As much as you may love school-based OT, it can come with a set of challenges as well. One big one can be your workplace itself – sometimes it’s difficult to find a district to work in that is ethical, pays a fair wage, and doesn’t put you on a path to burnout. If you’re wondering if a potential school, district, co-op, or agency may not be a good fit for you, it’s important to watch out for these telltale signs.
A school district engaging in 1 or 2 of these practices doesn’t necessarily mean you need to make plans to get out ASAP. But if these things happen for a long period of time with no changes, even after you’ve brought up your concerns to the powers that be, it’s a good sign that you may need to reconsider your employment there. You can’t pour from an empty cup, and being in a toxic workplace will eventually burn you out, no matter how much you love and care about your students.
Lots of employee turnover
Does your district have a rotating door of contract and travel therapists? I know I’ve been in many districts where this is the status quo, with a different therapist assigned to the school year after year. Not only is this lack of consistency bad for our students, it’s also a red flag that for some reason, this district is not able to keep OTs. Some districts have extra challenges with this because they are rural or remote, but even then, every job has a price. Those who are in charge of staffing need to take a hard look at their pay and benefits and make sure it’s competitive given the location of the job. But truthfully, the reason I hear from most OTs that leave a school is not that their pay was too low. It’s that administration was toxic, or they didn’t feel valued, or the work/life balance was non-existent. Look for this in other spheres as well – if it’s just OTs that are turning over, that’s one thing, but if it’s everyone – other service providers, teachers, paras, etc – that’s an even bigger red flag.
Only getting paid for the time that you see students
If you’re a contractor instead of a direct hire, this may be happening to you. It is all too common in the pediatric therapy world to be paid by the “billable” hour only. These roles are tempting because the rate often seems lucrative. But if you only get paid when you see students, that rate starts to dilute quickly due to all of the other extra stuff that goes along with being a school-based OT, like IEP meetings, treatment planning, documentation, and travel. And it’s really not possible to be effective in this setting if you cut corners in all of those other areas. This leads to OTs being put in a position where they feel like they have to choose between being a good school-based OT or being paid fairly, and that is not an ethical dilemma you want to find yourself in.
Being encouraged to document off the clock or on your lunch break
Again, there is so much that goes into being school-based OT besides working directly with students. And this is a trap I see both hourly and salary employees falling into. Documentation is a vital part of your job, which means you need to be provided time to do it. If you’re paid hourly, legally, you must be paid at all times you’re working. If you’re salary, it gets a little more complex, but you still need to be afforded time within your contract hours to do the things your job requires besides seeing students – and make sure you eat some food and use the bathroom in the meantime.
Coworkers often mention working on the weekends or during the evenings
The school system is so toxic for this, and working around teachers makes you think it’s normal to take work home in the evenings and on the weekends. For the record, I don’t think teachers should be doing this, either, and this is a huge reason that the teaching profession is in such a crisis right now. Again, this situation may look a little different if you are salary vs hourly, but the outcome should be the same: you should be able to do your job in ~40 hours a week, if you are full-time. While there are time-saving strategies and deadline management techniques you can put in place to help prevent this from happening, it doesn’t change the fact that if you’ve been assigned 60 hours of work a week, you can’t magically fit that into a 7.5 hour day. And be wary of anyone who tries to normalize this type of work – it is more than possible to not work over 40 hours a week as a school-based OT (I’ve done it in multiple districts/states). But people, even coworkers who you might love, will try to convince you this is a reasonable expectation when it truly isn’t.
Lack of support or mentorship for new employees
This is one of the number one complaints I hear about school-based OT. So many of us were just thrown into the setting without much, if any, mentorship. The people who hire us often don’t understand that we don’t learn all about how to be a school-based OT in OT school the same way someone goes to school to be a teacher. There is often an unreasonable expectation that even a brand-new grad should be able to hit the ground running, and that is simply not the case for the vast majority of therapists. Therapists who are new to the school system need a mentor, reduced workload while they learn the ropes, and time and opportunity to get their questions answered. Sadly, this simply isn’t the case in most places around the country. And this problem doesn’t just affect new hires. If you’re a more experienced therapist, you may be asked to mentor these new employees, but not actually be given the time or tools to do so effectively. If new employees are thrown to the wolves, so to speak, and you have to take time out of your schedule to help them that doesn’t really exist, this isn’t good for you, the department, or anyone.
Admin or coworkers who don’t recognize the distinct value of OT
Another one of the most common gripes I hear from other school-based OTs is that the people they work with don’t really “get” OT. Commonly, we’re reduced to being fine motor therapists, or worse, handwriting teachers. And while there is room for our coworkers to learn about our scope of practice, it does take a team who is willing, interested, and open-minded. If you’ve spent time educating teams, pushing into classrooms, and holding inservices that teach about OT’s role, and your admin and coworkers still don’t understand it, it’s hard to feel like a respected and valued member of the team.
Admin that doesn’t support you when you go to them with issues
This is a big one. Pretty much all of the other frustrations and red flags are manageable if you have a supportive admin. But too often, we are working under people who aren’t OTs themselves and don’t have a good understanding of it. The real solution to this is that there need to be easier paths for OTs to go into management/administration in the schools, which is currently a huge barrier in most states. But in the meantime, it is possible to have a good relationship with your admin where they support you – if they are willing to take the time to listen and learn about our role and the challenges associated with it.
Finding yourself in ethical dilemmas that compromise client safety or progress
Part of being an OT is learning how to respond when you are put in ethical dilemmas. And truly, it’s not realistic to think you will never face a situation that causes you to consider your morals and ethics. But if this is happening over and over again, pay attention. Not only does it make your job a frustrating, unpleasant experience, it potentially introduces situations that put your license at risk. And when most of us are carrying a huge amount of student loan debt, feeling worried about losing your license should not have to be something you deal with.
While coming to the realization that your school-based OT job isn’t all that you thought it would be is hard to accept, it is key to having a happier life and being a better OT. Recognizing you want to leave is the first step. Next, it’s time to decide what that could look like for you – and it doesn’t necessarily mean just quitting your job ASAP, though that is certainly a valid choice. Keep your eye out for my next blog about what your options are once you decide you’re no longer happy with your current job. If you have any questions, or just want to talk through your options, I would love to have you join my Facebook group. It’s a wonderful community of school-based OTs who are ready to support you.
And if you’re looking for an even higher level of support and guidance, take a look at my course, The Dynamic School OT, which is a comprehensive course all about school-based OT that goes beyond just intervention and assessment to discuss very real topics like this one. Click here to learn more!