A Sit Down – with James Smith COVT
This post appears as part of my Sit Down series. Candid conversations with real people detailing their journeys and experiences with Vision Therapy.
A Sit Down – with James Smith COVT
For the benefit of our readers, can you explain your background and how you are involved in Developmental Optometry?
My formal education has been in Theology. I knew that I was to be a minister at the age of 10. I have since becoming a pastor in 1998 had to work a second vocational job as I have pastored smaller churches. In college my secondary focus was in child education. My father was a public school teacher in the state of Oregon and he instilled in me a love of learning and a greater love of the joy of assisting others in their grasping of concepts. My first foray into the optometric field was as an optician when I pastored a church in Aberdeen, Washington. I enjoyed all aspects of the glasses making and dispensing process.
How did you first hear of Developmental Optometry?
Even though I worked for years as an optician and had even managed an optical store I never heard the term “Developmental Optometry”. I did not come into contact with this field until years after my optician days. I was working as a CFO of a custom millwork company doing lots of spread sheets on computer screens. I began to experience severe headaches, blurry screens and the columns seemed to move and double. Thinking that at 35 years of age I had already began the presbyopia process I went to the local optometrist for possible bifocals. My good fortune was that Dr. Benjamin Winters OD, FCOVD was the optometrist I saw that day. He asked to perform a few simple tests and I came away with the title of Convergence Insufficiency. I had no idea what that meant but over the next few months after participating in vision therapy at Dr. Winters clinic I had no more symptoms and a new perspective on life.
As someone who has just completed the COVT process, can you describe your preparation in all three phases?
Sure well, as I got on the airplane to fly to COVD I quickly typed out nine papers, watched a tedtalk on vision for talking points during the oral interview, and figured to just color in the circles on the written exam in a random pattern. No I am just kidding. I was quite impressed on how long and thorough the process was.
The first phase was the writing of our research papers. I would describe this part as trying to empty myself of all preconceived ideas and thoughts, then reading myself full from a plethora of sources and finally writing it out in as few words as possible. The subjects are at times quite broad and you are only allowed a limited amount of space. So you need to really bring in down to the meat of the subject. I am only glad that they did not go with the twitter formula and we had to describe the treatment of strabismus in 160 characters or less.
The second phase was to prepare for the written exam. This is a 50 question multiple choice exam on various areas of Developmental Optometry. I felt this was the hardest part of the process. Thankfully they provide you an outline of subjects to assist you in the preparation process. Unfortunately I did not always see a direct correlation from the outline to the actual test. My best advice is use your time wisely and have your doctor and mentor quiz you early and often on all areas of our discipline.
The last part is the Oral Interview. This strikes fear in the heart of many, but I have always liked to talk and hoped that the interview would go well. I do encourage all in the process to remember that by the time you meet your interview board you have been living, breathing, writing, and testing on the subjects for a number of years. My only concern was communicating how our office performs and treats the various conditions our clinic sees, in a way that the board would approve. It does not take one long to realize that there are some varying trains of thought concerning the treatment of conditions. Our clinic performed multiple mock interviews to help our trainees prepare for the exam. The Board was very kind and I felt that it soon turned into a simple discussion about Developmental Optometry.
Since the COVT process is designed to be a process of learning, how would you qualify and quantify your learning as you progressed through certification?
There were three therapists from our clinic that completed the process this spring. We all agreed that it was a great experience to learn some of the science behind the practical activities we have been doing for the past 3+ years. I also would say that it gave me a deeper understanding and a greater appreciation for the complexity of the human mind with all its senses. I feel that I learned so much and yet at the end of the process I feel that I have just barely waded away from shore into an ocean of learning that is still before me. I remember a college professor who told me, “I am not here to teach you everything; I am here to teach you to search on your own.” At the end of this process I feel that I have learned a lot, but more that I am now ready to stretch out and learn more.
One question that seems to repeat itself among aspiring COVT’s is “what can I expect in the oral interview?”
Having just gone through it, can you describe your experience? This is a tough one for many. I would like to encourage those going into the interview to picture the interview board as the parents of one of their patients. Every day we, as therapist are communicating to our patients or their parents the “what and why” of the activities we are doing to help their condition. During the interview the board is going to ask questions relating to your papers. Most of the questions will be specific to comments that they made on your paper and warned you to be prepared to answer. So to encourage the interviewee, you will be talking over familiar subjects and most likely explaining activities and concepts you have already explained to others.
