Navigating School-Based OT Salaries with Kristina from Therapy Advance Courses

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In the realm of school-based OT, the trajectory of professional growth can be as diverse as the students we serve. Enter Kristina Geraghty, a trailblazing OT with a story that will resonate with many in the field. Kristina embarked on a journey as a school-based OT that wound through the intricacies of the public school system, negotiating school-based OT salary, and a fervent commitment to continuing education. Kristina’s experiences have culminated in the founding of Therapy Advance Courses, a platform designed to empower fellow OTs and other educators to navigate the complexities of school-based therapy, salary structures, and ultimately, career progression. Join us as we delve into Kristina’s narrative, a tale that not only offers insights into her personal journey but also illuminates the path to mastering the art of earning the salary you deserve as a school-based OT.

What is your full name, credentials, and educational background?

Kristina Geraghty MS OTR/L. I received my Master’s Degree in OT from Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, NY.

Where are you located now?

Bergen County, NJ.

Tell us a little bit about the background of Therapy Advance Courses and why you were motivated to start it. 

I worked as an independent contractor right out of school and loved the flexibility of working only 3 or 4 days a week, especially when raising kids. As I got older, I realized I needed a pension, and got a job directly with a school district near me. 

I went into that interview not really knowing how to negotiate a school district salary. As a contractor, I always just took the rates that were given, which are pretty good in NY/NJ. I was offered a position and a placement at Step 1 of the salary schedule, which I initially accepted. But later at home, I felt uncomfortable as I already had 6 years of school-based experience at that point. I went back to the district to renegotiate and was offered step 3, which I accepted. 

The relatively low salary immediately motivated me to work on graduate credits to get a bump in pay right away. However, post-graduate courses for OTs were very expensive. They were only offered through OT graduate programs, were hard to find, were not self-paced, and the cost didn’t make it worth the raise I would get.

Instead, my superintendent gave me access to a popular teacher’s learning platform. The courses available were not that relevant to school-based OT, but the district would accept the courses for higher placement on the salary schedule.

I then started talking to my SLP friend/coworker about creating our own courses. We reached out to a university, agreed to partner with them, and started making courses aimed at school-based therapists.

Can you share a little bit more about what a salary schedule is for OTs who may be new to the school setting?

A salary schedule starts at Step 1 and can usually go to about Step 15-20. You move up a step each year where you get a small raise (for example, mine is about $2000 a year). You can also move across columns, so you can start out in the MA (Master’s degree) lane and then take courses to move into the MA + 15 and then MA + 30.  Some districts have MA + 45 and MA + 60. With each of those, you get a larger bump in pay.  

While many people believe that school district salary schedules are written in stone, your experience clearly shows that it’s not always that simple. Not only did you not receive the right amount of credit for your years of experience, the school district was in fact willing to negotiate your placement on the schedule. What advice do you have for OTs who are applying for school district roles and might be hesitant to negotiate?

To know your worth, do your research and weigh your pros and cons. I took a lower salary/step placement because it was a fantastic district that was 10 minutes from my house. It is extremely convenient as far as being close to home and being able to manage my family’s life. It is a small district with a very manageable caseload. I go between 2 schools that are on the same campus. So, those things outweighed the temporary cut in pay. 

I still wish I had asked for all my years to be counted (I got half), and it was rough the first few years having a salary cut. I really wanted the job. But now, in just 7 years, I am making more money than I ever was as an independent contractor plus I have amazing health benefits and a pension. I went from a Master’s to a Master +30 in about 6 years, and with our contract negotiations, my salary has jumped by about 25k in just 7 years. Without pursuing more graduate credits, it would be about half that.  

As far as doing your research, you can look at other school salary guides in your area, and you can also research what new hires are getting (Most districts post their Board of Ed meeting notes online, where they report new hires as well as their step placement). You can join local Facebook groups and find local teachers/OTs who work for school districts and pick their brains.  I would suggest really trying to find people as local as you can, as it is so different from state to state and even county to county. 

Popular websites (like Glassdoor) that give average OT salaries for your area are less reliable, in my opinion. You need to go right to the source and see what people are getting paid at school districts in your area and where they are getting placed on the guide when they are hired

negotiating school-based OT salary

I’ve long been an advocate for negotiating your placement on the salary schedule, from both an experience and education standpoint. For example, I’ve known OTs who have been able to receive credit for all of their OT experience, not just pediatric or school-based. Also, our OT graduate degrees often contain more credits than a standard teacher graduate degree, so there is potentially some flexibility there too. Do you have any experience with higher placement on the salary schedule in these situations, either personally or from colleagues?

