As a 16-year-old hanging out after school at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in Queens, Abigail Wray became known to the staff there as a responsible teenager who could keep an eye out for younger students. One of those students was a 4-year-old girl with apraxia, a motor speech disorder.
“I saw firsthand how that inhibited her ability to interact with other children and adults because she wasn’t understood,” says Wray.
A high school mentor, who knew she wanted to work with children, encouraged Wray to explore a career in speech-language pathology.
“I took to Google and researched and thought, wow, that’s what a speech therapist does,” says Wray. “It really appealed to me.”
So Wray headed to St. John’s University to earn a degree in speech-language pathology and audiology and then a master’s degree in communicative sciences and disorders at New York University.
“In hindsight, I realize I’m really lucky,” she says. “I wasn’t one of those students who got to college and had no idea what I wanted to do.”
Now a speech teacher at PS 230 in Kensington, Brooklyn, Wray relishes the unique challenge of working with 30 students across grades 2–5.
“I work with students of varying academic, social and behavioral levels, so I’m switching gears every 30 minutes, and I love that,” she says. “One moment I may be working on phonemic awareness and discriminating sounds, and the next moment I’m working on vocabulary acquisition.”
Now in her third year, Wray is beginning to see the fruits of her labor in students she has taught since the beginning of her career. Recently, while working with a 4th-grader to improve her articulation and intelligibility, Wray found herself becoming emotional as she watched her student take part in a real conversation.
“This is a student who’s not easily understood,” says Wray. “Conversational ebb and flow is very hard for her, and that affected her social relationships. But she initiated the exchange and she wanted to share something relevant and meaningful to her. I have moments like that every day.”
Wray’s interactions with her students are driven not only by their Individualized Education Program goals but their work in class, which means consistent collaboration with classroom teachers.
“My intention is always to support what’s happening in the classroom,” she says.
Accordingly, Wray and her colleagues have found creative ways to work together to support their students, from a “social club” that teaches positive social behavior strategies to a movement group led by an occupational therapist. She also meets regularly with PS 230’s four other speech teachers and once a month attends UFT Speech Chapter meetings where she is able to network with speech providers at other schools.
“Colleagues are my best resource,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to pick their brains and find out how they navigate their workdays. We keep each other abreast of new developments in research.”
Wray finds a lot to appreciate about a position that, she says, “straddles the educational world and the clinical world.”
“There’s something very special about being a school-based clinician,” says Wray. “You get the joy of seeing students grow and develop over the years. And I learn so much from my colleagues. We tell the kids that we’re trying to cultivate them to be lifelong learners, and the same is true for me.”