Have you been tasked with creating a Professional Development Plan by your school district? Or perhaps you’re just looking to set your own professional goals as a school-based OT? Regardless of the impetus, setting professional goals is a great way to engage with your work and reflect on your meaning and impact. It also demonstrates dedication to your students by becoming the best OT you can be to better serve them. And of course, setting professional goals can be a great tool to advance your career.
Developing Professional Goals Relevant to School-Based OT
In the schools, a lot of the professional development and language around professional goals is aimed at teachers, which isn’t always the most relevant to our role. So, if you’re looking for guidance on where to begin with professional goals that are specifically for school-based OTs, start with these questions:
- What is my ultimate career goal? Where do I see myself in the five years before retirement?
- Do I want to remain 100% clinical, or am I interested in leading and managing others as well?
- What are the aspects of my job I enjoy the most?
- What are the aspects of my job that I enjoy the least?
- What are the aspects of my job where I feel like I don’t have enough knowledge/experience to handle 100% effectively?
- How much money do I hope to earn in the next 1, 5, and 10 years?
- Am I managing my time in the best way?
- What are the most common needs I see on my caseload?
- What are the needs I see around my schools in general?
- What diagnoses/conditions could I know more about?
- What new research excites me?
- Can I incorporate more evidence-based practice into my work?
- What treatment strategies am I curious about?
- What percentage of my students meet their goals within the specified time frame?
- What aspects of my job could I make less time-intensive?
- What are the areas that I want to be known as a “guru” for in my schools?
- If I could wave a magic wand, what changes would I make to our education system?
- What are the ways I can reduce inequality and inequity for my students?
- How can I learn from the lived experiences of my students and others with disabilities?
- How can I further advocate for the role of OT?
From here, you can help narrow down what your areas of interest are to write professional goals that are meaningful to you.
Categories of Professional Goals for School-Based OTs
From your exploratory questions, you’ll start to notice a theme of professional goal groupings. Most of your professional goals will probably fall into one of the following categories:
- Promotions, managing other team members
- Clinical Knowledge
- Knowing about specific diagnoses and treatment strategies
- Having more students meet their goals, discharging from OT
- Having teachers come to you for advice, offering inservices for other staff
- Work-life balance
- Getting your job done in a reasonable amount of hours, refraining from taking work home
Setting Professional Goals that You’ll Actually Meet
Depending on the needs of your specific professional development plan, you may be required to set 1-3 goals. The good news is that you have specific experience in setting measurable goals for your students! Consider using that same framework for goal-setting for yourself. One example you may want to consider is SMART:
Another consideration when setting your professional goals is making sure you’re devoting specific time to meeting them. Consider setting aside 30-60 minutes each week to work on goal-directed activities.
Example Professional Long-Term and Short-Term Goals for School-Based OTs
A common professional goal is to advance to leadership, which often involves promotions, increased pay, but also increased responsibility. But leadership in the schools doesn’t happen in one fell swoop. It comes from intentionally setting a long-term goal and then identifying the short-term steps to achieve it.
Say your eventual professional goal reads like this:
“In 10 years, I will advance my leadership skills and ability to serve students as evidenced by working as a director of special education for at least one year.”
Excellent! Here are some of the short-term steps you should consider to achieve it:
- Research paths to school leadership for OTs in your state
- This is key because unfortunately, these are often very outdated. Despite immense knowledge and experience, school-based OTs often have to go back to school to complete teacher certifications, student teaching, and admin certifications in order to be eligible for school leadership positions like special education director and school principal.
- Look for leadership opportunities at your level, regardless of how long you’ve been in your role
- This could look like mentoring new employees or taking the lead on new projects.
- Join committees
- If your school/district has committees for things like curriculum, assistive technology, and behavior, see if you can join! This is a great way to develop leadership skills as well as offer a much-needed OT perspective in these areas.
- Become more involved with the school community
- The more you learn about your school community and its needs outside of occupational therapy, the better leader you can be. This could look like joining the PTA, coaching a sport, or leading a student club
- Pay attention during IEP meetings
- While it can feel tempting to check out of an IEP meeting after you’re done presenting, or even leave entirely, start fully engaging in IEP meetings and staying until the end, if you aren’t already. This experience is invaluable in understanding special education in general.
- Obtain a lead OT role
- If this is already an established position in your district, excellent! Set your sights on it and let your supervisor know this is a role you would like to have someday. If your district does not yet have this role but has multiple OTs, your department would more than likely benefit from the leadership – advocate for your district to add this position. And if your district is small and only has one OT, you are de facto serving in this role. See if they would be willing to update your job description/title so you can include this on your resume.
- Talk to someone in the role you desire
- This could be your own special education director if you have a good relationship, or it could be someone working in a different district. Let them know you are interested in this role and ask about their path getting there and if they have any advice for you.
- Update your resume
- As nice as it would be to stay at one school/district for your whole career, the truth is that people who aspire to school leadership often need to move districts to get promotions. And even if you end up interviewing in the same district, having an up-to-date resume that reflects all of those great actions you’re taking above will be key in making your case to interviewers who may not know you as well.
Setting professional goals as a school-based OT can be tricky to wrap your head around at first, but can also be immensely rewarding. When school districts mandate things like this, it can sometimes feel like just another obligation, but try to reframe your thinking with a growth mindset. Setting professional goals is a great way to make sure you’re satisfied with your career – and getting to celebrate that you’ve met them is divine.
If you’re looking for more support with becoming the best school-based OT you can be, consider taking my course, The Dynamic School OT. It’s a comprehensive course all about school-based OT that goes beyond just intervention and assessment to discuss improving your job in all of the other ways discussed here. Click here to learn more!