Should SLPs Settle for the “Speech Teacher” Label?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard SLPs vent their frustrations when someone calls them “the speech teacher." This topic has been such a persistent pain point that it’s sparked many long-winded discussions on the issue.
When these debates happen, there’s a large percentage of SLPs expressing deep concern about the being called the “speech teacher” because they feel it devalues us as a profession.
Then, on the other hand, there are the people who say it doesn’t really matter and we all just need to chill out. So that brings up the question: Is being called the “speech teacher” really that big of a deal?
Why labels matter.
As an SLP, you may have heard about “labeling theory” when it comes to diagnosing disabilities and medical disorders. While a diagnosis can provide a powerful roadmap; there’s also evidence that how we label someone can impact our expectations about how they will act and perform (Darley & Gross, 1983; Szeto, Luong, & Dobson, 2013). Those expectations can then alter the way we’d treat that person.
Which might not always be a good thing.
For a student with a disability for example; we may have lower expectations about their abilities. As a result, we may push them less than other individuals (Stanovich, 1986).
As a result, they may progress at a slower rate than their peers and confirm our beliefs about them. This may also alter their perceptions of themselves; which could cause a self-fulfilling prophecy and an endless cycle of lowered expectations.
The impact of labeling goes beyond medical diagnoses. We also know that labeling people with certain traits like, “smart” or “stupid” can cause the same patterns (Alter, 2010).
So labeling DOES matter.
Now of course, calling someone a “teacher” instead of a therapist is not the same thing as diagnosing someone with a medical condition (or even worse…calling them “stupid”).
This is where the “speech teacher” debate gets a bit hairy, in my opinion.
If we’re offended by being called a teacher and we feel that it demeans us…what does that say about our opinion of teachers?
But here’s real the issue: Labels don’t have to be negative in order to have negative consequences. Inaccurate labels also can have negative consequences.
And what rubs people the wrong way about the “speech teacher” label is that it’s INACCURATE. When someone mislabels us, it suggests that they haven’t taken the time to fully understand what we do. And that certainly doesn’t help you perform your already demanding job; because it could wreak havoc on your self-worth.
It would be kind of like saying an occupational therapist and physical therapist do the same thing because they both work on strength and mobility (which of course would devalue the unique perspective of each field).
Or it would be like saying New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are all “basically the same place” because they’re in the United States (I’m sure natives of any of those cities would adamantly disagree). The bottom line is that it hurts to be misunderstood. And that can have a huge impact on how we show up to our therapy sessions.
How the self-fulling prophecy shows up for SLPs.
Why does accuracy matter when it comes to calling us “speech teachers” vs “speech-language pathologists”? It all comes down to expectations and understanding. Teachers have an equally important, but distinctly different job than we do. I’ll use language therapy and vocabulary intervention as an example to illustrate what I mean.
As I’ve mentioned in this free training for SLPs, teachers play an important role in building vocabulary. Part of a teacher’s job is to be a content area expert and deliver the curriculum in a way that meets the needs of the majority of students. And because teachers have to focus a lot of time and energy on being curricular experts, they don’t have the bandwidth to focus on evaluating, diagnosing, and treating students who need more than what the standard curriculum has to offer.
Which of course is where SLPs come in.
SLPs are responsible for things like evaluation, diagnosis, and individually tailored intervention.
Yet if we’re called “teachers”, as labeling theory would suggest, it’s going to subconsciously place the expectation that we do the same things as teachers. That could in turn impact how we act. And if we start to conform to those expectations, people will stay confused as heck about what we do. This widespread confusion is the biggest problem of all.
Why it matters that people “get” what an SLP does.
Now of course, you are going to have a MUCH more in-depth understanding about what you do compared to other people. But when they don’t grasp how we fit in to things like language and literacy, it’s a bigger problem than you think.
When people don’t understand how SLPs can support language and literacy, they’re going to be less likely to do things like:
…Be open to collaborating with you.
…Make appropriate referrals.
