Erin O’Connell, an online school psychologist with PresenceLearning, and her family are currently living on the Naval Air Facility Atsugi (NAF Atsugi) in Japan where her husband is stationed. Despite being more than 5,000 miles away from her students, Erin is able to continue her professional career via teletherapy and, importantly, help students succeed.
Preparing to Move
Erin originally began working as a school psychologist in Florida, but she knew her family would be moving frequently and that she would need to expand her career and certification to other states. In preparation, Erin became a Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP). Later, when she worked in Maryland, she was allowed to practice part-time without expanding her state certification, but when a subsequent move brought the O’Connells to California, it took the state more than six months to certify Erin to practice.
To mitigate a future lapse in work after her husband received orders they would be moving to Japan, Erin immediately started applying for teacher and therapist positions at NAF Atsugi and other nearby bases. However, she wasn’t able to secure a job before they arrived in Japan and landing a substitute teaching position took more than a year because of background checks and other Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) hiring procedures.
Eager to stay active in her field, Erin began researching her options. She first heard of PresenceLearning when the company was looking for school psychologists to take part in an equivalency study for online psychoeducational assessments, but she had forgotten about teletherapy as an option when she moved to Japan. Just as she was about check back into it, Erin received an email from PresenceLearning asking if she would be interested in joining its network of clinicians as an independent contractor
“The process of getting started with PresenceLearning was so easy,” said Erin. “Everyone was so helpful in getting me up and running.”
Erin currently works with schools only in California so she has not had to expand her state certification yet, but she does have to account for the time difference. Japan is 16 hours ahead of California so Erin chooses to work part-time. On the nights before she works, Erin goes to sleep around 8 PM and wakes up around 2 AM to start working. Because she is in charge of her own schedule, Erin ensures all of her therapy sessions take place back-to-back so she can get several accomplished in a block of time. She takes a break when it’s time to get her children ready for school, and then works until about 10 AM after her children go to school.
Erin currently provides direct counseling for approximately 30 students in grades 2-12. Her students’ IEP goals include coping with depression and anxiety, developing social skills, learning how to be a self-advocate, and communicating their needs as a high school or college student. In addition to direct services, Erin completes students’ initial and triennial assessments, writes their IEP goals, sits in on IEP meetings and regularly communicates student progress with parents and teachers.
Erin also conducts additional assessments on an ad-hoc basis. PresenceLearning contacts her with an assessment assignment and deadline and Erin can choose to conduct the assessment if she has availability. If not, another clinician will be given the opportunity.
“I used to feel so overwhelmed by my testing caseload when I was in a school district,” said Erin. “At one point, I was the only school psychologist for five schools. Now, I’m doing more counseling. That’s the part of the job that I got into the field to do – to work with students.”
In addition to being able to make her own schedule, Erin was also surprised by the level of interactivity during online therapy.
“The students are opening up and are so engaged during sessions,” said Erin. “We use worksheets, videos, and games, and it’s more interactive than sitting on a couch or behind a desk. It proves you don’t have to be in the same room with a student to establish a good rapport.”
Erin urges other military spouses in the field to look into online therapy to continue their professional careers because it is a “portable” job that provides the flexibility to make family a priority when an active duty spouse is away or deployed.
“When we inevitably move back to the States, I can start working from day one,” said Erin. “I’m staying active in the field so when we are able to settle down, I won’t have a large gap in my resume. That’s worth its weight in gold.”
As an ombudsman at NAF Atsugi, Erin helps new families assimilate into life on base, and she looks forward to helping any incoming spouses who are school-based SLPs, OTs, social workers or school psychologists get started with PresenceLearning.