Tea Time with School-Based OT Beth Pantazi

Q: Please tell us a little bit about yourself! What’s your favorite food? Favorite season? Do you have pets? Best place you’ve ever visited? Tell us what makes you sparkle!

A: Hi! I am Beth. I am a wife and a mom and an OT. I have an (almost!) 6-year-old son who is just starting 1st grade. My husband and I have been together for over 10 years. I grew up in Rhode Island and he grew up in Indiana. We both moved to Las Vegas individually and met. We lived there until our son was 9 months old and decided to move closer to where we each grew up and settled on Ohio. I miss Vegas. I think Vegas has been the place that most feels like home to me. I go back any chance I get. I love to be active. Walking and (Slowly) running has been my saving grace through this pandemic. I am a people pleaser and I just want to help everyone.

Q: What degree(s) do you have (any specialties you hold if applicable) what made you interested in pursuing OT, what have you been up to since graduation?

A: I received my BS in OT from Quinnipiac University in 2004. I knew I wanted to be a school-based OT ever since I was in High School. I worked closely as a student aide in the special education programs in school starting in 6th grade. I was a special olympics volunteer throughout school and then after graduating from college I went back to coach the team that helped me find my passion for my career. I just loved how we can play with kids and help them gain or regain skills, or use our creativity to help them do something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. Before I moved to Vegas, I worked at a Children’s hospital where I specialized in pediatric upper extremity myoelectric prosthetics. I also treated many babies with torticollis and also used aquatic therapy frequently as a modality. Despite my love for pediatrics, I knew that the outpatient setting wasn’t quite right and when I moved to Vegas and worked in the schools out there, my feelings were confirmed. I have worked briefly in home health here in Ohio, but only because I couldn't find a school job when I first moved here. Since graduation I worked in a SNF for about 1.5 years, Children’s hospital for 3 years, I was a traveler and did 3 months in acute inpatient rehab and then school-based for 2 years. The district directly hired me for an additional 5 years before I moved to Ohio. I worked for less than a year as a home health OT before finding another school-based job. I was a contractor at the time and that pay structure just doesn’t work for my family. I found the most wonderful OT team at a school district just outside of Cincinnati and I don’t think I will ever leave.

Q: What influenced your decision in returning back to school? What has that process been like for you? How has it affected your current job/work-life balance/family dynamics?

A: Within my first year of working for my current district, a colleague encouraged me to get my Masters in Special Education/Assistive technology after we were working closely with a student with significant AT needs and I took the leap. I was terrified, as I had not been a new student since 1999 (man, am I old!) but it has been wonderful. The program is online through BGSU. I have 2 courses left and will graduate in December of this year. It was challenging at times with a young child at home and a full time job and a husband who works evenings. It helps that I have summers off and the k-12 schedule, so I made it work. I have an amazing village of neighbors and friends who support me and have helped me to get it done! With all that said, I am looking forward to truly having next summer “OFF”!

Q: Can you please describe a typical day/work week? What time do you typically arrive/take break(s)/leave work?

A: I work at a middle school and high school. I start at 6:30am. I leave around 2pm. I don’t always take a lunch break, but will eat my lunch while I’m doing notes, billing, email, or planning my sessions. With the pandemic, my schools are currently in a hybrid model so I am traveling between 3-4 different schools every Monday/Tuesday and Thursday/Friday. I see my teletherapy students on Wednesdays. I like breaking up my day and being at multiple places.

Q: Do you formally clock in and clock out, if so, how is on the computer or via sheet, etc.?

A: No. We are on the honor system and I am salaried. Honestly, in a school you are typically taking work home, responding to emails at home so you’re often working more than your “contract” hours. You are not required to, and really I have found that as I progress in my career, I take less and less home. I’m really bad though and usually respond to emails whenever I get them. I never want anyone to wait for an email from me.

Q: Who provides you with your schedule? Do you typically stay on this schedule or does it fluctuate depending on patients’ availability?

