If you like teaching children but don't want to manage an entire classroom, working as a school-based speech-language pathologist (SLP) might be a good career alternative.
Unlike classroom teachers, school SLPs typically work one-on-one or in small groups, helping children overcome communication or swallowing disorders. About half the country's 96,000 SLPs work in schools, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Demand for school-based SLPs is strong. This is fueled by the high proportion of SLPs approaching retirement, as well as increased survival rates for premature infants and more emphasis from schools on identifying and correcting children's speech and language problems early.
"The most wonderful component of this job is the joy of seeing students achieve academically and socially," explains Kathleen Whitmire, PhD, CCC-SLP, director of school services for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
DeAnne Owre, MS, CCC-SLP, chair of the speech-language pathology department for the Woonsocket, Rhode Island, school system, agrees. "It's wonderful helping students to communicate better and watching them benefit by being able to talk to a friend, a teacher, participate in a play or get a better grade."
One SLP's Daily Routine
Owre splits her days between working with children and supervising other SLPs. "My average school day consists of half-hour sessions of speech and/or language therapy. I visit the classrooms and pull out small groups and work with them in my room. Once a week we have an evaluation team meeting (that includes the parents) where we discuss children and their needs and determine if they qualify for evaluations or services."
Owre also diagnoses new patients, manages 16 SLPs, coordinates professional development, maintains adaptive equipment, oversees scheduling, observes SLPs in their settings and handles crises that arise. It may all sound exhausting, but she says, "I enjoy my job very much."
Many SLPs work during the school year and get summers off. While most won't become millionaires, the median salary isn't bad: For those working a nine-month schedule, salaries ranged from $56,000 to nearly $62,000; SLPs working an 11- or 12-month schedule earned $65,000, according to ASHA data.
Educational and Licensing Requirements
The biggest challenges for SLPs include diagnosing and treating the great variety of communication disorders that affect children; filling out reams of required district, state and federal paperwork after each therapy session; and earning the graduate degree plus practicum required to work in most states.
SLP graduate programs are competitive due to limited class sizes. The Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at the University of Maryland College Park (UMCP) receives as many as 250 applications for 25 SLP slots. "It's not that different in many places, because to get your master's and work in a school system, you have to have clinical practicum experience, and that takes one-on-one supervision," explains Froma Roth, PhD, CCC-SLP, graduate director of SLP at UMCP.
Forty-seven states regulate SLPs (Colorado, Michigan, South Dakota and the District of Columbia do not), and 11 states require school SLPs to be licensed. Those license requirements typically follow the ASHA Certificate of Clinical Competence standards (ASHA CCC-SLP) of passing a national exam, having a master's degree, and completing 400 hours of supervised clinical observation and practice as well as a 36-week professional fellowship working under a certified SLP.
Meeting the Demand
Schools in urban and rural areas face the biggest shortages of SLPs, Whitmire says. SLPs who speak a second language, especially Spanish, are also sought after.
Graduate SLP students and practicing SLPs are benefiting from the shortage. The Montgomery County school system in Maryland offers five scholarships to graduate students who agree to work for the district for at least three years. "School systems are also offering more support to new SLPs, more supervision, more in-house courses and more scaffolding so they don't feel so isolated," Roth says. They're also offering part-time opportunities (average pay is $50 an hour) to attract SLPs seeking work/life balance.
In addition to education and certification, you'll need plenty of patience, compassion and good listening skills to succeed in this field. A cheerful disposition will also help, since the heart of speech-language pathology is making kids enjoy working to improve their communication.