“To teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced” Parker Palmer, 1998, p. 97.
It seems there are things I keep saying, keep repeating, keep reassuring and clarifying for students across my teaching life/world. At a certain point, I thought maybe it would be interesting to write them down in one place. These are things that reflect the parts of social work education that are not in the syllabi, or the attractive brochures that are used to promote programs…rather…these are the “implicit” view of social work education as I’ve experienced them as a faculty member for many years. These are my own views…from my own location…and sent forward, with love for the students and colleagues I’ve been fortunate to work with and learn with over the years. P.S. Just like my students, I’m changing every day. This post is a moment in time, based on where I sit today…with the full knowledge that the learning keeps coming…
1. There is a sense that “when you’re BSW or MSW is completed, your career will begin, so get ready.” But this couldn’t actually be further from the truth. In fact, your career in social work started before you came into the program, can pick up enormous momentum while you’re in school, and continues after you leave. Every experience, every class, every book, every discovery, every contact COUNTS. Realize and build your professional network (one of the most important assets any professional has) AS you move through your degree programs. This includes your fellow students, your instructors in school and in the field, an expansive set of possibilities regarding those you might do informational interviews with as a student. Be thoughtful, be strategic, be a builder/joiner of community in the areas you want to practice within.
2. Get ready for conflict and discomfort. Sometimes social work education is really warm, appreciative and affectionate. Sometimes it is about tension, discomfort and literally “confronting” things in our world, and things in ourselves, that are challenging, unpleasant and sometimes out and out wrong. This is such a vital set of opportunities. Nothing about social work is about “getting along” with a status quo that is ineffective, inequitable, inhumane. While social work can be about facilitating progress in a variety of ways (some of them gentle and accommodating). More often, in my view social work is about pushing, challenging, entering conflicts – even sometimes creating conflicts so that new paths to possible resolution based on social work ethics and values can be surfaced and forged. It takes skill, humility and a keen sense of strategy and timing to do this well. Expect to find yourself unsettled and learn from this constantly.
3. Social work education is getting fancier and more sophisticated every day. New frameworks, new research, new possibilities. That said, at its best there is also something to be said for developing and keeping a focus that is elegant and simple. In my mind, social work is about change. There are an extraordinary array of options on how to focus on this (change in ourselves, change in individuals, change in families, change in organizations, change in communities, change in the world at large – includes resistance as well as affirmative change) but, for me, change is the constant. Whether this, or something else, find a focus (a reference point) that you can return to and organize your own thinking outside of the jargon and professional frameworks. It is helpful if you find a focus that is not so erudite and academic that no one besides the purveyor of the term and a few followers knows what it means.
4. Social work education includes some paradoxes. A few as examples: learning is (at its best) a mix of safety vs. discomfort as was stated earlier. Other paradoxes might include: don’t lose yourself, but don’t fear transformation; we have an ethic of valuing diversity, yet much of the knowledge we think of as “social work scholarship” comes from a very specific hierarchical, privileged, western perspective; social workers are change agents, yet often become mired in large bureaucracies that do not change; the importance of not “jumping into” a course of action prematurely without adequate information vs. the need to sometimes act decisively in an urgent situation of violation or injustice; social justice vs. social control. My own experience is that we often operate in the liminal (in between space) amid these paradoxes. Learning to navigate them – finding a pathway through matters for your well-being and your integrity. Know which direction you “lean” with regard to these paradoxes, but, for the most part, beware of either/or thinking in many social work practice situations.
5. Learn to sift and sort through information effectively. Learn to organize it. Often our power as social work comes from being able to use information for individual or public good. Respect the importance of this early and develop good habits early. Don’t miss out on a chance to be an effective agent of change because you didn’t have access to the vital information needed to make a difference.
6. Degree-based learning is invaluable, empowering, but keep an eye on the reality that some of the most important learning came before your degree started and will continue after your formal education has ended. Prepare for lifelong learning, and think about your degree as a chapter (an important – and expensive one) but only a chapter. A related issue is to retain your own momentum and sense of discovery and agency on lifelong learning. Too often, this gets degraded into some form of “required continuing education” as a matter of licensing or regulation, rather than something that belongs to the worker and is guided by the passion and interests of a worker that keep a career vibrant, evolving and ever-renewing. (Think about people you know in both categories…which kind do you want to be?)
7. Cultivate curiosity, passion and your social work imagination. Social work is not “fixed” but constantly changing and being re-invented every day by people who practice it. New ideas, new ways of applying old ideas, unique and powerful combinations of ideas are all awaiting discovery, integration and possibility. Curiosity, imagination, ideas are disruptive possibilities and to my way of thinking, essential aspects of effective social work practice. No one will cultivate your curiosity, or the related passion you feel for your practice, but you…easy to get lost in the shuffle.
8. Courage and humility. Social workers face some of the most challenging individual and social problems imaginable; racism (and all of the isms), poverty, injustice, trauma, human suffering and too often, systemic indifference. As social workers, some of us have never or seldom directly encountered these phenomena, and others of us have lived with them on a regular basis. It takes courage to commit to a learning process about how to dismantle “oppressions” and engage individuals, families, organizations and communities in related action and healing. It takes humility to acknowledge that even within the same classrooms, there can be vast differences in student experiences with these topics. It takes courage to interrupt oppressions – sometimes the most courage when it is within what is perceived to be a “safe space” but in fact this is one of the most important places to do so. Our classroom spaces become essential places to do the work of practicing dialogue on difficult or challenging topics (our own implicit biases and challenges for example), and then carrying these lessons out into the field to do the larger work of dismantling them in our systems, services and communities. It takes humility to come to terms with the fact that many in the social work practice ranks come from privileged backgrounds, and that often, the job may be to focus on being an effective ally rather than having the answers, fixing, or taking control of the change situation.
9. Writing – a certain kind of writing and thinking is valued in higher education, but keep in mind this is only an illusion. In fact, the more important point is that communication is important for social workers. Being able to think critically, integrate ideas, pursue knowledge through research or community building, and form (and execute) action plans are just as essential. Writing in some respects becomes a kind of academic proxy for all of these things. Think about your own communication strengths and needs, and plan to push out. Think beyond writing papers, and writing legislative briefs, websites, letters to the editors, research and/or literature summaries, case studies, court reports. Think about creative writing (including all the arts) as a way to collect your own, and your clients’ experiences and voices. Think about giving speeches or providing testimony – challenge yourself if you are not comfortable in these areas. You will write in school. Resist the idea that this is the only (or even best) way to communicate.
10. Cultivate some expertise in a few clear areas before you leave your educational program that can serve as a launchpad for the next leg of your career. Being well-rounded is vital, and we live in a world that values “expertise” on various topics. The truth is that most social workers enter an “area of practice” whether that be child welfare, addictions, juvenile justice, or justice-based equity work. Sometimes the expansiveness and diversity of social work education (theory, practice, research, policy…) can cause students to feel as if they are going in many directions at once in a way that is not helpful. As early as feels comfortable (exploring is important too!), try to focus in on 2-3 fields or areas of practice, and begin amassing a knowledge base of ideas, skills, policy, research, etc. in those areas. Keep track of them. Build your own working bibliographies and guides to practice/literature as you progress through your academic program. When you are finished, you’ll have a terrific Launchpad for your first post-school jobs and be helpful in sharing “the state of the art” in various areas in interviews, and once employed, with colleagues.
Special thanks to Michael Hulshof-Schmidt (almost M.S.W.) for feedback on this piece.