A: We meet annually to divy up caseloads. Once we have our caseload for the year (which always ebbs and flows) we make our schedule taking into consideration the schedules of our classes and students, SLP and PT, Counseling and Resource. It is a delicate puzzle that can crumble with one single change! I love that aspect of it though!

Q: How many patients do you typically see? How long do you work with them for?

A: Our District caps our caseloads at about 50 students for OT. I currently have about 65 students, but many of them are consult and so I have more flexibility to support my students. My colleagues are amazing and we all support each other. I have taken on students from my colleagues over the past 2 years due to medical leaves of absence. I also try to support my colleagues with technology use. We can see students for a school year or their entire time in school. The intensity of frequency trends downward as the child gets older and so by the time they get to me we are just fine tuning things. I have students who receive consult and some who get weekly visits and everywhere in between.

Q: What is the productivity expectation at your job? How do you find meeting it?

A: We don’t have a productivity expectation. We are just expected to meet our caseload minutes and do all the evaluations and meetings. It’s really not that bad in my district.

Q: What type of diagnoses do your clients typically have? Can you please provide 1-2 activities you would do in a standard treatment session with one of these clients/families?

A: I have students with a variety of diagnoses and sometimes no diagnosis at all. Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, CP, Intellectual Disabilities, Mental Illness, and so many more.

Q: Do you have meetings to attend throughout the day/week? If so, what do they typically entail and who attends these meetings with you?

A: Yes. We have 3-year evaluations and annual IEP meetings. We review the evaluation as a team and then plan out the educational plan for the next year. I also meet with the special education department to discuss rules and regs and changes. I also meet monthly with the OTs to discuss cases, challenges and problem solve.

Q: What type of documentation do you complete? (i.e. how long does it take, how frequent are your notes due, etc.)

A: I do daily data notes so I can progress monitor for progress reports. I also do medicaid billing for the direct students. I have to write at least an annual summary and new goals for all the students on my caseload. At this point I am pretty efficient and it takes me about a half hour to write a report and then come up with some suggested goals. An evaluation report takes me a bit longer and can vary depending on how many things we’re assessing. Typically an hour to 3 hours to write up a full report depending on the complexity

Q: What does a typical evaluation look like? How long does it take? What assessment tools do you use?

A: A typical evaluation consists of an observation in the settings that have been identified as challenging. I will compile the concerns as reported by the various members of the team who have concerns. I will review applicable medical history and prior evaluations/concerns. If appropriate and indicated, I will do a standardized assessment, typically for me the Bruninks Oseretsky Test of Motor Proficiency, Beery VMI, and/or Sensory Profile/Sensory Processing Measure. I then will usually compile the information and think about if I feel that skilled OT (Direct, Consult, or both) are required for this child to access their education. In my district we follow an educational model for therapy, and therefore the deficit needs to have an educational impact to warrant OT. If I am unsure, I will typically at least suggest a consultative model in order to monitor the child over a school year. The time it takes ranges, but can take about a total of 4-8 hours including all aspects of the evaluation from start to finish.

Q: What is a ball-park range of what an OT can expect to earn in your practice area?

A: Occupational therapists in school based OT in the Cincinnati area has a very broad range of salary. If you are a district employee, the salary is typically on the teacher’s salary scale and therefore is based on years of experience and level of degree earned. If you are a contractor, it depends if you are paid as a W-2 employee or 1099. The starting salary for a Masters Degree with no experience in my district is around $48,000 per year and Maximum for Masters plus (190 total college credits) can be up to $92,000. The key to remember is that our pay is salary and equally split between 26 pay checks, including the summer when we’re on summer break. This includes health insurance paid 80% by the district. We also pay into the state retirement program and that is contributed to by the district as well. We earn 15 sick days per year and 3 personal days. Earlier in a career, an OT can definitely earn more in other settings, but the benefits, schedule, and salary as you gain years of experience is really great.

Q: How did you get your “foot in the door” to work in this setting?

A: When I was a traveler, there was a district in Nevada that was short staffed and contracted with my travel company. That got my foot in the door, and the experience I got there combined with my experience at the Children’s hospital helped me to really develop my skills.

