Connie Upton, M.S., CCC-SLP, joined the PL Care Network in 2018. We interviewed her about the roots of her passion for speech-pathology and asked her to tell us a little about her experience transitioning to teletherapy.
I grew up in Kennebunk, Maine and went to the University of New Hampshire in Durham for my undergraduate degree. I worked for a year in New Hampshire, and then I went back to UNH to get my M.S. degree. Before moving to Germany, I lived in Southern Maine working for Pine Tree Society, a non-profit organization, doing a variety of speech therapy responsibilities—I was digging into AAC, doing evaluations, consultations, and providing therapy to people of all ages. I worked with Pine Tree Society for a number of years and loved it. Then I met my husband-to-be who was moving to Qatar for work. He proposed within just a few months of having FaceTime conversations everyday and we maintained a long-distance relationship for about a year and a half. I never thought a relationship could be built on what is essentially video conferencing and now my profession is that! We decided to move to Germany together when his company gave him the opportunity to change locations—how could I pass that up!? Unfortunately, the opportunities for me to work as an SLP in Germany are pretty limited and I thought I would have to put my career on hold. A week after we got married, we left for Germany. I took a leap of faith! My former boss had become friendly with a PL SLP and told me I should really check out telepractice at PL. After learning more about the company and going through the interview, I decided it sounded like a fantastic opportunity for me.
In my spare time, I love to travel, and hiking has become the thing that has brought me the most pleasure in the time that I’ve been here. Germany has great hiking trails. I went from having a lighthouse in my backyard in southern Maine to having a castle outside my kitchen window.
What inspired you to become an SLP?
From my first inkling of wanting to become an SLP, I didn’t know there was such a career. I have a cousin who has cerebral palsy. She’s not a verbal communicator and has a lot of limitations. Growing up I just wondered why she couldn’t speak to me and I felt it was very unfair. I always had a hard time with that. In high school I met an SLP and she explained what she did. I was interested, so I wanted to make sure I went to a university that offered speech pathology in case that’s what I wanted to pursue; and that is what I did. Once I got my undergraduate degree, I spent a year working with people with traumatic brain injury. I still felt very inspired. At that point, I went back to UNH for graduate school. Over the course of my career I worked in skilled nursing which I really enjoyed, but it wasn’t my passion. I felt more of a calling towards people who needed augmentative communication and assistive technology to succeed. The assistive technology wasn’t so much my focus, but I did hold my ATP (Assistive Technology Practitioner) licensure and that was very interesting. I don’t carry that license any longer, however, but that was a really fantastic time—it developed my passion for augmentative communication. I’ve been able to work with kids who are using devices—low tech to high tech communication systems—at the school district that I’m working at which is great. Never in my life did I think I’d fall in love over FaceTime and never did I think I’d actually have a successful therapy session with someone who presents with the same challenges I used to work with so hands-on. I’ve seen the team be really receptive to what I have to offer which has been very satisfying.
What made you want to be a teletherapist with PL?
I wanted to continue my love for speech therapy, even though my husband and I relocated to Germany where finding a job in the field would have been next to impossible. Once I learned about teletherapy and the opportunity to work with PL, I was hooked! I saw opportunity to work while traveling, the enticement of adding to the household income, and I didn’t have to put my career on hold while we live abroad.
What do you enjoy about being a provider with PL?
I absolutely love that I am in control of how large or small I want my caseload to be. I work four days a week, approximately five hours a day and that is a perfect fit for my current lifestyle and needs. I also thought I was going to feel limited by not having the hands-on materials available that I used to use with my students, but the PL platform has been a fabulous resource. I always know I’ll be able to find quality materials and that’s been a huge relief. The platform has been very easy to use, the features available during therapy are clever and make therapy enjoyable for me and my students, and the support I’ve received from my lead therapist and everyone at PL has made contracting for the company enjoyable. I feel as though I’m working within a team of speech pathologists, even though I work as an individual. There is always someone available to bounce ideas off of and this has been a great asset when I’ve needed support.
What were you most surprised about when you made the transition to be a teletherapist?
