Lindsey Spilecki, CCC-SLP is a speech language pathologist with the Hancock County Schools in West Virginia. She may still be in the early part of her career, but she’s already figured out the key to being happy: Do something you love.
When asked about her future career aspirations, Lindsey’s pretty clear: “I don’t think I’ll ever leave; I think I’ll retire here. If I could, I would. This is my dream job.”
She’s committed, passionate, and perfectly content to make her first job her last. In fact, her only complaint is that she wishes she had more time to make a difference. Her words of advice to aspiring speech-language pathologists? Work hard, find a great SLP graduate program, and then use your graduate clinical experiences to explore the directions you can take your career.
We sat down for a conversation with Lindsey and learned a lot about what it’s really like working as an SLP for a public school system.
Q: How long have you been a speech language pathologist?
Lindsey: This year will be my seventh year.
Q: How did you prepare educationally to become a speech language pathologist?
Lindsey: I studied at West Liberty State (College) University with a bachelor’s degree in Speech Pathology and Audiology (so can do either or with that), and I have a graduate degree from California University of Pennsylvania in Speech Pathology or Communications Disorders.
Q: What are the educational requirements to become licensed in West Virginia where you work?
Lindsey: You have to have a master’s degree in speech-language pathology.
Q: Is that [the same] across the board? Do all states require that?
Lindsey: I am certain that all states require it. In some instances, if you have a four-year degree, you are capable of working as a speech language pathologist, but in that time frame, you have to be working toward your master’s degree, so you can work as an SLP aide or assistant. So, you get to do all the things a speech language pathologist does except for some of the paperwork, the writing of goals and things like that for students.
Q: Did you do that before getting your graduate degree?
Lindsey: I did not.
Q: What made you want to become a speech pathologist?
Lindsey: I initially wanted to teach, but there was that part of me that I didn’t know if I could handle an entire classroom of people. So, there was that apprehension. I ended up in a class with other speech language pathologist students, and I liked that idea of it because you can still teach, and you can still help people, but you’re helping people in a smaller setting. So, you can reach more, and I liked the idea of that.
Q: Is your license K-12?
Lindsey: My license is birth to 99.
Q: Did you know what area you wanted to focus on, or did you have to choose that in your graduate degree, or how does that work?
Lindsey: Well, when you start your graduate program, the program offers a variety of courses, so you’re fully prepared to work with birth to 99. When you go through your program, you are also given the opportunity to do clinical work, so you’re also given patients who are older, younger, and in between—you get a variety so that you know going into the field more of what you’re comfortable with and what your niche is – what you’re good at, and when you’re doing your clinical work in graduate school, you have a time period where you’re just doing clinical, and most programs, you have to do an education based and then one that is clinical—hospital based, so you’ve got the experience across the board.
Q: What made you want to go towards the education side instead of the clinical side?
Lindsey: I started in education—my first clinical experience was in education. Whenever, I was going through my—it’s not a fellowship year but it’s like a student teaching time—and I loved it. And then I tried the hospital setting and I was terrified. It was just not for me! There’s a lot of medical terminology there’s a lot of not scary—I don’t want to say scary things—but a lot more medical stuff that I was not accustomed to, and it was just not meant for me. And then you find that I’m not good at this, but I’m very good at that and then somehow it all just clicks when you get to the graduate level.
Q: So, that’s really interesting, so at the graduate level, if you were sure you wanted to go into a clinical area, would you still need to explore the other areas?
Lindsey: Yes, I’m 99% positive that they make you at least have the experience in it regardless because you really don’t know where you’re going to end up, so they want you to feel that you have some sort of support for yourself once you get out onto the field.
Q: Let’s go back to the undergrad degree; was that also a general degree that allows you to explore different age groups?
Q: Did you do student teaching?
Lindsey: No, we didn’t student teaching per se, but we did observation. We were as part of the class that we had, we had to observe in different areas and, of course, they expected us to have some education and some clinical, as well. So, going into graduate school you kind of know from what you’ve seen what you may want to do, and then in graduate school you can experience actually working with and treating in those areas, and then you can say, I think this is for me.
Q: Is there an opportunity to specialize in speech language pathology? How does that work?
Lindsey: Yes, if you go to school for Audiology, you end up with a PhD in all the Audiology, so you start off with a smattering of both of those areas, and then if you branch off into audiology, and you end up with a doctorate of Audiology. In speech pathology, you don’t get a chance to specialize. There are times when you are able to focus more on certain things. I would use that word focus through our governing body: the American Speech & Hearing Association allows us to gain more information, more knowledge in one specific area, but my degree and my certification does not have a specific voice. We all do voice, we all do fluency, we all do swallowing, so we are capable of working with that whole gamut, the whole umbrella that falls under speech language pathology.
