What’s the difference between an SLP and a teacher?

Le sigh…SLP heart word cloud on clear pink and green neon

If you’re not an SLP, you may not know that this issue is a perpetual thorn in our collective sides.

On the educational side of the field of speech-language pathology, SLPs are all too often confused for teachers.  On the medical side of the field, SLPs are oft mistaken for nurses.

Since I’ve been out of medical speech pathology since my hospital internship during graduate school over 7 years ago, I’m probably not the best person to expound upon the many many differences in that realm.  However, as a speech therapist in the educational sector, I can speak to the multitude of differences between SLPs and teachers.

Before I do though, I must issue a very important statement: SLPs respect teachers!  We respect them enough not to claim to be them or profess that we can do what they do and I’m sure they feel similarly.

We are a different field and we are proud of our field.  I feel that all too often, when I try to explain the differences to others or ask people to use the title I’ve actually earned, people take it as a dig against teachers.  Please know that it is not and I would never do something like that.

My English teachers and college professors were a huge factor in my decision to enter the field of speech-language pathology because they opened my eyes to the wonderful world of language, linguistics, and grammar.

However, my brothers, both born with developmental disabilities, were my true inspiration for becoming a speech and language pathologist.  As a child, I never attended the same school as my baby brothers; I’m nine years their senior.  However, I did accompany them to countless appointments for occupational therapy, physical therapy, and yes, speech and language therapy.

During our visits to the speech/language therapist’s office in a hospital in Chicago, I watched as the SLP facilitated communication through play; I counted and documented one of my brother’s words as his vocabulary grew; I model speech and language for the other through the use of a toy amplification device, and yet, I still wondered how I, at just 10 or 11 years old, could do more to foster communication for them.  As you can see, my predilection toward the field of communication began to bud early on in life.

My reasons for entering the field of speech-language pathology are tied to the heart of who I am as a person, so when someone prescribes the role of “teacher” to me, it feels like they are dismissing my true interests and what my day-to-day life actually looks like.  It seems like they’re saying, “You are not who you think you are.  We will tell you who you are.”  In reality, however, what they’re probably saying is more like, “We don’t really know what you do, but you work in a school and we think everyone who works in a school is a teacher in some capacity.”  In spite of that, it still feels the same to me.  It kind of hurts and it’s tiring.

Through the 7 years of collegiate training it took me to become a speech-language pathologist, not one single course in the field of education was required.  However, courses were required in Anatomy & Physiology, Neurology, Motor Speech Disorders, Voice Disorders, Swallowing Disorders (Dysphagia), Stuttering/Fluency Disorders, Phonetics, Articulation, Phonology, Language Development, Speech Science, Audiology, and more.

Today, with 7 plus years of experience in my field, I’ve never once had a classroom.  I don’t stand in front of pupils and “teach.”  The people I work with could easily be called “students” but they could also be called “patients” or “clients.”  They are people that I treat for disorders behind a desk in my tiny office, while walking through the hallway, or while sitting on the floor anywhere in the building.  In the hospital setting, they were people that I worked with at their bedsides.  No matter the setting, I was using principles from the field of speech-language pathology and not education.

As a speech-language pathologist, I don’t have the credentials or the interest required to be a teacher, though I’m glad others do.  For a time after deciding to enter this field, I even thought I would work within the medical side of speech-language pathology in an out-patient hospital or clinical setting.  However, my squeamish nature and emotional sensitivity prompted me to re-consider (…and the idea of having summers off didn’t hurt either 😉 ).

Again, I must reiterate my profound respect for educators.  Teachers are remarkable people.  I think the best ones are those that felt a lifelong connection to the idea of helping and supporting children.  However, that’s just not me and I won’t feel ashamed to admit that.  I feel about communication the way that I think teachers feel about children.  However, my love of communication spans the lifetime and fortunately for me, so does my field.  SLPs work with everyone from newborns to super-centenarians.

Speech-language pathology is my passion.  It’s what I feel I was born to do and because I view my field as my purpose in life, I’d appreciate people not taking that away from me by trying to simplify my title or overgeneralize careers based on settings.

Not everyone who works in a hospital is a doctor or nurse just as not everyone who works in a school is a teacher or principal.

A plethora of people play a role in shaping and improving lives.  I’m happy with the role I worked hard to get.

SLPs are just as much health & medical professionals as they are education professionals, and to strip one aspect of the field from the other through terminology does a disservice to the community at large.  It leads to people not understanding the ways that an SLP could be used to improve lives and that leads to many missed opportunities for treatment.

Each of us SLPs, regardless of work-setting, must maintain our position of having one foot in healthcare and one foot in education.  Both medically-based and educationally-based SLPs must recognize disorders, decide on treatment methodologies to implement based on patients’ needs, and collaborate with team members including, doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, parents, students or patients, teachers, and others.

The role of the SLP is to diagnose and treat communication, swallowing, and feeding disorders across the lifespan, from 0 to 100+ years of age.

This important work allows patients/students/clients to improve quality of life.  Within the educational setting, improvement of quality of life is intrinsically linked to access to education and so we work hand-in-hand with school professionals.  However, we must never forget that the heart of what we do as members of the healthcare community is improving quality of life overall.

As I’m sure you’ll understand, the abilities to communicate and ingest food by mouth are paramount to that goal.  Because of that, I will continue to communicate the role of SLPs and clarify misconceptions about who we are and what we do.

For more information on the differences between SLPs and teachers, please see the chart below. You can also find information about speech-language pathologists by visiting our entry in the U.S. government’s Occupational Outlook Handbook.

What's the Difference between an SLP and a TeacherTo get PDF Version of this document to share, click here.


