Becoming a Great Therapist. A Tribute to Anne Sullivan

Most people who know me well, know that I am huge fan of Anne Sullivan.  In clinical discussion meetings with senior staff “On Leadership in Therapy”, I may often make reference to Anne Sullivan or a lesson that I have learned just by watching her through various media outlets.  After completing assessments, holding supervision meetings with CF-SLPs (first year on the job SLPs), I began to openly discuss the fact that Anne Sullivan understood and implemented what most therapists (new and old) are still grasping to learn.

Most people look at Helen Keller as the end product, but don’t pay as much attention to the process.  The process of Becoming.

Here are the lessons from Ms. Sullivan, the ultimate therapist for those looking to Become…

1. Effectiveness Happens when Ego Exits. Ms. Sullivan herself had challenges with vision.  She understood the struggle and loss of independence and the isolating feeling of that particular darkness.  She understood her clients perspective.  Ms. Sullivan was humble enough to listen to those who taught her at the Perkins school, learn from them, and pass it on.  Her clients (Helen and family) needed to be understood, accepted as they were, and transformed.  Ms. Sullivan wanted Helen better not for professional accolades, but for the purity of helping. Most people appreciate the pause and praise they receive when pronouncing their profession, it feeds the ego.  When ego is in the room, you cannot see your clients…I mean really ‘see’ them.  When ego is in the room, your colleagues always meet your representative.  When your ego is in the room, you only hear…you never listen.  The ego and the presence of it is different than confidence, the ego is prideful and can be heard in statements such as “Well he/she doesn’t do that with me”.  When ego exits, the transformative statement becomes “Let’s work on this client/learner gaining this skill or reducing this behavior with everyone”.

2. Getting dirty and sweaty is necessary.  Think about when Anne taught Helen the sign for water.  Therapy isn’t always sit at the table, let’s have a conversation type of interaction.  Most times (at least for me and those that work with me), it can get messy.  Teaching someone how to play the game Chase in a safe way is exhiliarating ….and a quick cardio 20 minute workout at the same time.  Anne Sullivan knew that the point of treatment is that the client/learner understands and applies the skill…our sweating, getting dirty is totally irrelevant …even for the SLPs :-). Sweat. Hot. Uncomfortable are not things to run away from, but learn from…it is the heat that makes the beautiful pottery.  It is the rough that makes the Pearl.

3. Home WORK is necessary.  Any therapist worth his/her salt knows that Anne combed research, past teachers, and more to help move Helen toward independence.  A couple of weeks ago, a senior staff member confessed that she had been combing journal articles to gain some clarification, to see if any anything new about a particular topic was on the horizon.  She was invested in her client beyond the session.  This therapist took work home and (hold it….) actually READ materials.  I am often astounded when therapists seek supervisors out and begin to look to them for their walking reference materials.  I am doubly astounded when I ask “what is the last professional reference that you have read…” and I get answers such as “I just got out of school, so I haven’t read much;etc.”.  Passion makes Home WORK easy.

4. One to Two therapy sessions is not enough.  Anne knew that Helen needed more than just a couple of visits per week to create an environment of Independence.  So she went to live with this family.  Now while most of us don’t have their personal want or freedom to live with our clients…what she didn’t do was very important.  In short and in the words of my grandmother…she didn’t give them a wooden nickel.  Without giving my perspective (that’s another long blog post) about frequency of sessions…let me ask you a question “What do you do once a week or twice a week for 30 minutes that is effective?”  If vitamins are taken daily and physicians recommend 30 minutes of exercise daily….then atypical brain developers would need more than our general recommendations of one to two sessions per week.  Anne Sullivan knew this…why are we still Grappling? Grumbling? Debating?

5. Empowering Families is doubly important.  Working with Helen meant working with her family.  Working with this family without judgment.  Quite frankly, making time to judge how a family arrived at accepting certain behaviors, etc. is irrelevant.   Teaching them, not telling them.  Freeing them, not judging them.  Being a value added member of that team was important and Ms. Sullivan did that from day one, with clear communication.

Anne Sullivan worked from a calling.  She was called to help this family.  She was called to do this work.  This servant role is not for those seeking fame, fortune or praise (while those should not be out of reach)…being a therapist is very important work…for me it is my Life’s work, what I was born to do.

Anne Sullivan, for me, exemplifies the statement “Your Clients should be better for having known and encountered you”.  This is the perspective from which I work, teach my staff, and Empower families.

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