I agree with you. In my district, related service providers and teachers are on the same salary schedule. My Master’s was 60 credits, as was my partner’s (who is an SLP).  A teaching Master’s is about 30 credits. I asked for some of my credits to go towards a lane change (for example, to MA + 15) and I was told no, that it was against their policy. This was one of my mistakes. I brought it up a year after I was hired, whereas I may have been able to use it as a negotiating point when I was first hired. 

In general, once you are locked into the salary guide, you cannot re-negotiate your step placement, so it is imperative that you negotiate right at the beginning when you are hired. It never hurts to ask for those extra credits to be accounted for and I always recommend bringing this up at the interview. It can help you negotiate a better salary, especially if you are on the same pay scale as teachers. Some schools will have a separate scale for related service providers, and usually, those extra credits are accounted for on those guides.  

You chose to immediately start working on taking courses so that you could move up on the salary schedule. Can you talk a little bit about the math behind that decision?

Just like with investing, the sooner you start the better. The quicker you move up on the scale, the more money you will make over time. So for instance, when I move into MA + 15 after taking 15 graduate credits, I get about a $2000-$3000 bump in pay and continue to make more each year than if I had stayed in the MA lane. Similar to how compound interest works with investing, the earlier you start the better. Plus, if you are taking that extra money and investing it in your 403B or other retirement plan, the payoff is even larger.

Our district only allows 6 credits of online coursework per year, or I probably would have done it much quicker, but I had to space it out. We have had students who do not have those limits at their district and were able to move on their salary guides fast by taking a lot of courses with us in a short time period.

When you take a course from Therapy Advance Courses, it’s considered a college, graduate-level course which is why therapists are able to use them to move up on the salary schedule. Are therapists also able to use these courses as continuing education toward license and registration renewal?

Yes! NBCOT accepts a college transcript for CEUs.

What kind of options of courses are available at Therapy Advance Courses, and how long does it take to complete them? Is this something therapists can do while still working at their school job full-time?

I would say almost all of our students are working therapists. Our feedback has been that our courses are very manageable for working therapists, parents, etc. Summer is our busiest time since many of us are off or have a lighter workload, but we have been steadily increasing in numbers each semester since we launched in 2019. 

We have had some students complete a course within a week and some complete it over a few months. It is entirely up to you because it is self-study. Some students take 1 course a semester and others have taken up to 4 courses in one semester. Because we have open enrollment throughout the semester, you can sign up for one course, complete it, and then still end up with enough time to register and complete another course within the semester. Many of our students do that. Our Summer semester ends on September 15 and we are still getting Summer registrations in mid-August, so there are students that are able to finish our courses rather quickly.

We offer mostly 3-credit courses and a few 1-credit courses. All of our courses are created by either myself or my partner, Lauren Catalier, who is an SLP.  There are some that are very specific to Speech or OT, and then there are some more general ones that any school-based practitioner can take and find useful to their practice. Some of our other students are Social Workers, School Psychologists, Special Ed Teachers, Physical Therapists, etc. We are adding courses each year to keep things fresh and we update our courses regularly to make sure they are reflecting the most current research and information available.

negotiating school-based OT salary

Do you still work in the schools in addition to running your company? If so, what’s your favorite part of your role?

Yes! I continue to work full-time for a district in Bergen County, NJ. I also work at a pediatric clinic one afternoon a week. 

There are so many things I love, it is hard to decide on one. We recently added a preschool class to our district and I am just in love with that population. There are so many great skills to work on during the ages of 3-5 and it’s just so fun to work with them. You get to see them come to school for the first time, and many of them have a really hard time initially. Some have never been in school and many can’t communicate their needs, follow a routine, or even sit for a few minutes.  But then they become comfortable, they start learning how to communicate and independently follow routines and they just flourish. It is amazing to experience it with them and be a part of that growth period.  

My coworkers walk by me in the hallway or by my office when I am working with kids and they tell me they want my job, that I have one of the best jobs in the school. I think they are right 🙂

Another part I love is just the team that I get to work with. We get along so well, have a supportive supervisor and because it’s such a small district we are able to communicate and collaborate so easily.

Do you have any other advice for school-based OTs when it comes to negotiating or getting paid fairly?

I think I have covered it! If anyone has any questions about salary guides, negotiating, and how our courses can help them make more money, they can feel free to reach out to us at admin@therapyadvancecourses.com.

Thank you to Kristina for offering her knowledge and experience! I know many of you will find it valuable in negotiating school-based OT salary. If you’d like to move up on your salary schedule as well, Therapy Advance Courses is currently offering a special deal for The Dynamic School OT Community where new students can take $20 off any of their courses using the code DEVON20. Happy negotiating!  

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