Written by Gloria Hafemeister
Photography by glasgowphoto.com
1) verb [transitive] to encourage someone by making them feel confident and eager to do something;
2) noun (proper) – Pam Prinsen
The dictionary’s definition of inspire describes Pam Prinsen, a speech language pathologist in the Dodgeland School District, to a ‘T.’ Pam has served the students in the Dodgeland School District for 39 years after beginning her career as a speech therapist in the Milwaukee School District two years earlier. She recently announced her plans to retire at the end of this school year.
“I’m proud to be an educator – especially a speech therapist,” she says. “Someday I will only be a memory to these kids. I hope it is a good memory.”
As much as she enjoys working with the students, she feels it is time to retire. Her husband Gale, a teacher in the Beaver Dam school district, has retired, and they would like to have some time to travel. The couple has two grown sons, both lawyers. They also have relatives out of state who they would like to be able to visit. Looking ahead, though, she says, “This place is like a second home to me. I hope to come back to the district to serve as a volunteer in some way.”
Having benefited from a mentor in the early years of her career, she would also like to be able to mentor others. She says things have changed a lot in the decades that she served, and her job is much more than just helping someone speak more clearly. It is helping students communicate, and she strives to make it fun and help them want to improve.
“The first thing we see in a person is their appearance,” she describes. “The second thing we notice is how they speak. That’s important. I love my kids and want to help them join in a conversation – to be able to disagree or agree and do it politely.” As a speech therapist, she is constantly learning new ways to help her students by taking classes, networking with teachers and other therapists, and problem solving.
She has gotten close to many of her students because, unlike teachers who have students for one year and then they move on, many of her students stay with her year after year. Her training and certification allow her to work with students from baby through age 21. Students can come to the district for her help as young as 3 years old. Some “graduate” and others work with her throughout their years in school.
Pam works with children with a variety of delays and disorders spanning from mild articulation delays to more complex disorders such as autism, Down syndrome, hearing impairment, motor speech disorders, and other developmental delays. About ten percent just need help with pronouncing certain words. The majority have an ongoing need for help.
Pam’s inspiration came from watching the TV program Marcus Welby MD when she was in seventh grade. She says, “They had an episode about teaching a child how to speak. I was fascinated with that.
“My parents really valued education,” she notes. Growing up in the Reedsburg area, her dad was a cheesemaker and mom was at home with the family. She earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire and her masters at UW – Milwaukee.
When Pam and Gale were planning their wedding, he was teaching in Beaver Dam, so she applied for a position with CESA 6 to serve area schools as a speech therapist. Dodgeland was one of the districts she served, but after a couple years the district required a full-time speech therapist on staff. In those earlier years, she traveled to all the schools in the district including Lowell, Reeseville, Clyman, and Juneau. Later, the schools were brought under one roof, allowing her to spend less time travelling and more time with the students.
She is now one of two speech therapists in the district. She also works with students at nearby St. John’s Lutheran School. She currently works with about 50 students from 3 years old through 5th grade. A second therapist works with the older students. Needless to say, that keeps her very busy.
While she enjoys her work with the students, she does not enjoy the paperwork that goes with it. Because of funding that comes into the district for special needs children, she must spend time accounting for the progress of each child. Pam says the administration and teachers of the district, however, are very supportive, and everyone in the district works together as a team, always looking at what’s in the best interest of the child.
They often meet for group therapy and sometimes one-on-one time. In some cases, she team-teaches with the special education teacher. The needs of each student are different. “There is no one way to deal with a speech problem. We must find the best recipe for each individual child,” she says.
“I think it’s a big deal that parents are a part of the team. I have learned the importance of communicating with parents and teachers and working as a team. When a child comes in, we meet and determine his or her needs and the best way to help the child,” she says. “Together we assess, diagnose and then treat. The goal is to help the students be clear and confident communicators.
“I was brought up to understand that everyone has a story. I try to understand where they are coming from and treat kids and parents with the ‘Language of Kindness,’” she says. “We talk about powerful words. I use the example of the word ‘dream.’ The students choose their own word and expand on what it means to them. One student chose the word ‘inspire’ and listed all of the ways she inspires others in her life.” Pam says this method helps her see the potential in the students.
“We’re unlocking a box – out of that box comes so much,” she notes. “We do role modeling, practicing and lots of repetition.”
For many years, Pam co-taught a summer school cooking class. She says, “I encouraged many of my students to take part in the class. They not only learned cooking skills, but I’d get them to talk about what they did. They would take a plate of food into a teacher’s office and offer it, then describe what they did to prepare it. I saw them come out of their shell, and they talked with each other while cooking.”
Pam says her inspiration comes from seeing her students take pride in their effort. When she gets high fives and smiles, she knows she is doing her job. Looking back, it’s easy to see why she has been such an inspiration to those around her. She concludes, “It’s never been just a job, and it’s more than a career. It’s my passion.”