Meet the only speech-language pathologist in Colorado’s Teacher Cabinet

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Before he began working as a speech-language pathologist at Mesa Elementary School in Westminster Public Schools, Dan Haught worked mostly with data. He was part of a University of Colorado research team studying school safety and bullying prevention programs.

But during the team’s frequent school visits, he was drawn in by the kids. They were full of joy and potential, he said. And more fun than data.

It was then he knew he wanted to shift gears professionally.

Haught talked to Chalkbeat about the movie that inspired his career choice, the importance of laughter in his classroom, and how he connected with a student who, at first, barely looked at him.

Haught is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state’s Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a speech-language pathologist?
This may sound cliché, but there was a movie that provided some of the inspiration. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” tells the story of a French journalist who had a stroke, which left him without the ability to speak. This was a fascinating concept to me: To be able to hear, process, and understand everything around you, but without the ability to talk or otherwise communicate. Some of the individuals I work with face similar circumstances.

Once I decided that I wanted to become a speech-language pathologist, I had to figure out where to work! Many of us work in medical settings, but I was drawn to the positive and happy climate of public schools. Our kids have long and productive lives ahead of them, and it is an honor to help them along in their journey.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my amazing co-workers! We have a very talented special education team at Mesa Elementary, and I could not function without them. We are supportive of each other, and not a day goes by where I don’t learn something new. Our school district supports a blended-services model that encourages collaboration among different professionals and disciplines. Because of this, I am exposed to a diverse set of teaching styles and methods. It is always fun to collaborate with colleagues and hear different perspectives.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?
People often forget about the “language” component of speech-language pathology. It is true that we help children improve their speech production and articulation, but we also help children establish solid foundations of phonological awareness and grammar skills. Part of our work also involves determining whether there is a language difference or a language delay, which is an important distinction among our English language learners.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
In recent years I’ve been fortunate to gain more experience working with children on the autism spectrum. Working with children who have autism has been a complete paradigm shift in the way I think about my caseload. One particular child was so affected by autism that he rarely looked at me or even acknowledged that I was in the same room with him. Finding a way to connect with him was extremely challenging at first, but every day I kept trying to build a relationship.

Eventually, I found that this student loved music, and that opened up a whole new world for us. We learned how to sing simple songs and nursery rhymes together, with each of us taking our own part. I even purchased a toy microphone that we would pass back and forth to each other. Eventually, he started greeting me every time I entered the room, and now he gets excited when we work together.

From this experience, I learned that making a connection can require a lot of trial and error, as well as a lot of time and patience. I try to not take things personally, and if I have difficulty connecting with a particular child on one occasion, it’s okay to keep trying because you never know when (or how) you will achieve a breakthrough.

What does your classroom look like?
I don’t think my classroom is anything special. In fact, I’m usually envious of other people’s colorful and creative classroom ideas. But you will find laughter in my classroom. Even though what we do is serious, we need to remember to keep things fun and engaging. I also think it’s important to take time to celebrate success. Because of this, we cheer, clap, sing songs, and provide encouragement for students who are making progress.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I have learned over the years that some of our families face hardships that are beyond my imagination. Because of this, I try to listen more than I talk, especially when I first meet a family. It is important to remember that parents are the true experts on their children, and we can learn a lot about our students by being receptive listeners. It is true that you never know what someone is going through until you have walked a mile in their shoes.

I remember one time where parents started a meeting by stating their house had just burned down. We were all taken off guard by this news. However, as we began to talk about their child’s progress and some of the meaningful steps their child had taken over the last year, the meeting began to take a much more positive note. Instead of focusing on tragedy, we began to focus on joy and celebration. The meeting became a bright spot in an otherwise difficult week for the family.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I try to build relationships with students by showing that I care about them, as well as their personal interests. I like to make therapy materials related to their interests and hobbies, and I try to offer as many choices in their learning as possible. It is important to remember that it is not the child’s fault if we are having difficulty connecting. Because of this, I try to think about how I can adjust my practice or think about how I can do things differently. Building a meaningful relationship takes time, so it is important to be patient. We also need to remember to laugh and have fun. I’m a silly person by nature, so that helps.

What is the hardest part of your job?
I work with children who have a wide range of educational needs. The way we treat children who have articulation challenges is very different from the way we treat children who need to learn language skills. Even within a particular diagnostic category, there can be significant variation. For example, autism is indeed a spectrum. Some children with autism are nonverbal, while others are highly functioning. Still others have difficulty with sensory and emotional regulation. As a speech-language pathologist, I have to be knowledgeable in many different subject areas. It can be overwhelming at times.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I love it when people remind me to “keep it focused on the kids.” Too often, we get caught up in workplace drama, new initiatives, or testing requirements. I think it is important to take a fresh breath and remember why we chose this occupation. We owe it to our kids to keep the focus on them.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
Like most Coloradans, I love being outdoors. I’ve climbed more than half of the fourteeners — mountain peaks with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet — and I love to go camping with friends. On some evenings, you can find me in my favorite chair with a good mystery novel.