Part of my job is mentoring SLPs who are completing their Clinical Fellowship. I will be honest – these clinical fellows are light years beyond where I was when I graduated 22 (gulp!) years ago. Their clinical skills and professionalism amaze me. This past year, we all experienced speech/language services through a pandemic, but it was especially challenging for SLPs who were working for the first time. Below are some of my takeaways, as well as those of Karen Mossbarger, MS CCC-SLP, who completed her clinical fellowship in June. Although they are lessons learned from a global pandemic, these tips would be useful for any clinician starting a new placement – I will certainly carry them with me to my own practice next year!

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Find your people

This was especially challenging for CFs last year, as they were new to their setting and unable to see colleagues in person. Also, it’s tricky to be vulnerable and find the right people to ask questions. It might take more time, but always try to find your people. “I’ll certainly remember how important it is to have a truly supportive team of people around me, between Hello and the school,” says Karen. “I experienced that asking questions was good for both learning and teamwork. Showing genuine care for my colleagues led to strengthening relationships and support for students, which makes the work more meaningful.”

Build relationships with your clients

Beyond therapy, clients need to believe that we care – this was especially important last year when kids were isolated and unable to connect with their peers and community. Karen agrees. “We were taught, no matter what, to ‘Show up, care, and try.’ It meant paying attention to the whole person and putting them at the center, whether providing information and support, setting goals, or sharing a clinical approach. I leaned on that mantra quite a bit when I felt lost in the weeds.”

Systems are best learned in the moment

Clinical fellows start their careers with strong clinical skills, but they usually need to learn guidelines and systems on the job. This includes state, district, or setting-specific factors like navigating student management systems and completing paperwork. It also includes knowing a clinician’s role (direct? indirect? related? consult?) when serving students. Karen found that she had to learn these skills on the go. “We were taught some of those things, but it’s hard to make sense of it without the context of experience.”

Be flexible

Experiencing a CF is kind of like having a newborn. No matter how much you prepare, something unexpected will happen.  Things change throughout the school year and your routine shifts as a result. “I didn’t realize how much fluctuation in the workload a school year brings from one month to the next, especially with the added factors of online and in-person transitions this year,” Karen shared. Organizing your caseload, preparing for census counts in December, and Pre-K transition meetings in the spring will change how you prioritize your time throughout the year.

Speech/language therapy works!

Perhaps the most satisfying part of our job is when we witness a student learn a skill that we’ve been targeting. Karen shares, “I’ll forever treasure the first time I got to watch a skill start to ‘click’ for a student! I about fell off my chair, I was so excited for them (and admittedly surprised)! It’s so fun to see them feeling proud of their effort and to see that ‘it works’!”
Completing a clinical fellowship during a global pandemic changed things. It changed the way families engaged in and prioritized school, and whether students participated in speech sessions. It changed how we delivered therapy and our ability to feel a part of a team. But the core of what we do remained the same. I’m confident our CFs will continue to build their skills over the years, and that they learned valuable lessons in what was an unpredictable and challenging year.