My Keynote Talk at the 2019 Michigan Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s Annual Conference

Earlier this year, I had the unbelievable honor to deliver a keynote talk to the school-based SLPs at the 2019 Michigan Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s Annual Conference. For anyone who knows me, you know that Michigan holds a very, very special place in my heart. I went to Wayne State University and spent four wonderful years living, learning, and working right in the heart of Detroit. During those unforgettable years, I explored a massive amount of Michigan and truly fell in love with it. And though I haven’t lived there since 2015, I still go back each and every summer because of the work that I get to do with Camp Shout Out. So yeah, to be asked to give the Michigan school-based SLP keynote talk, well, it meant the world to me. Thank you to all involved.

Are you interested in checking out my keynote talk?

If the answer is yes, then you’re in luck because the keynote talk was captured on video. It’s about 18-minutes so if you have a few extra minutes to spare, feel free to give it a go. Or if reading is more your thing, that’s totally cool because I included the typed transcript of the keynote talk, too. So either way you want to consume the keynote talk, it’s all yours, buddy! Enjoy!


My friends, it is so terrific to see a smiling sea of wonderful clinicians. We are all together here in an opportunity to share knowledge. Ultimately in the way that SLPs know best, we set the stage with a wonderful talk. I’m going to be starting off this talk with a bit of a question, and that question is this: Who are we and what’s the impact that we make? Now, if someone were to walk into this room right now and ask us the question of, “Who are you?” All of us here could very confidently say, “I’m a speech-language pathologist” and we would say that in a very proud way because how about it, I mean this field is truly one of a kind. And if that same person were to ask us, “What’s the impact that you make?” We will be able to look that person right in the eyes and we will be able to say, “Well, the impact that we make is great because we have the opportunity to work together with children to help them to find their voice, to help them to grow into the communicators that we know they can be. We are ultimately helping to educate, train, and inspire the next generation of effective communicators.” So, with that being said, let’s clap it up for that.

What I love about this field is the fact that we have the opportunity to wear so many different hats. And isn’t that the truth? I mean, that’s the stuff that really keeps this job so exciting. The fact that we could put on this one hat for a second, and then in the matter of a couple moments, boom, we’d take the hat off and we put on another hat. And I think when I think about hats, it helps me to really focus on who I am as a clinician. And I’m going to be highlighting three hats that I think are very important for us, as clinicians, and three hats that really help to guide who we are as service providers.

And the first hat that I find myself putting on from time to time is that of a comedian. So certainly, I’m wearing an SLP hat, but I’m also putting a comedian’s hat on top of that and if someone were to walk into the room and say, “Who are you right now?” I’d say, “I’m a speech-language pathologist who happens to be a comedian.” And in that moment, the impact that I’m trying to make with that child in front of me is I’m trying to get them to laugh because when there’s laughter, there’s learning. And when there’s laughter, that’s them showing their truest selves to us. They’re opening a very real window into who they are, into how they feel, into what they think. So, it’s not too often that we come across a student who doesn’t want to be there.

Certainly, there are a couple of kiddos who would rather be at gym class or maybe they would rather be at home playing on the Xboxes and the Nintendos and such. But in the few times that we do come across a child who doesn’t necessarily want to be with us, I want to challenge each of you to think about that comedian hat that you all have in the back of your pocket. Put on that comedian hat and see how you might be able to connect with that child. Here’s a little example as to how I’ve connected with a child not too long ago.

Brand new kiddo is now in my therapy experience and he comes during the first day like this. And we know body language, right guys, we see this, he’s closed off. He doesn’t want to let me into his world, and I understand because this is a middle schooler and certainly, he’s been going to speech for a number of years. So certainly, he’s been there. He’s done that. And he’s made it very clear with his body language that he doesn’t want to do this with me. So, I said, “I understand.” So, what I did was I pulled out my laptop and I said, “Just sit down with me for a little bit, sit down, buddy.” He sat down, that’s a good thing. I opened up the laptop, take my mouse, going over to a little folder and that folder reads ‘Middle School.’ Click on that ‘Middle School’ folder and what does it show? Ten pictures. Ten pictures of me as a middle school student. Well, let me tell you, as a middle schooler, I had pretty wild hair. It was curly, it was wild. As a middle schooler, I had braces, braces that made me look almost like a dinosaur. Like it was a very unique mouth. I had a little bit of acne going on, but that’s middle school and that’s okay.

