You’ll also be cultivating teachers as therapy team members, which they need to be for students to make progress toward their goals.

It’s not just teachers you need to connect with, either:

  • Smiling female school-based occupational therapist sits in kindergarten classroom with boys and girls practicing handwriting.Building principal
    You have valuable information principals need for an accurate picture of how their school is serving all students. Plus, you want the principal “in your corner” should a difficult situation ever arise.
  • Administrative assistants
    They know the school’s daily operations backward and forward, are on the front lines of school-home interaction, and interact with kids across grade levels. If you’ve got questions, they probably have answers!
  • Support staff
    The cafeteria workers, custodians and maintenance workers, and IT staff are integral to a smoothly running school but often go overlooked. They deserve appreciation, and their interactions with kids may yield helpful insights.

Avoid Allowing Disorganization to Derail Your Effective Work

Getting and staying organized is a big challenge in school therapists’ jobs. Here are a few of our favorite organizational tips:

  • Spend each day at a different school. If you can avoid school-hopping and visit only the middle school on Monday, for example, you’ll save yourself much time and frustration.
  • Put paperwork in its place. It’s unrelenting. But sorting it into “do now,” “do later,” and “already done” stack can help cut your paperwork pile down to size.
  • Create an “MVH” folder. What’s “MVH”? Most Valuable Handouts! Keeping the Q&A sheets, activity instructions, and other sheets you most commonly give teachers and families in a single folder means you’ll never have to say, “I’ll send that to you later.”
  • Designate dedicated diagnosis windows in your schedule. Block off chunks of time at your day’s beginning and end for assessments, and make sure teachers know you have. Then you’ll be free to spend most of your time with students already on your caseload. 
  • Put your schedule on paper. If you’ve got a calendar app you trust, great. But make sure you have a hard copy of your schedule on hand for quick sharing with teachers and administrators—and in case of tech gremlins! (You can download our helpful schedule templates to get started.)

Avoid Ruling Out Independent Contractor School Therapist Jobs

School-based therapists’ salaries vary by discipline. School-based occupational therapists, for instance, earn a median annual wage of $73,980. For school-based speech-language pathologists, the annual median wage is $60,000 to $71,000.

But think about more than what you’ll be earning. Think about how you’ll be receiving it.

Will the school or school district be taking taxes out of every paycheck, or will you get to take more of your wages home each pay period? Will you be reimbursed for your professional expenses, or will you be able to write them off on your 1040 at year’s end?

The answers to questions like these depend on whether you work as a full-time employee or an Independent Contractor.

Your employment status affects more than your paystub. It also has an impact on your schedule and your quality of life. And while practicing school-based therapy as an Independent Contractor isn’t right for everyone, it’s the model we use at PTS, and it’s one we encourage every clinician to consider.

If you’d like to find out more about how PTS can help you avoid all these obstacles and more to launch a satisfying and successful career in school-based therapy, check out our currently open positions and get in touch with us today!

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