Becoming 'the most awesome kid'

Taylor Shirkey is one of 71 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools psychologists who work to empower students in multiple ways. When students ask Shirkey what a psychologist is she replies, "It's my job to figure out how kids learn best. I get to work with you, your parents and teachers to do everything we can to help you become the most awesome kid that you can be." Although students are the most likely to ask, many adults don't know exactly what school psychologists do.

"Building relationships with parents and teachers is the most important part of my job," Shirkey said. "We provide a full range of student services that include working with support staff, providing counseling to students and analyzing academic data to determine learning needs."

School psychologists are highly trained in both education and psychology. Shirkey has served as a school psychologist for three years. She currently serves Nations Ford Elementary, Old Providence Elementary and is assigned to Hawthorne Academy for limited services. She supports students individually or in groups. Group counseling can range from subjects such as homework and organization strategies, coping skills and building friendships. Individual counseling targets a student's specific academic or social-emotional need.

"I remember my parents having to navigate the system with my brother. They were his biggest advocates," she said. "Experiencing that played a part in my career choice. I want parents to feel welcomed, understand the process and be part of it. I don't want them to have to figure it out on their own."

School psychologists evaluate eligibility for special education and make referrals to help coordinate community services. They also teach parenting skills and help enhance home-school communication. A large part of their work relies on data.

"I enjoy working with school staff to examine academic data. It helps us determine the learning needs of students early on, well before special education services are needed," Shirkey said. "I am a part of informal consultations, the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team and 504 plan or multi-tier system of supports meetings."

Shirkey focuses on students' strengths.

"It's human nature to want to fix or understand what is wrong but I look for what is going right in a situation," she said. "You can help a student much more when you can figure out what they're good at. I want to know how many rules they followed and explore that first."

Old Providence Principal Patti Johanson is thankful for Shirkey's support.

"It is great to have someone who can let us know when we are doing something that works and when we need to make adjustments," said Johanson. "She explains data to staff and families easily and gives us advice when we need it. She is a great resource for us."

Shirkey's passion for her profession doesn't stop when the school day ends. She is the president of the Metrolina Association Psychologists in the Schools, an organization committed to improving the skills and expanding practitioner knowledge. Members collaborate, discuss current events and hear guest speakers with expertise in a variety of relevant areas. 

"I know I've made a difference when the students don't need me any more," Shirkey said. "That is the most satisfying thing for me. That is success."