So, what I did was look at my brand new student and I said, “You’re in in middle school, right?” He said, “Yeah, I’m in middle school.” I said, “I want to show you a picture of a pretty cool middle schooler I know.” So I start scrolling through these pictures and the coolest thing that I noticed was the kiddo at first was like this, closed off, and I started to see, he loosens up a bit, just a little bit, and I start to see the arms kind of go down. Then I start to see with each new picture his eyes kind of start wondering. He’s looking at me, he’s looking at the screen, he’s looking at me, he’s looking at the screen. He’s like, “Is that you?” “Yes, it is.” And what’s so terrific about me taking that opportunity to kind of connect with him is that I saw him for who he was, he was a middle schooler. And I’m not going to fault him for not wanting to be there because I can still put myself in the shoes of a middle schooler and I can recognize that you know what, when I was his age, I probably didn’t want to be here either.

But through sharing in that very humorous experience by poking some, some fun at myself, he was able to kind of see the trust and he was able to start the process of that client/clinician alliance because we know how important that is. We, as educators, we’re the first to really see the benefit in honestly connecting with our clients. Not surface level stuff, but the deep connections. Many of us in this room, we can tell you the names of the pets of our clients. Many of us in this room, we could say, “Oh, I know your sister and your brother, their name is this, their name is that.” I can point to my students and I can say, “I know your favorite restaurant” and it’s just such a great connection that we have. We hear their voices and we affirm their voices in the great work that we do. So whenever you come across a student who might be a little less than jazzed to be in your presence, think about that comedic hat that we all have and in your own way, put it on your head and try to infuse a little bit of laughter in the way that you best know how. Because we know humor is subjective, but you know yourself better than anyone and I think as human beings, we all can do humor.

But this brings me to my second hat and that hat has to do with that of a counselor. Because we know that speech therapy is not always all fun and laughter and giggles. Sometimes there are some very serious conversations that are hard, right? When we have the pleasure of connecting with parents and collaborating with parents, we certainly still have our speech language pathology hat on, but we also plop on top of it a counselor’s hat. Because as counselors we need to give them the opportunity to be heard. As clinicians, we love talking and certainly we can talk all day long, but in certain situations we need to think about the power in listening. Sometimes we’ll interact with parents who have just heard some news. A new diagnosis was officially given to their child and they had some ideas as to what the diagnosis was, but something real happens when it comes in black and white, like, it’s written out. And certainly, that might throw some of our parents for a real loop. They might be overwhelmed; they might be mourning the loss of something that they thought they wanted to do in the future because they had these ideas as to how their child was going to grow up.

But things are perhaps just a little bit different. So, during those times, I encourage you to very honestly think about the hat that you’re wearing, and that hat is that counseling hat. To be able to be with them, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, and at times, lend them your shoulder. Sometimes parents aren’t heard by a lot of different people that are involved in education. Sometimes they’re not heard by a lot of those medical professionals that they interact with. For a few months in my career, I was a part of the medical world until I learned that wasn’t necessarily for me, the whole swallowing thing, you know, I’m just like, hold on, I passed the Praxis. But I mean, yikes that’s some really in-depth stuff.

But I can say when I worked per diem in the hospital; sometimes the doctors would kind of come in and come out. And nurses are wonderful, but I’ve encountered a couple of nurses that kind of were cold and I understand that it happens for sure. And by no means am I saying that this is generally the gist of all medical. No way. There are amazing doctors, amazing nurses. But some of our parents might encounter some of those cold individuals. So that’s our opportunity to be the opposite of cold, to be warm, to see our parents, to hear them, and to honestly wear our counselors’ hat with pride because we are helping them, and in helping them, we are helping the child. We forget that the parent component, the community component, that certainly is a part of the speech therapy experience. So, when we remind ourselves of that, that’s when we’re doing our best work and every single person in this room, you are the best at what you do, and you know the game of life is a very complex one.