…Include you in relevant discussions and meetings.
…Seek out your services (and they’re already getting services, they’re less likely to continue).
All of these things are a problem because they will limit your ability to truly serve your clients, whether you’re in the schools or if you’re in an outpatient or private practice setting.
So what’s our plan of attack against the “speech teacher” label?
First, let’s start with what NOT to do. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that people won’t respond well if you bite their heads off when they mislabel you. This goes for colleagues and clients, and even random people who make backhand comments like, “Oh it must be so much fun to sit around and play with kids all day." The easiest thing to do is simply start referring to yourself as the “speech-language pathologist”, nonchalantly dropping it in every chance you get. And have patience. And persistence. Lots of it.
But here’s the most important thing:
If you want people to start treating you like a trusted language diagnostician, your best bet is to simply start acting like one.
The change needs to start with you. This means developing an in-depth understanding of your role in language and literacy.
The first step in educating others about your role is having a solid understanding of it yourself, which is why I’ve created trainings like this one where I outline a framework for treating language disorders.
There are also tons of resources on The Speech Link Podcast with Char Boshart, MA, CCC-SLP. She specializes in school-based therapy, and you can even listen for free on iTunes. Every episode is part of a pod course on SpeechTherapyPD.com worth .1 ASHA CEU - so be sure to enroll at the end of this post!
Here is one of the courses that may be useful:
But let's get back to the topic: The more you are able to design consistent, life-changing sessions regardless of what people are calling you, the more likely they’ll change their perceptions of your role. Which is, of course, why SLPs need to be well-equipped with a solid understanding of exactly how they fit in to interventions that support language and literacy.
Because ultimately, when we get right to the heart of the issue, what people call us isn’t just a minor semantic issue: It’s about setting yourself up to be in a position to make an enormous impact on your students’ lives…which is significantly more difficult if the people we work with don’t value what we do.
However, when we DO figure out how to educate others about what SLPs can do for students with language and literacy issues, it makes it possible for us to:
… Be seen as a “go-to” language expert instead of the “speech teacher”.
… Work as a team with other professionals, so you get groundbreaking results with your students.
… Spend less time digging through materials and research, and more time focusing on helping your students.
… Be super-efficient in how you collaborate and plan, so you can get your nights and weekends back, and STILL see your students thrive.
This is all possible when you have the right framework for treating language disorders EFFICIENTLY and EFFECTIVELY.
I actually share an in-depth framework for doing that in this presentation. It’s called:
Utilizing this framework is what helped me finally be seen as a trusted expert and not just the person who saw kids who couldn’t say “r”.
Here’s what’s covered in the training:
How to eliminate the guesswork and uncertainty around how to help students who struggle with language and comprehension — and save yourself from major burnout in the process.
A reliable, evidence-based framework for systematically addressing your students’ language difficulties— even if you work in groups, and even if you feel like there’s never enough time to get everything done.
How to harness “The Domino Effect” in your practice to start knocking down the most important language skills with your students — and start seeing dramatic improvement in your students’ comprehension and academic performance.
You can sign up for the training here.
Alter, A. (2010). Why it’s dangerous to label people: Why labeling a person ‘”black”, “rich”, or “smart” makes it so. Retrieved March 8, 2019 from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/alternative-truths/201005/why-its-dangerous-label-people
Darley, J. M., & Gross. P. H. (1983). A hypothesis-confirming bias in labeling effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 20-33. doi: 10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206
Szeto, A. C., Luong, D., & Dobson, K.S. (2013). Does labeling matter? An examination of attitudes and perception of labels for mental disorders. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 48, 659-671. doi: 10.1007/s00127-012-0532-7
Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-406.
Every episode of The Speech Link is part of a podcourse on SpeechTherpayPD.com worth .1 ASHA CEU. All podcourses and videos up to 3 hours in length are included in SpeechTherapyPD.com's Basic Membership for $89/year.
This also includes live & interactive web courses every week - so you can interact with the podcast hosts.