Explaining the Role of an SLP to Students

Last year during winter break, I found myself reflecting on the public’s general confusion about the SLP scope of practice and how that lack of clarity may be impacting my junior high students.

If students believe that speech-language pathologists are the same as teachers, why would they treat therapy sessions any differently than their other classes.  My students have anywhere from 5 to 8 teachers in one day.  Nearly all of them give assignments and homework and ask the students to work hard during their classes similarly to what an SLP in a school would do.  However, since we know that therapy is so different than a class in a multitude of other ways (including not being able to give students the incentive derived from letter grades), I knew I had to tap into their motivation in other ways.  If kids see me as one of their teachers, I’m just one out of 9 people. If they see me as the SLP that I am, I’m the one and only.

Acting on a hunch that students might treat their therapy sessions a bit differently if they knew more about my role, my educational background, and how I intend to help them, I decided to spend our first therapy session after break explaining it.

In our 40-minute discussions, I asked students to tell me what they know about teachers.  Then I asked them to tell me what they know about therapists like Occupational Therapists and Physical Therapists.  We compared and contrasted the role of a Speech-Language Pathologists to those professions.  Highlighting that SLPs don’t have classrooms or give grades like teachers but they do diagnose and treat problems like physical and occupational therapists.  For that reason, I insisted that they not call me a “speech teacher” anymore as they might have done in younger grades and that they help teachers and parents in doing the same.  “The term ‘speech teacher’ confuses some parents, teachers and even students,” I explained “into thinking that speech-language pathologists have the same job as teachers when really SLPs provide therapy, not teach.  I know that speech-language pathologist is a long and difficult to say title though, so you can call me the SLP or the speech and language therapist.”

In our discussion, we also included talk about the educational requirements for each field and some of the coursework I had to take in order to be able help students with a variety of communication difficulties, including a course in the study of the brain, a course in the anatomy of the mouth, a course in how to help kids that have trouble understanding language, etc.

I informed my students that no one else in our entire school is trained to do what I do.  I am the only speech-language pathologist in the whole building.  I also let them know that there are speech-language pathologists in other settings, like Hospitals, Clinics, Nursing Homes, and Private Practice but in those settings either insurance, parents, or clients have to pay for these services directly (which can be very expensive), but as long as they are in our school system they get to get their speech and language therapy for free.  I encouraged them to take it seriously now to help avoid paying for it out of pocket later.

Of course, our talk also opened the door for student questions.  “Does that mean I have a disorder?” one of them asked.  “Technically yes” I replied honestly.  “It’s a communication disorder that just means it’s harder for you to do… (X, Y, and Z).  That’s okay, though.  We all have things that are harder for us and things that are easier for us.  For me, understanding maps is very difficult. I get lost frequently.  Sometimes I feel like I want to cry.  Luckily for me though, I have things that can help me.  My husband is very good at directions, so I call him if I need help.  Knowing when to ask for help is very important.  I also bought myself a GPS – which is a tool that can help me navigate. Things are much better now that I have those supports.  I don’t let it get me too down that I have problems with that, because I know I’m good at other things – like helping students understand and use better communication skills.  Just like I have tools and tricks for helping me with my map skills, I’m going to give you tools and strategies to help you with your speech and language skills.”

For each student, I then asked for examples of communication skills that were difficult for them and explained which ones we had goals for an why but offered to help them with any other communication skills they thought were tricky.

To end on a positive, I also asked for examples of things they were good at (like subject areas, sports, talents, and personality traits).  We talked about how great those attributes are, how special that made each of them, and how we can use those positives to help with the communication areas that are difficult.

After each session, both the students and the therapist left with better understandings of each other and a foundation from which to frame future therapy sessions.

Today, I still hear some of my students correcting others “she’s not a speech teacher, she’s a speech and language therapist!”  Accordingly, I also continue to experience a change in the therapy climate in terms of student understanding of why they are in therapy and student-motivation.

Gotta love that 🙂

Related Products:

End of School Year – Speech & Language Exit Slip

At the beginning and end of the year, students fill out an entrance/exit slip in which they identify their goals for the year and how they will continue to address them.

The Role of SLPs in Schools (PowerPoint)

 I use this PowerPoint to explain the role of SLPs to school staff and I can see such a big difference in how the SLP is treated at buildings that have had this discussion and how they are treated in schools that have not.  Feel free to modify it for use with parents or students.

Speech Room Rules – Junior High

Students must state their speech or language goal during each session and how they have used it in class or at home this week.  They also excitedly ask for homework!  Here’s how I get them to do that.

What’s the Difference between an SLP and a Teacher?

While designed more for staff and parents than for students, this free comparison grid can help you pick out points to highlight with students in your discussion of the SLPs role and how it differs from that of a teacher.

Data Organization – HOW TO

I’ve been through many systems of data collection and organization, including the usual binders, folders, and note pads, but here’s what I’ve found to work the best:

I use color coded pages (by day of the week) sticking up out of a file cart that I keep right next to my desk.

Here’s a photo of the cart.

data cart

Here is the data sheet that I use:

EASY Percentages Data Sheet for 3 kids

I even made a youtube video on how to use it! http://youtu.be/bX1Xdc1uhtI

Click here to get a download the data sheet.

I just copy it onto different colored paper (e.g., gold = Tuesday, pink = Wednesday, blue = Thursday). I arrange the data sheets in order of when I see the kid and write the group number in the corner. I like to have them sticking up so I can easily glance and grab the one I need and put it back at the end of the session. When one sheet is filled up, I place it down into the file folder and have a new blank sheet sticking up.

On the bottom of the cart, I keep some of my most frequently used worksheets, like ones from EET, some 1-page reading passages, /r/ and /s/ articulation sheets, etc.

It’s so handy and it’s the only system that has lasted me this long!