Q: So, tell me, what does your typical day looks like. Are you pulling children from the classroom? Are you working alongside other teachers? How does that work?
Lindsey: I can tell you I have two jobs. I have two schools that I work at. So, it’s almost like I have two entirely different jobs. So, at one school (New Manchester Elementary in Hancock County), I work in preschool, so my day starts off I push into a special needs three-year-old classroom, and I work very closely with the teachers and the teachers’ assistants. I work with functional communication throughout the day, at mealtime, and then once I’m done there, I can pull students from other classrooms.
In my second job at Allison Elementary, I primarily have children with severe and profound needs, so I push in a lot in that room as well doing the same things. I work on functional communication and I work closely with the special education teachers to adapt things to their needs and we’re making switches, we’re making AAC boards. But at the same time, the rest of my day is dedicated to articulation, to language, so then I’m pulling out for those students. I don’t have a day that’s ever the same.
Q: When you say, ‘push in,’ you’re working in the classroom, alongside the teachers?
Lindsey: Yes, I go right in and we can sit down for an entire lesson maybe and I’ll sit side-by-side with the kids and work with them individually throughout or I will walk into the classroom—I have one student with an iPad that he uses as an AEC device—augmentative communication device, so I’ll pull him an I’ll grab something that I know he likes and I work side-by-side with him while he’s in the room.
It’s a little bit of both, but like I said, my day starts different than it ends. I have children of all different levels of cognitive abilities and needs.
Q: So, tell me, you are involved in the process from the IEP on?
Q: So, tell me about that. If you have a new student who comes to your school, how does that work?
Lindsey: When we have new students, our schools especially PreK & K, we do a mass screening of all the students and the students who fail the screening in some way so let’s say they have some language areas or some articulation areas that need further developed we will ask permission from the parents to do further evaluation and then from there we go on to develop an IEP for the students. It seems pretty simple, but we develop goals based on what they the testing and we decide what is developmentally appropriate versus what they can do, and we develop an entire plan for that school year for the students.
Q: So, I’m assuming as part of their IEP, you have short-term goals and long-term goals.
Lindsey: Yes, we can break those goals down for schools for the entire school year and then objectives by the end of the first semester, I want the student to be able to do this this and this with 80% or greater accuracy and that further pushes them toward the main goal for the school year.
Q: Tell me a little bit about—and I know you have a smattering of students everywhere—but tell me what your students face every day, what are the type of challenges you face?
Lindsey: I’ll tell you about my special needs students. That way kind of goes along with that. I have several students who have developmental delays or neurological disorders such as autism. I have a few that have genetic disorders, so those (SLP) disorders are secondary to that, so we’re working a lot with anxiety, we’re working a lot with behaviors, we’re working a lot with varying things that all kind of combined to develop the outline of what the child is really like.
So, we’re working to help them communicate, we’re helping them to cope in the school, we’re helping them to succeed in their curriculum, wherever it may be. So, those are things that we’re looking at.
Q: So, it’s never remotely one-dimensional.
Q: So, there’s so many different facets.
Lindsey: Yes. We have such great teams of teachers and staff who I can go to the cooks in the school, I can go to the janitors in the school, I can go to the school psychologist and say, ‘So and so is having issues with this, so if you could please just talk to him. And when you talk to him, if you could just say, Hey, repeat that again, so I can understand you.’ So, everybody works so well because everybody’s there for these students and they understand that there’s more going on than just what they see.
Q: That’s so interesting.
Lindsey: I love it. I got emotional when I talk about it because I don’t know how many places you can go and say, I have an entire staff of people who are here just for these students. If you have the right communication with them and you have the right relationship, you can do amazing things for these kids simply by letting everybody know what’s going on. And it’s nice because our school—actually our entire county—has a system where each grade level teacher—each art, gym, music teacher has to read our students’ IEPs, so they know what our students are like. So, everybody knows.
Q: You split your time between two schools. Was that originally part of your contract? Was it budgetary? Do you think you could stand to be at one school full-time?
Lindsey: It was part of the contract. They decided as part of my contract, I am a considered a county employee, so they can put me wherever they need me. I’m not just at one school. I do have a home school, but I’m not contracted to one. I was originally supposed to be in a southern school in the county, but since I live up north, they bumped me, so at least it’s convenient for me to travel.
But I love it! It’s my favorite part of the job. I don’t think I could ever work in just one place. And I don’t split my day up at those schools. I work two days where I’m at one school and then three days at the other, so I’m not running back and forth. Some days I do—IEP season I do!—but the rest of the time, I’m just in one school all day and then I leave there and go to the next.
