Five years ago, I began to explore career options as a teletherapist and online teacher as a way to add an additional income stream. As a private practice speech therapist, income would be sporadic at times as I waited for insurance companies to remit payment for my services to patients. I was initially reluctant to dive into providing therapy to children in an online classroom. As a professional who had spent my career in an allied health field, I was only familiar with traditional service models in which the client was within a few feet of the clinician. As a pediatric therapist who specialized in helping toddlers develop their first words, I often sat on the floor with my patients as I engaged in relationship-based play therapy.
In speech therapy and teaching, it is paramount for educators to establish rapport with our students and create a nurturing environment in which our students feel safe and confident to challenge themselves. I truly wondered if the soft skills which led me to my profession would transfer in an online classroom. I had built my practice on my innate ability to read the non-verbal cues of patients and their caregivers. For example, while providing therapy to a small child who struggled to begin to eat solid food, I learned to attend to the child’s breathing patterns, eye gaze, and physical movements when a new food was presented to them. If the child’s immediate response was to physically move away from the food or throw their hands up in the air, this is a clear sign that the mere smell and visual input of the food was causing the child to engage in a fight or flight response. When our bodies react in this manner, our brains then suppress our appetites in favor of supporting our survival. As all parents know, a child most likely will not eat if they do not feel hungry.
I currently work as both a speech therapist and an online ESL teacher. During school hours I am working with my speech therapy students via remote learning this semester due to COVID. The vast majority of my students received face-to-face services until March of last school year, so we have already developed our procedures in the classroom which were fairly easy to transfer to the online classroom. My students had already developed a sense of comfort and trust in that we will work toward their communication goals in a positive and supportive environment.
The thing that has been utterly surprising to me is that I have developed similar relationships with my online ESL students whom have never received face-to-face interventions in my brick and mortar classroom. In some ways, my online students in other countries have responded more favorably than my traditional students to relationship-based play interventions which are used to address their communication and educational goals. The students are able to meet the lesson objectives and demonstrate progress in their learning of English in a similar trajectory to those students I work with remotely, but who were attending face-to-face lessons prior to COVID. In summation, online learning may not be the best option for all students. It has proven to be a worthy method of education, and relationships are capable of being developed in the online classroom in similar ways to the traditional classroom. I am looking forward to seeing what the future holds for online education.