Published on December 9th, 20140
Careers in Communication Health: Where Will Your Degree Take You? (Part Two)
Communication health professionals who work in educational settings assist children with their communication needs in the classroom, often seeing dozens of students each day.
You’ve already made the decision to become a communication health professional, but do you know where you want to work after graduation? This article is Part Two of our “Careers in Communication Health” series, designed to give you a glimpse into real-life careers in speech-language pathology and audiology across different settings. Part One, featured in our last issue of Student Speak, looked at what it’s like to work in a medical setting as a hospital-based clinician. Part Two, below, focuses on communication health professionals who work in educational settings.
The familiar ring of a school bell signals the start of yet another busy day not only for students and teachers, but also for the many speech-language pathologists, audiologists and communication health assistants who work in education. These professionals strive to ensure that all children have access to the services and education they need to succeed later on in life.
For some, like Sharon Storr, a speech-language pathologist (S-LP) who works for a school board in Ontario, the decision to work in a school setting was a no-brainer. “I always knew I would be working with children,” says Storr, who has spent the past 5 years working on the school board’s autism support team. She knows that this line of work was a good choice: “I really like working with my students and find I am continuously learning. I enjoy this aspect of my job tremendously.”
However, many school-based communication health professionals never planned to pursue an education-based practice. Sandra Vandenhoff, an audiologist working for the Calgary Board of Education, started her career by dispensing hearing aids for the provincial government in P.E.I. and then worked in private practice in B.C. She went on to work for Phonak, a hearing aid and FM system manufacturer, before applying to work for the school board in Calgary. “When the position became available, I jumped at the chance. It was a bit of a risk because it was only a temporary, part-time position, but I wanted it so badly that I threw caution to the wind. Thankfully, the temporary position became permanent and the part-time hours evolved into full-time.” Vandenhoff is pleased to say that she loves what she does: “I am so happy I fell into educational audiology. This is by far the best job I’ve ever had.”
Rachel Chiasson had an experience that falls somewhere in the middle. Though Chiasson has always worked as a school-based S-LP, she didn’t enjoy her first job with a school board. “I was very unhappy … I had four schools that were two hours apart each and the roads I had to drive on were treacherous. I also had a high caseload and found that I couldn’t make the impact I wanted to with my students,” she explains. “By the time I saw the students, they were past the critical development years and it was very difficult to make an impact on their foundational knowledge in conjunction with the demands the school put on them.”
Now working for two First Nations schools in Cape Breton, N.S., Chiasson couldn’t be happier. “Both schools have been very supportive of my strengths and have allowed me to deliver services that work best for all students involved. It has taken about a decade, but I finally feel like I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.” In speaking with Storr, Vandenhoff and Chiasson, it’s clear that there is no set career path to becoming a school-based communication health professional. And, importantly, it’s never too late to make a change — even if you don’t know which area is right for you, you have time to explore your options.
If you’re wondering whether you should consider a career in education, working in the school system seems to be ideal for those who like variety but perform well within structured environments. Most workdays run from 8:00 or 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. and often require communication health professionals to visit more than one school. Vandenhoff and Storr spend a significant part of each day driving from one location to another, prioritizing situations as they arise and working with anywhere from one or two children to upwards of 50 kids at a single school. “My day is equally divided between addressing emergencies (equipment breakdowns), and preventative monitoring and checking equipment. I also try to build capacity in children and in teachers so that they can troubleshoot equipment problems for themselves,” Vandenhoff explains.
However, not all school-based communication health professionals have this much variation in their day. Chiasson spends her mornings working with children with autism and her afternoons conducting group therapy. Her workload of approximately 70 students, in total, is light compared to that of some school-based S-LPs. There’s no doubt that working in a school can be busy; after all, every job has its challenges. But there are also incredible rewards.
After noting that she enjoys “being able to think of solutions to a problem in new and creative ways”, Storr said that the best part of her job is seeing her kids smile. Similarly, Chiasson’s favourite moments are when she sees a child make progress beyond everyone’s expectations and take pride in how far they’ve come. And you don’t always have to wait long to see the effects of your work: Vandenhoff said that she sees her students express relief and gratitude on a daily basis when she’s able to help them use technology to achieve their full potential.
Vandenhoff went on to admit that she was surprised by how much she enjoys her job. “I had no idea how much fun I would have at work! Especially in elementary schools, kids get excited about almost anything. They’re excited to arrive at school, excited when recess starts, excited when recess is over … they have a zest for life that is infectious.”
If you want to work as a school-based communication health professional, Storr and Vandenhoff recommend getting as much relevant experience as you can before beginning your career in the school system. Storr suggests becoming well-versed in both low- and high-tech forms of alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) devices if you plan to work with autism spectrum disorders, for example, and Vandenhoff says that her prior knowledge of hearing aids, cochlear implants and FM systems has been incredibly beneficial to her in her current position. You will also want to make sure that you have strong communication skills, know how to be a team player, adapt well to changes and show empathy for your students and coworkers. According to Storr, a sense of humour is essential too.
Of course, the most important thing is for you to be passionate about what you do, to the point that you aren’t afraid to go after what you want. When asked what final piece of advice she would pass on to students who are considering working in education, Chiasson offered these words of wisdom: “Employers [may] try to pressure you to work longer hours than is healthy, drive in conditions that are not safe or take on unreasonable caseloads. Stand your ground. You are at work most of your waking hours, so you need to be comfortable with what you are doing and you need to enjoy your job. Life is too short to compromise.”
Stay tuned for Part Three in our “Careers in Communication Health” series, which will focus on communication health professionals working in private practice. Special thanks go to the following individuals for their assistance with Part Two:
Rachel Chiasson, B.Sc., M.Sc.
Speech-language pathologist and autism specialist, We’koqma’q & Wagmatcook First Nations School (Cape Breton, N.S.)
Sharon Storr, OCT, M.Sc., Reg. CASLPO, S-LP(C)
Speech-language pathologist, Autism Programs and Services, Toronto Catholic District School Board (Toronto, O.N.)
Sandra Vandenhoff, Au.D., R. Aud
Audiologist, Calgary Board of Education (Calgary, A.B.)
SAC Communications Assistant