Q: What is your favorite part of this practice setting? Can you provide a favorite memory of a patient/client that you know OT positively impacted their life?

A: I love that I get to collaborate with teachers to help students get the most out of their education. I have 2 favorite memories from this past school year. I have a student who is in a unit for students with intellectual disabilities that occur with other learning challenges (autism, medically fragile, etc). I worked with this student until the COVID shutdown to be able to type his personal information into a mock digital job application. When I explained to his parents that he was able to do this independently, they didn’t really believe I was telling the truth! I encouraged them to take away the visual model, and see what he can do. He proved me right and it was just so exciting to hear the pride his mom had to know he was independent with this crucial life skill. I also have a student who has dyslexia. She struggles with writing and reports that the letters and numbers move around on the page at times. I worked with her to develop an assistive technology plan to accommodate for these areas of need. Her team was (and still is!) totally on board with any accommodations she needed. Within the first week of using the tools, she was independent and able to show her understanding like never before. We’re still working on self-advocacy and changes to the plan with distance learning, but to help a student be able to express themselves is a feeling like no other. It also feels amazing to advocate for a student and help them learn how to advocate for their own needs.

Q: What advice do you have for new grads/therapists hoping to transition into this settings?

A: Be aware that you may make less money starting off. This is an area that it pays to stick with it and the salary will increase. Learn about the difference between educational model and medical model of therapy and what the districts around you use. Learn about the different common diagnoses, and learn about the IEP process. Find a mentor to help you navigate the process. Find colleagues, even if not in your district, who you can problem solve and collaborate with.

Q: How do you personally prioritize your self-care and prevent/manage burnout?

A: I wake up each morning around 4:30am to get a workout done. It sets me up for the day and I feel best when I am working out regularly. I also really like to have some time in the morning to watch a bit of the news and have a coffee. I also try my best to leave work at work so I can be as present as possible with my family. I am looking forward to being done with Grad School so I can really be present!

Q: If you’re comfortable sharing, approximately how much money did your OT program(s) cost (including tuition, fees, books, housing if applicable)

A: I honestly don’t remember accurate numbers, but I think the program out the door with all fees, room and board, books, etc was $40,000 per year. I did take out loans, but I had lots of financial help from my parents and grandparents and worked hard to get many scholarships to help reduce the cost. I also received a good amount of financial aid due to my family’s financial situation. I worked through undergrad in work study, on the weekends, and over the summers. The grad school program I am currently in has a total cost of about $13,000. I have some tuition reimbursement from my district and used some savings and did take out a small educational loan. My undergrad loans were all paid off about 10 years ago, again thanks to my hard work and the generosity of my grandparents.

Q: What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

A: I would love to transition to spending part of my week focused on managing the assistive technology needs of our district. I would love to see more assistive technology and universal design principles being used more readily and would love to help support my district in this endeavour. I definitely would prefer to keep part of my OT caseload because I don’t want to give that part of my career up totally.

Q: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself who wants to enter this practice setting as an OT?

A: Before you judge, put yourself in the shoes of the parent. Becoming a mom changed my view as a pediatric occupational therapist. I found myself much more sensitive to a parent’s viewpoint.

Q: If you could do it all again would you pursue your same degree and become an OT?

A: Without a doubt. I was made to be an OT and I can’t picture being anything else.

Q: Are there any other questions you wish I’d asked? Or anything else you'd like to share with other therapists/students?

A: I think we need to remember that as OT’s we are not here to “fix” people. We are here to help people live their best life and help find supports to make them successful. This is no different in schools. I often say I am not in the business of fixing kids. I am in the business of helping kids find the most effective tools and strategies to help them be a student.

Bio: Beth Pantazi is a school-based occupational therapist who has been practicing for almost 17 years. She is starting her 12th year in schools. She will receive her Masters in Special Education and Assisitve Technology in December, 2020. She is a wife to Nick and a mom to Andrew. She enjoys running, traveling, and spending time with her family. She is passionate about school-based therapy and loves helping support the educational teams she works with. Instagram: @bethannepantazi, @theassistivetechot

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