Have you ever heard of travel school-based OT? And no, I’m not talking about that trip you take to get from School A to School B – I’m talking about travel therapy. You may have heard of this concept for OTs working in SNFs or hospitals, but did you know it’s totally possible to do it in the school setting as well? Here’s a synopsis of travel school OT – and factors to help you consider if it’s right for you.
What is travel therapy?
First off, if you’re not familiar with travel therapy, let me give you a brief overview. Travel therapy is a type of employment available to occupational, physical, and speech therapists. If you’ve ever heard of travel nursing, it’s a very similar concept. Basically, instead of working in one permanent job, travel therapists take short-term contracts across the country. Sometimes these contracts are as short as 4 weeks, and some can last almost a year. Therapists can choose to take these contracts in multiple settings, from home health to outpatient clinics. In general, travel therapists choose the locations and contracts they travel to, though there might not always be a contract in a preferred area/setting at any given time. After their contract is over, travel therapists can choose to return to their permanent home (which also may be their tax home) or they can choose to take another contract. Fun, right?
Why do facilities need travelers?
While the travel lifestyle may sound glamorous, in reality, there are some drawbacks to consider as well. Facilities such as schools or hospitals usually need travelers for a reason, otherwise, they’d be able to hire a permanent employee. Sometimes this reason makes sense, such as a travel therapist covering parental leave. But other times, the facility has trouble recruiting and retaining permanent employees because of the location, unreasonable productivity requirements, or toxic supervisors. So, as much fun as it can be to travel to beautiful new locations, travel therapists have to be cautious about the contracts they accept.
How long are travel contracts?
As mentioned above, travel contracts can be as short as 4 weeks (or sometimes even less when covering emergency situations), but the average amount of time is usually 13 weeks. However, this length of time is much more common in more medically focused settings such as hospitals or rehab facilities. In the schools, it’s likely that the district will want you for the full school year, or around 9 – 10 months. It just depends on the reason they’re seeking a therapist. If this is a very remote school district that has had trouble hiring a new perm OT, they’ll likely take you for as long as they can get you (and try to convince you to stay at the end of the contract). But if this is a more popular district, they may just need you to cover a short-term need like parental leave or ESY.
How much do travel therapists make?
You may have heard that travel therapy pay is more lucrative than permanent employment, and on the surface this is true. Because travel therapists are staying in a location away from their permanent home, many qualify for what are called “tax-free stipends.” These stipends support the traveler’s meals & incidentals and housing costs. Basically, think of a travel contract as an extended business trip. Travel therapists aren’t making a permanent move to their contract’s location – they are there for work. It’s the same concept as a company paying to put their employees up in a hotel for a week while they attend a business conference. And while some travel therapists do elect to have their company arrange and pay for their housing on the back end, many will just take this amount as that tax-free stipend on their paycheck. And because such a significant portion of a travel therapist’s pay package can go towards housing and meals, the paychecks tend to be higher. For example, I’ve made $1500 – $2000 a week, after tax, working in schools full-time as a travel therapist. And while this was definitely more than I was making in any of my previous perm jobs, it’s important to remember that there are other factors, such as benefits (typically pretty minimal in travel therapy jobs), cost of living, getting new state licenses, and paying your housing expenses at home even while you’re away.
What is it like to be a travel school-based OT?
The short answer is that I love it. The longer answer is that it definitely comes with challenges. If you remember the first day of your new job, it’s basically having that experience over and over again. You have a whole new caseload every year, or perhaps even more frequently. You have to build relationships with a new set of teachers, paras, and admin every year. You have to learn new documentation systems, state-specific laws that govern school-based OT practice, and a bunch of new copier codes and WiFi passwords. Doing this long-term definitely requires some flexibility and tenacity.
But alongside all of those challenges come a huge set of pros. Your work will always be fresh and interesting. You will learn so much about how things are done in different states and cities. You will get to work with populations that you never would’ve had you worked in one town your whole life. You’ll get to spend time being charmed by the community after work as well. You will get to work with a wide variety of people with different skills and experiences than you – and they will all have something to teach you.
How is the work different for a travel school-based OT?
Ultimately, the work for a travel school OT vs. a perm OT is pretty similar. You’ll still be responsible for a caseload of students, and more than likely, evaluations and meetings. And travel OTs still can participate in the more global aspects of school-based practice, such as RtI, creating inservices, and joining committees. While some people worry that their opinion will be less respected as a traveler, I’ve actually found the opposite to be true. People are interested in you and your experience. And personally, I’m a lot more willing to advocate for things like caseload size, workload limits, and work-life balance as a traveler. Knowing that your job has an end date no matter what is freeing in that way. If you were a perm employee working at the only school district within driving distance to your house, you may be more tempted to keep your head down and not rock the boat. But as a traveler, I’ve felt empowered to never work off the clock and have difficult conversations with my supervisors when handed a caseload that is way too large.
So, does travel school-based OT sound like something you want to try? If you like to travel, if you’re flexible and diligent, if you’re feeling stagnant with your current work situation: do it. It is the single most important decision I’ve made that has led me to be a better OT. And if you need more support before trying school-based practice in another state, come join my signature course, The Dynamic School OT. It’s based on my years of knowledge working as a travel school-based OT across multiple states and districts. Travel OTs have a special place in my heart, and I’d love to support you!