The feeling of working on a team was something I most certainly didn’t expect! Also, I was very skeptical of how therapy would go with more complex students and I feared I wouldn’t be able to meet their needs through telepractice. I was always used to being hands-on with more challenging kiddos and couldn’t imagine a successful telepractice session with such a student. However, I have had some very dynamic students on my caseload with multi-faceted needs that I have been able to successfully support, and this has been immensely rewarding.
What do you find most challenging about being a teletherapist?
I would have to say that my biggest challenge is developing relationships with the teachers, support staff, OTs, and PTs at the schools where I provide services. I have to work hard to extend myself to get to know them through email or creative ways when they happen to join their students for therapy. I’m definitely a team-player and people-person and not being able to be a part of the milieu of the school has been difficult, but not a barrier to feeling successful. I’ve developed some great relationships with the staff that I see on a regular basis and I am thankful for those people.
How do you build relationships with the onsite staff you work with? What strategies do you use?
If I have a few moments of downtime, if the student is a little distracted, I might take an extra minute to draw that staff person in to ask what’s going on at school today, keeping it school-related but a little more conversational, with professional consideration. I’ve shared a lot of emails back and forth. I’m always making sure to send the last email—like “Have a really nice weekend. It was good to see you today. Boy, it looks like this event was really fun.” I try to tie in something personal, but it can be tricky, and, at times, quite difficult. Sometimes when students have been absent, the teachers don’t leave the therapy room. They’ve stopped and sat, and asked me about myself. I was able to develop rapport with a couple of teachers that way. So we’ve leveraged the absences to chat and get to know each other. They’ve asked me questions about students. It’s a little like being in the teachers lounge and that’s really nice. That’s made it a little more real.
What is your current caseload like?
Currently, I am working at a junior high, grades 6–8. Some of the students come from a life-skills classroom and some are resource room students. Last year, my students ranged from K–8. I also worked with the 3–5 population which was a fun opportunity.
Could you walk us through your daily routine? A “day in the life of a PL therapist” if you will?
Given that I’m six hours ahead of my school site, I take my mornings to hike the trail behind my apartment, walk to the grocery store, go to an exercise class or have coffee with a friend. It’s my free time while everyone in the US is still sleeping! Then, I spend time in the PL library preparing for my day’s therapy sessions, have a little lunch, maybe work on an IEP, or respond to an email before starting therapy sessions that last all afternoon. I am often working on my daily notes, reports, or organizing for the next day when my husband comes home from work. But, everyday is a little different and I have to be flexible with progress report deadlines, the needs of the individual teams, and emails that need responses at odd hours. Overall, I feel happy to not have to commute to work and be able to work with my slippers on! When my husband comes home in the evening, we have dinner, and have time to ourselves. And I chose not to work on Fridays which is another huge advantage for us. It’s been really satisfying.
What advice would you give an SLP considering a transition to teletherapy?
Be patient with staff. The communication part can be challenging. It takes time to get to know your students. You’re not walking down the hall and seeing their behavior, knowing how they’re doing. You don’t get to see your student get off the bus crying or see them celebrate a small victory when you’re not there in person. Just be patient and develop the rapport that you need to. I think as a profession, we’re pretty good at prying and even quite clever at it sometimes. I think it’s important to really be aware that you’re going to have to use those skills and tap into that part of your personality. Otherwise everything else just happens automatically. The training that PresenceLearning offers is really thorough. The platform is exceptional, and for me, it wasn’t a huge learning curve. I did know about myself that I had to be organized. I had to make sure that I set myself clear boundaries—for example, that I get my notes done everyday. I get upset if I don’t have my notes done everyday because then they pile up and it’s frustrating. I’m a low-tech person, so I like to keep paper notes while I’m working and refer back to them but that method doesn’t work for everyone. PL has set up great opportunities for online note taking. If you’ve been an SLP, you know what it takes to be organized and stay on top of your work, and I don’t think this is any different. I think if you know how to be a good professional, telepractice is just another way to work as a successful SLP.
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