I feel compelled to write about Dante’s 10th Canto of Hell, otherwise known as my first year as a school psychologist. I’ve been getting many emails lately about how to survive this first year in the field.
Every year as a school psychologist in an urban school is a dog-year of learning. So I have been in the field for over 42+ years. That first year, I learned something I was doing wrong every 20 minutes. As a perfectionist graduate student, armed with disseratation about the resilience of low-income adolescent students, this was difficult. But I had unbridled enthusiasm and optimism. My Idealist Self was ready to go!
You know where this story is going. There were three main things my first year that nearly made me quit and move to Costa Rica for a simpler life:
I had a hideous experience with HR and should have known then that the large urban school district would be sending me bureaucratic nonsense for the rest of my career. The key is how you deal with it. My HR issue was that my paycheck had someone else’s social security number, retirement, and sick days. I could have retired on my first day.* I foolishly thought talking to HR about it would be sufficient. Fast forward to 8 months later, problem not resolved, and me doing a sit down strike with my strongly-worded letter documenting everything (in angry-looking font) until they fixed it.
However, I was 22 years old at the time and nothing could stop me from Saving The Children from the perils of becoming an instructional casualty in the urban jungle war! So I just showed up every day with a mental clean slate from the previous day, and focused on one kid at time. This became problematic when
2) My Caseload of Students Exponentially Multiplied Every 2 Minutes
I had a list a mile long of evaluations I needed to complete within a timeline that could only work if the school day was extended to 24 hours. So I sought help from my wonderful supervisor. She problem-solved with me that I was getting sucked in to the school culture by doing nonstop consultation. I wanted to answer every teacher’s and every parent’s question, meet with every kid who had been kicked out of class, and develop new and improved school programs with the administration.
While this is all important, the lesson I learned is to spend the first 2-3 hours of the day testing kids or writing reports. No exceptions. I had to learn to say, “I’m testing right now, so I can’t consult until later.” The beauty was, most people’s problems went away by the afternoon, because they had figured them out themselves. Unfortunately, in my absence, sometimes that "solution" was to make a special education referral without consulting me.
New psychs: Be patient. It took FOUR years to get the staff on board with the idea that we didn’t need to refer every child with academic or behavioral needs to special education “just to rule out a disability.” I had so much paperwork involved when there was an inappropriate referral it was ridiculous. Some parents didn’t even know that what they signed was permission for testing. One parent’s kid had a 4.0 and that kid was referred because she "talked out in class." Another kid was referred and he had been tested 6 months prior and didn’t qualify.
My point is, what seems like basic logic to a school psychologist has to be explicitly told to the staff. I appreciate that the staff just wants a kid to be helped, but special education is not an appropriate first course of action, 9 times out of 10. After the first year or so of un-doing people’s paperwork mess, I finally got down my catch-phrase on how to stop the flood of inappropriate referrals: “Out of professional courtesy, if you think a child needs special education, please come to me to consult first before making the referral. I would never legally bind you to a 3-month project without running it by you first, and I’d appreciate the same courtesy.” That is hard to say as a 22-year old intern, but it worked.
3) Then My Ideal Self Fell from Ivory Tower and Hit Every Gargoyle of Hope on the Way
My next “challenge” was that I had to put my ideas for program improvement on the back burner in lieu of assessments. I so desperately wanted to re-vamp the entire service-delivery model based on the “Best Practices” I had learned in grad school. Every attempt to do so was met with “Yeah! Let’s do that!” and then, “I don’t have time though, can you do that?” Other times, people acted like my proposal to do primary prevention was crazy. What can I say, people fear change. It was disheartening. I felt like I was putting out fires every day, but what really needed to happen at HMS** was someone needed to re-do all the wiring to prevent the fires in the first place.
Every year got easier. I made tiny inroads into changing the system of “wait to fail until they are behind enough to qualify for special education.” I started a Math RTI group. I developed a "Talent Group" for kids with ADD to channel their energy for good, not evil. My own personal fight became cutting through the bureaucracy for parents. There was a 42789897-step referral process, and it could have been 1 or 2. But it took me four years to figure all this out. So young psychs, be patient. Every year get better. You understand the system a little more each year, and which steps can be cut out, and which ones are necessary. In the meantime, I cannot emphasize enough to consult, consult, consult with your supervisor and colleagues. And get a hobby outside of trying to save the children. You will need to take care of yourself like you would take care of someone coming to you for help.
So what happened to my Idealist Self from grad school who fell from the Ivory Tower? Well, she was in critical condition for about a year. The field of School Psychology almost lost her. Then she went through the ICU with the help of her colleagues, friends, family, and patient fiancé. I’m glad to report Idealist Self is in Stable Condition now, and getting stronger every day.
*Curses! If only I had no scruples, I’d be in the south of France right now. **Haides Middle School