I get several emails a week from readers wanting to know if a career in school psychology is right for them. I can only speak to my experiences in large, urban school districts, but I am always happy to tell them the good, bad, and ugly. Sometimes, my candor sends them running for the hills, and sometimes, they can't wait to apply to grad school to get started. So go ahead, peek into a day in the life of my job and decide for yourself...
I arrive at my middle school campus today at 8:00am, armed with coffee, water bottle, lunch bag, bag of testing materials, my laptop, and a bag of toys. I greet the secretary in Spanish (she’s my own private language tutor) and grab a bunch of little notes out of my mailbox marked, “Dr. Bell, School Psychologist.” As I re-shuffled the weight of my zillion bags o’ stuff, a group of middle school girls came in the office. They were so cute and middleschooly awkward, and I smile and greet them. They give me the “I’m too cool to say hi to adults half-smile and squinty eye” and as I walk away, I overhear them:
Girl 1: Who was that? Girl 2: Dr. Bell. Girl 1: What does she do? Girl 2: I don’t know exactly. All I know is that she LOVES kids.
That is the best job description ever. That is what I do. That is why I carry a zillion bags to 3 different schools every week. I am a school psychologist. Here is my day.
8:00am: Aforementioned shuffling of bags and lesson in middle school conceptualization of what I do.
8:05am: Accosted in hallway by vice principal. We walk and talk as I head to my little office in the back of the auditorium. It’s a State-of-the-Union address, middle-school style. Franklin needs a check in because he got into a fight. D’Andre is doing better in class. Cherie’s teacher wants to check in about reading difficulties. A teacher is out today. Karen’s mom wants me to call her about grief counseling. Special education meeting this afternoon for Kevin. Got it.
8:10am: Throw everything in office and read through mailbox notes. More of the same: “Do you have any strategies for anger management for Michael?” “Can you check in with Erin? She seems sad.” “Dr. So-and-So called and wants to talk with you about whether you think T.J. has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” “Is D’Andre doing his behavior chart?” “Padres Unidos meeting tonight at 6. Can you come?”
8:15am: Deep breath. Organize and prioritize! Review new items and existing list of students I had planned on testing and seeing for counseling today. Testing must be done today. I have to figure out why three of my students are failing. Learning disability? Emotional problem? Behavioral problem? Poor instruction? Bad attendance? Doesn’t understand English? Low ability? Peer difficulties? Do they need special education to be successful or can they make it in the general class with help? I am a detective gathering clues every day.
8:20am: Call parents back. Leave messages.
8:30am: Coffee now in bloodstream. Ready to go. Deliver “Talent Group” passes to 6th grade girls for counseling group that will occur after lunch. Squeals ensue. As I leave classroom, another girl yells, “I’m talented too! Take me!!!”
8:35: Back to office to regroup. Set up testing materials: one IQ test, drawing paper, stopwatch, pencils, sundry other tests of how kids learn best (listening? looking? doing?) and behavior rating scales for teachers, parents, and student.
8:40: Enter classroom to get Devin to “work with me for a while.” Kid bounds out of chair and then asks, “Wait, am I in trouble?” Assured he is not, just that his mom wanted me to test him to see how he learns best and what we can do to make school easier and more fun for him. He takes the bait.
9:00: Give tests of problem solving with visual aids, language-based reasoning tasks, memory tests, and drawing tests. Student is very compliant and seems to enjoy testing, once he is assured it was not for a grade, but to see how he solves new problems on his own. At end of testing, student reports that testing “wasn’t so bad.” Agree to meet again next week to finish up.
10:30: First counseling kid of the day. He’s a 7th grade boy who just got in a fight. Head hung low, he joins me in my office. He lights up when he sees the game of Uno. We play what may be our 100th game of Uno this year. After we finish, he sheepishly looks up at me and admits, “Dr. Bell. I was bad yesterday.” We talk.
11:30: Next counseling kid. She’s an 8th grade girl having family problems. He sister is in a gang, and she is afraid for her. We draw together. She is chatty and open. This is my second year with her. After we play what may be our 400th game of Mancala, she earnestly asks, “Did you have to go to college to do this job? Because it seems like playing Mancala isn’t that hard.” I privately reflect on how yes, I did go to college and grad school, and yes, I do get paid to play around on the job.
12:30: Call from other school I work at, located down the street. Student with major truancy issues is there today! Given I have been trying to test Caroline to see what is causing her to hate school so much, I tell the principal I’ll be right there. Grab my lunch bag for a meal on the go. Pop head into office and exclaim, “Tengo que irme a…my other school!” As I fly down the hall, secretary yells, “My other school is ‘mi otra escuela!” Yes, that’s right. Dang it. I knew that one.
12:35: Arrive at high school. Observe Caroline socializing happily with boyfriend. The bell rings, and she makes her way to class. I intercept her. She agrees to come with me in lieu of chemistry class. Not a tough sell on that one.
1:15: Caroline reveals that she skips school because she feels dumb and “doesn’t ever get it.” She came today because she missed her friends. She agrees to continue testing to see why school is so hard. She becomes curious and engaged in my tests. I wish I could stay and test her all day. But my Girls Talent Group is starting in 15 minutes. I cross my fingers and hope she comes back tomorrow.
1:30: Back to middle school. Girls are eagerly waiting by the door. Today, we have to decide who we will invite to the end of the year talent show. Fight ensues over whether or not to invite Alejandra, who is friends with one girl, and enemies with the other. One hour of tears, yelling, more tears, storming out, storming back in, and talking yield to agreements and hugs all around. For now.
2:28: Back to my office. Jose is at my door, waiting for his 2:30 counseling. He wants to play basketball today. I glance down at my high heel shoes and think of that Easy Spirit commercial in which a group of women’s high heels are so comfy that they can play basketball in them. These are not those type of shoes, because those shoes are ugly and I would never buy them. We compromise and talk as we do free shots together. He talks about being bullied and his fear that his dad will be deported.
3:30: Score Devin and Caroline’s testing. Devin is above average in all areas. Caroline’s profile looks like she may have a Reading Disability. Further testing is needed to see why Devin is failing despite having the ability, and at what grade level Caroline is reading so we can target interventions.
3:45: Review my report I wrote on my testing last week for Kevin for meeting in 15 minutes. Kevin is a bright 6th grade student who is not completing any work in English, and has an A in Math. He is a sweet boy who sometimes shuts down and sulks when given a writing assignment.
4:00: Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting for Kevin starts. Teachers, mom, principal, me, and Kevin are attending. We go over Kevin’s strengths. I present how Kevin learns best and what is getting in the way of his learning. His mom and teacher ask questions about how to help him. I make sure Kevin understands how he learns best and why school is hard for him. He has a visual-motor processing problem. I explain that he is like an awesome, super-fast processing computer, only his printer is a little slower than other kids. He smiles. I can tell he gets it.
4:45: Go back to office and grab my one million bags and pack up. I walk by the hip-hop dance club doing their thing and I see my shyest student dancing her heart out. I walk by the school garden, and see two of the talent group girls chatting and laughing. I smile to myself. Then, I see two of my boys I see for counseling fighting in the hall and saying unspeakable things about each other’s mamas. I drop my bags and decide to stay a bit longer. Why? Because like the girls said this morning, I love kids.