In honor of Physical Therapy Month in October this year, we asked therapists to nominate a colleague who does outstanding work. We heard about some truly remarkable physical therapists, including Michael Konstalid, who works in PS 10, PS 154 and PS 321 in Brooklyn. Michael uses his carpentry expertise to build adaptive furniture for his students. He also travels around Brooklyn every week to support other physical therapists. We chatted with Michael about his unique approach to physical therapy.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
For how many years have you been practicing school-based physical therapy?
I was a DOE scholarship recipient and began working for the DOE following my graduation from New York University in 2008.
What type of students do you work with?
I primarily work with students in kindergarten through grade 5, and through the Universally Designed and Adapted Classroom Program, I support therapists throughout Brooklyn in pre-K through grade 12, in both regional and District 75 settings. Physical therapy in schools focuses on access and participation across every school environment and throughout the school day. I’ve worked with many students over the years across a wide range of abilities, but no two have ever been the same.
How would you describe your approach to physical therapy?
I ask myself what I can do to have a positive impact on the student I’m working with. Then, I do everything I can to make that a reality.
Since you have a background in carpentry, you modify and create furniture pieces for students with special needs. Can you talk about your inspirations and challenges, especially at the beginning of this endeavor?
I’m inspired by the students I work with every day. They are the driving force behind what I do. I listen to them, observe them in their environment and do my best to provide exactly what they need to promote independence. The biggest challenge is finding the right balance between providing support and promoting independence. My goal is to show them that anything is possible, and I take particular joy in breaking down obstacles in their journey toward independence.
Can other school-based physical therapists learn these furniture-making skills without prior knowledge or experience in carpentry?
Absolutely, but this is not about carpentry. It’s about recognizing what a student needs and figuring out a way to provide it. Carpentry is one tool among many in my “therapy toolbox.” It’s a tool that I readily share during site visits with therapists and during in-service presentations at schools. I also learn a great deal from my colleagues and their collective experience.
What's the most inventive piece of equipment or furniture you've ever made?
I actually strive to create pieces of equipment (e.g. classroom chairs, footstools, lunch trays) that blend into the classroom environment rather than stand out from it. I want the equipment to appear ordinary, not unusual or inventive. This reflects one of the most important needs of my students, because even when they have to use specialized equipment to get through their day, what my students want most is to feel that they aren’t very different from their peers.
How has physical therapy changed over the years?
Physical therapy in the NYC DOE is constantly improving. In addition to being movement experts, physical therapists bring a unique background and set of skills to their treatment sessions. Therapists are now being recognized for these skills and are given the opportunity to grow. In doing so, they inspire others to grow. My hope is that every therapist will reach into their own “toolbox” and do their best to have a positive impact on their students.
What do you find most rewarding about your job?
I love what I do, so I never really feel like I’m working. The most rewarding part is knowing that I had some part in making a positive change in a child’s life.
How has your union supported you in your years working as a physical therapist for the NYC DOE?
My membership in the UFT allows me to focus primarily on my work – doing my best to make my students’ lives better. I grew up in a union household. My father was a telephone lineman, and a member of Local 1101 of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) throughout his working life. As a result, I developed a deep appreciation of the importance of unions from a very early age. When working people join together to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and workplace conditions, they can accomplish more than they could on their own.