Q: So, what I’ve gotten from this is that you need to be highly flexible, and you clearly need to be able to be in a collaborative environment. Tell me what else you feel makes a good speech pathologist.
Lindsey: I think anyone who goes into this thinking that they want to do it you have to honestly, genuinely care about other people. That’s a given. You need to be creative because I have 55 students all with different needs.
You have to be able to go, ‘Okay this one has this goal and this one has this goal, so let’s see if I can do one thing that can target everybody.’ You find yourself after you’ve done it for so many years, just going, ‘Oh! I can use this for this!’ And then you just go. I think creativity is one of the bigger ones. And excitement. You have to be excited about it and you have to be excited for them. I am easily excitable, and I sometimes scare my students because they get a goal and I say, ‘Yes!’ And I remember, ‘Oh he doesn’t like loud sounds, I forgot!’
Being creative excited about the job and being excited about where you are really helps the most. I can speak on the educational side of it that’s what I learned the most.
Q: And do you see yourself ever leaving the educational field?
Lindsey: I don’t think I’ll ever leave; I think I’ll retire here. If I could, I would. This is my dream job.
I started my student teaching, I did preschool and I didn’t think I would end up in the same school that I did my student teaching, so when I found out it was such a pleasant surprise and you just kind of you find your little niche, your find your little space, and that’s it. I don’t think I would ever leave.
Q: Wow, you don’t hear that often.
Lindsey: Yeah, I love it.
Q: If you talk to someone who has an interest in it (SLP), what would your advice be to them? I think I want to be a SLP, what do I do? Where do I go?
Lindsey: If you are thinking it and considering it, take a few courses in it. It’s going to be tough. The field is very competitive, and you’re going to be up against the best and the brightest, so you’re going to have to work hard in the program and do as much research as you can into graduate programs to get yourself in ahead of time and—have fun from there!
I think if somebody would have told me that years ago to be prepared, that it’s very hard work, and it’s very rewarding work, but start slowly and those courses, and then if that’s for you, continue to work hard because our field is quite competitive.
Q: Do you feel like the graduate programs are small in size? Are they hard to get into?
Lindsey: Yes, they’re small. Some in the 20-25 students, some just 10-15.
Q: So, what did you feel that you had to have under your belt to get into a good graduate school?
Lindsey: Grades are very important. You’ll find that the students who are coming in from undergrad are also very highly motivated and all 4.0 students. You’ve got a lot of competition in regards to that. I don’t know if it’s the grades necessarily or your willingness to show up and be visible in that graduate program to the director. Go and introduce yourself, stand out a little bit, make sure that they’ve seen you, make sure that you’ve toured the place, so that they can connect a name and a face. I think that helps a lot and showing how interested you are in these places will help a lot.
Q: Beyond a GPA—clearly a competitive GPA—GRE scores?
Lindsey: I had to take the GRE. I don’t know how weighed it is in each school; I just know I had to take it. I know each place is different, and it might mean the difference between you and another student. But, yeah, do your best on that.
Q: Tell me about your most rewarding case.
Lindsey: There’s been so many! I’ll tell this story…I had a student who is now in third grade. He began preschool at the age of three. I think he had a few sounds. I think he said, ‘Ooh’ or ‘Eee’; that’s how he communicated. And now we can’t get him to stop! At all – ever! He is now just in a regular general ed program; no IEP, nothing. He went into a three-year-old preschool with a full IEP, developmental delay, the early intervention is key, so key anymore! The early intervention kind of just bumped them up to where he needed to be for preschool, and in preschool, he continued to have the IEP for support, and then went into kindergarten without one, and he hasn’t had one since.
Q: Tell me about how do you the handle the students you can’t reach.
Lindsey: I just don’t give up. There have been a few that we have tried. I have one right now that, the mother and I—thank goodness I live in a small community because the mother and I went to school together—and we’re able to go back and forth. We text each other and say, ‘The pictures aren’t working, what can be we do now? Let’s try this. What can we do to make him successful?’ I also do that with the teachers a lot. We just sit and think of things that we can come up with that might either motivate them at the time if there’s a lack of motivation. We try to find what’s a good reinforcer that might want to make him work for this. We collaborate, and we never give up. There are endless ways, endless possibilities, so we just have to find the one that works.
Q: What’s the most frustrating part of your job?
Lindsey: Not enough time. There’s not enough time, and there are a lot of demands on us. There’s a lot of demands on us in terms of paperwork, which nobody will ever tell you about how much paperwork you’ll doing in a lifetime when you’re in school, but you do a lot of paperwork and there never seems to be enough time to, I feel, properly in my best, get everything done. Time is a big constraint. I wish there was another four hours in the school day some days because it’s like, ‘Can’t we just have another hour to get this done?’ There just never seems to be enough time. That’s my chief complaint.