Gila Cohen-Shaw, M.A, CCC-SLP, PC, has worked with children as a speech-language pathologist for over 20 years in a wide range of settings and roles. She took the leap into teletherapy seven years ago and has not looked back. Today, Gila works as a Lead Clinician at PresenceLearning—she works with small, medium, and large school districts, and does individual therapy sessions as well. We sat down with Gila to talk about her work as a teletherapist.
Could you walk us through your daily routine?
Some of my day is routine, but mostly it’s pretty non-routine. I think I spend most of my day expecting the unexpected. Here’s the routine part: once I have my coffee or tea, I open up all the tabs and websites I use, and I open my Room. Then I open up the provider community portal, The Lounge, and respond to help with engagement and to share knowledge. Then I go through my emails. Each email generates a task—add a student, remove one, find a solution to a problem, answer a question. My goal is to clear my inbox (I don’t always achieve it). I might attend an IEP because I’m responsible for the case management for those students. Or I will write an IEP. I also provide either evaluations or screenings for some of my other districts where we’re a little low on capacity so I’m trying to step in and support them.
What made you want to be a teletherapist with PL?
I was feeling burnt out by the size of my caseload, my commute and lack of work/life balance.
How long had you been practicing in schools before you took the leap into teletherapy?
I’m over 20 years always working with kiddos. I did work in a school setting as an employee. When I had my own children, I began working as an independent contractor in a school setting doing early intervention. For years I was a sole evaluator across different districts in New York. I did many different things. I was burning out. I love what I do. I have a tremendous passion for what I do and I wasn’t feeling quite as a passionate. When I heard about teletherapy, my personal philosophy is “There’s nothing I won’t try. If I don’t like it or if it doesn’t like me, I don’t have to do it again.” So that’s when I tried teletherapy. I kept my contract work on the ground 3 days a week. I cross-licensed in California and added teletherapy in the afternoon. Then I took another step and went 3 days/2 days and then that next September I took the full leap. I think it’s 7-8 years ago. The Lead Clinician position came up 6–7 months after I started working with PresenceLearning. I am one of the first “Leads” hired by PL. As a Lead Clinician, I have assignments where I help the schools coordinate and schedule clinicians, and I also do therapy and supervision.
What was the size of your caseload at your school district?
There were no legal limits on a caseload in New York. I had close to 60 students – that was too much for one person. So I took the position of just doing evaluations to cut down the enormous caseload but still be a speech pathologist. And it was enormous. There’s no way to do your job really well with those numbers. It didn’t feel good at all.
What do you enjoy about being a provider with PL?
I especially enjoy having so many amazing SLPs with their expertise available to share their knowledge.
What tools or resources do you rely on to share knowledge between your colleagues?
In the morning like I said before, I really try to go on The Lounge – our online community forum. I emailed all of my team so I’m in Virginia, Georgia, Maine, Oregon, Washington, California. I have sites across all those states and I asked everybody to join it because I think it’s a great way to share information.
I am very connected to the Leads that I’ve been with and we will text each other and support each other. I didn’t know how to do “consents for evaluation” in Spanish on a system I’m not familiar with. I texted a fellow Lead and within 2 seconds the directions were on my phone. I’ve worked in places where there were 17 SLPs on the ground, but because everybody had 60 kids, nobody had time to support one another, and I was reluctant to ask anyone who was already overloaded to do one more thing. It had to be super important because no one wanted to put something else on someone’s plate. I have more support being across the country than down the hallway.
What were you most surprised about when you made the transition to be a teletherapist?
I was surprised by how connected I would feel to my kiddos and the providers I work with. I thought I’d feel isolated working from home and I don’t—I feel more connected than when I worked on the ground.
Can you give specific examples about how to build strong connections when you come into a new position like this?
Initially I over communicated to make sure someone knew I was present. For example, one of the SPED directors called me Sally Skype as if that was my name. In other words, I was nameless to her. I tried to see the humor in it. I intentionally let it go and let her come to relationship in her own time. And it did take time…she now uses the word “partner” and “collaborator.” So knowing when to step back and when to push forward is important.
To cultivate the relationship I included her on emails, again finding the balance, where it had tremendous relevancy, but not where it didn’t. I would send her an email at the end of the week indicating these are some of the kids who had issues or problems. I tried to keep communications as small as possible. You have to know your audience. I knew she was someone who just wanted communications very brief. I think what I excel at is learning someone else’s style and complying to that as opposed to making them comply to mine, so learning their culture.
What do you find most challenging about being a teletherapist?
The biggest challenge for me as a teletherapist is the effort required at times to make sure there is a high level of communication between myself and the on-the-ground team at districts.
What have your discovered works best to bring students with attention issues back when they lose focus or get distracted during a session?
My dog. The kids know she’s here. The best treat in the world is to see my dog (and she does a few tricks). My dog brings their focus back 100 percent. For kiddos who have attention difficulties or who are anxious, my dog is the best.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I just moved from NYC to Maine. Working through teletherapy enabled me to make a big life change very smoothly. It didn’t have to be a career change at the same time as moving geographically. I literally took 3 days off and moved. Nothing about my life changed at all in terms of employment. I think that’s kind of rare. I’m extraordinarily grateful. That wasn’t in my thought process when I jumped in to teletherapy at all, but what it has enabled me to do has been literally life-altering.
Are you interested in making a transition to telepractice? PresenceLearning is currently accepting applications for licensed SLPs nation-wide. Apply today on our careers page.