You also participated in the “Road to COVT” mock interview, correct?
Yes, I did participate as the interviewee. This was a great experience and I appreciated the opportunity. Basically it was taking a second Oral Interview, but this one with a new board and in front of an audience. The board was kind and asked softball questions for which I was very thankful. The whole purpose of the mock interview was for the audience to be able to see how the process works. I hope that they were able to see that it can be a comfortable time of discussing the various aspects of our profession.
What advice would you offer anyone considering completing their COVT this year?
Push early. Do not and I repeat do not think that you can just throw something together during any portion of the process. I would also urge them to choose a mentor that they feel comfortable and to lean on that mentor during the entire process. By this I mean we are all busy and may at times not want to bother our mentors or doctors, but that is why they are there. You need to communicate with them and absorb whatever knowledge you can gain from them.
If you were to start the COVT process again, what might you do differently?
I wish I had leaned more on my mentor. I had a mentor that is very knowledgeable and capable, yet I did not want to bother him for I knew he was very busy. By doing this I missed many opportunities to gain pearls of wisdom that I could use to be a better therapist. I would have called and spoken directly and often with my mentor instead of just using emails as deadlines approached. I also would have tried to spend more preparation for the written exam. Then I wish I had scheduled out my writing more systematically. This would have relieved some pressure when deadlines came due.
In your experience, what can parents do to make sure Vision Therapy is a positive and successful experience for their child, and for themselves?
The best advice I would give to parents is “relax”. If they are anxious and nervous about vision therapy their child will pick up on that. Then be patient with both their child and the process. This is a “developmental” process. So it will take time for those skills, cells, pathways and concepts which are missing or lacking to become integrated. Finally have fun with it. There will be some times that it seems like just plain old hard work, but it need not always be so. Many of the activities can be incorporated into playtime, family time and this will help the child to learn faster.
How would you describe yourself in the Vision Therapy room?
It is difficult to have a good grasp of ones one personality in the therapy room. If I had one word to describe me it would have to be “creative”. I love my job and I love that once you know and understand the concepts of vision therapy, there are a myriad of ways to reach the desired results and goals. Each day is a different day and every patient comes with their own situations. I strive to be flexible enough to create the right environment for them to succeed. I view my job as not to conform them into my activity, but to produce an activity that will conform to their needs, yet which is true to the principles of VT. Quality VT should never suffer from creativity but candy toppings have never hurt vanilla ice cream either.
COVD recently concluded another great Annual Meeting in Las Vegas, and completing your certification has to have been a personal highlight. Beyond your immediate success, what did you enjoy most about the meeting?
I once again was pleased with the bond of the Developmental Optometry community. It is always refreshing to see so many great minds all will different backgrounds and viewpoints working together to advance a common ideology. I enjoyed learning during not only the lectures, but also even in brief conversations during breaks. I like that all seem willing to share their knowledge and help others succeed.
You also have quite a career outside of the Vision Therapy room. Can you explain?
Well as I have mentioned I am a pastor and love the opportunity to share each week with my congregation the “Greatest Story ever Told.” I also am privileged to serve my community in a number of other ways. I have been a fire fighter for the past seven years. I must admit that this is one of the most adrenaline elevating rushes you can ever have. Plus they pay you instead of you paying to go down a zip line or something similar. My wife and I also teach a home school choir of 80+ children. This is a great blessing in our lives. My latest endeavor is that I have joined and become the executive director of a non-profit charity called Building Vision. We are a non-profit serving our local community and beyond to educate the public about the need and concepts of vision therapy, support families during their vision therapy treatment and to raise money to provide scholarships for individuals needing vision therapy but cannot afford the total costs.
Some Closing Thoughts – A great thank to James for taking time out for this interview. I’ve had the good fortune of getting to James over the past 18 months after he asked me to serve as his mentor through his certification (COVT). Although his many accomplishments are quite impressive, the quality of his character is by far his most inspiring attribute! He truly is an extraordinary person! Please join me in wishing James and his beautiful family, the absolute best! 🙂