But as speech-language pathologists, I think we have the opportunity to understand the intricacies of this game called life. And when I mentioned the game called life, that brings me to the last hat that I feel we wear on an almost daily basis and that is the hat of a coach. Certainly, when we try to look at a speech-language pathologist and a coach, I really feel like there’s so much overlap. You know, a coach is a person that works together with athletes, and these are athletes that have real honest goals, whether it be running, they want to hit a certain minute mark or whether it be weightlifting and they want to lift a certain amount. They have a real goal in mind and athletes can’t reach that goal on their own. And it’s not to say that they’re not strong or they’re not driven, no certainly they’re strong and their driven. But athletes have a coach. And that coach is that person that kind of sees them. Sees their whole self and sets in motion a very individualized approach as to how they can meet that particular goal.

So, as clinicians, that’s what we do. We see our whole students and we really work together with them and in effort to create an individualized experience so that they’re able to reach whatever goal it is that would help facilitate wonderful communication. So that they’re able to successfully speak to their wants, their thoughts, and their needs because there’s no better music in this world than hearing that come from the clients that we work together with. I work together right now with a terrific middle school student who happens to be a person who stutters, and he right now is thinking about the different summer jobs that he wants because a lot of his friends are 13, 14, 15 and when summer comes along, they start talking about the jobs. Maybe he’s going to work at McDonald’s, maybe he’s going to work at the local diner, maybe he’s going to work down at the shore because in Jersey everyone loves their boardwalks.

So, we start to have very real conversations about this and we start to talk about what is that thing that might be scaring you. And by no means am I saying to him, “Oh, don’t be scared, you’ll be fine” because that’s, that’s kind of, like, throwaway stuff. I’m saying to him, “You know what, you’re scared. And that’s an emotion and that emotion deserves to be there because as human beings, we have many different emotions, many colors in the rainbow, and they all deserve to be there. But let’s dig deeper into this particular emotion and let’s see what it is that might be the driving force behind it.” And as clinicians, we would know that it would be communication driven for this young man.

He’s thinking about himself as a communicator. And he’s said to me that, “Well, because I stutter, I will never do good in an interview and I will never get a job. So, forget about summer jobs, what am I going to start to think about when I turn into an adult?” This is very big picture stuff that this little soul is bringing to us. So that’s our opportunity. Yes, wear our SLP hat with pride, but also put on that coaching hat and to remind him of the successes that he has had throughout his academic year, throughout his whole life. You know, he’s a person who is communicating, he goes to the restaurant, he speaks to the waiter and he says, “I’d like the pepperoni pizza.” He got the meal, he ate the meal, and he got it because he used his words. So, we try to make comparisons, right?

He’s had successes before in different scenarios and how might that success be able to be translated to this thing that he’s looking at now, which is the summer jobs. And that’s where coaching comes in. We root for them, we let them know that they can do great things and it’s not a blind, you can do great, but it’s pointing to greatness that has happened before and there’s no reason why the greatness cannot continue to happen. So, we put on that coach’s hat. Sometimes I got a whistle, sometimes I’ll put on that whistle, I’ll blow it and I’ll do (makes whistle noises) and I’ll say, “You can do it!” And as silly as that sounds, that comes into the comedic aspect. Right? And honestly that starts to touch into the counseling aspect because I’m helping them to, kind of, define and redefine who they are as students.

So, my want for you is to think about that particular hat, that coach’s hat, and how that might help you in the great work that you do with all of the wonderful clients and students that you work together with. So, with all that being said, when I take a step back and when people ask the question of, you know, “Who are we and what do we do? What is the impact that we make?” Really what comes to my mind is this: We are very special friends to very special students. We know them, we take the time to get to know their truest selves and we help them to grow in massive ways. And that is something that I think is very unique to our field.

So, to each and every one of you in this room right now, I thank you on behalf of just like a human, you are doing a very amazing job with your little humans that will one day become bigger humans and these big humans, they’re the ones that are going to mold this world into the world that we know it needs to be. These little friends today will be tomorrow’s leaders, and I want you to rest easy to know that you had a little bit to do in that wonderful transformation. So, thank you so much for this great opportunity, and I wish you all the best.

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