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I am Getting My MSW, but I Do Not Want to be a “Social Worker”

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As I finish up my first year in graduate school, I am reflecting on the reasons I chose to enroll in a social work program. First, I want to change to world, and I want to help as many people as I can. I  know I cannot change everything, but I can motivate and empower other people to help to make a bigger impact.

My passion for social justice drove me into the Masters of Social Work (MSW) program, and I was ready to set forth and learn how to save the world. Now during my whole time at school, I get ask the same questions over and over again about why I am studying social work and the reasons behind it. Once I tell people I am getting my MSW, they certainly jump to conclusions about my career path.
be-who-you-wanna-be

  • You are not going to make any money.
  • You are going to take kids away from bad parents.
  • Oh! I know a social worker at my school. She’s great!
  • Good for you; that job is so challenging.
  • Why are you learning about fundraising if you are going to be a social worker? They are so different.
  • What population do you want to work with?
  • What therapy method do you prefer?
  • Why do you want to help poor people?
  • You need to get licensed right away.
  • You should memorize the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM)
  • Take a course on Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) for sure
  • You need to focus and take as many advanced clinical courses as possible.

Sadly, I have heard all of these statements and more related ones too many times. The frustrating part about these comments is not the fact people are trying to help or learn more about my career, but they are judging my career choice before I get a chance to explain my reasoning. The worst part about this is that people who call themselves social workers are the most judgmental. They believe in their definition of social work, and what I want to do is not it.

They in some ways diminish my motivation for social change and push more towards therapy. Even the educational requirements are steering away from social justice initiatives and focusing on therapy. Is that what social work is now? Cheap therapy? If you would like more information on the subject, there is a book called Unfaithful Angels: How Social Work has Abandoned its Mission by Harry Spect and Mark E. Courtney. The book is a great read for any social worker out there trying to evaluate their roles as a social worker in society.

As many of you know, the definition of social work is vast and expanding. You can read about the great things and various aspects of the social work profession/opportunities in other articles on this website. It is not just counseling or adhering to the needs of individuals, but much more.  This can include anything related to helping individuals including but not limited to social policy analysis, program development, community assessment, advocacy, community organizing, development, organizational management, case management, research, social change and more, not just counseling.

With this being said, it is sad that many schools and professionals are telling students every day their focus should be on therapy and clinical intervention. I do not discredit the wonderful work clinical social workers do because it is necessary. I just want the opportunity for my fellow students and I to mold our own definitions of social work based on our personal and communal factors. We should focus our education, internships, jobs based on what we like to do and what we feel is necessary. We certainly would not tell clients what to do based on our own perceived conceptions of their identity, then we should not do it for social work students.

For clarification, I do plan on being a social worker, but I am going to be MY definition of a social worker. I plan to be a nonprofit executive leading human service agencies. I am getting my MSW to understand the perspective of oppressed individuals, and how my good friend says it, put the human back in human services.

If a label is part of my identity, I will dictate what I believe the label means. In order for you to know, you need to ask me instead of judging based on your preconceived notions. Rather than tell me what to do, maybe you could offer your advice or assistance if I ask for it.  Our future is determined by our decisions, and we students need to learn that for ourselves. Honestly, you’d be surprised how much we know already, and you could learn more about us if you do not jump to conclusions. 

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Jonathan Richardson is the Social Work Helper Staff Writer focusing on Students Issues and Concerns. He currently is a graduate student at University at Albany getting his MSW and MPA degrees. Jonathan has a background in a variety of nonprofit administrative and direct practice experience with a specialization in fundraising and development, and he hopes to empower the next generation of leaders and provide them with the motivation to positively impact their local communities. You can also visit his personal blog www.jonathanknowseverything.blogspot.com.

41 Comments
Alice Stewart says:

I am a JD/MSW and have had many of these same feelings during my program. I am constantly having an identity crisis lol because I feel too much at the law school but don't feel enough at the social work school. Just because we don't fit in someone's narrowly defined box of what a social worker should be doesn't mean we won't be social workers and make good use of our MSW degrees.

Well it came off that way. At least to me. Thanks for your reply.

I believe that we should make that change. Cheap and affordable is definitely two different thing, but I think the author intent was not diminish the work of therapists.

How about affordable therapy rather than “cheap” therapy.

dc matthews dc matthews says:

Hello social workers: What do you know about the ADA and the FHEO regulations ? Have any schools taught you about them?

Heaven Bound Heaven Bound says:

I love this article! So many truths..

Geri Troia Pepin says:

Thank you for this wonderful article . I started very late I. Life pursuing my BSW and now into my MSW . I too get asked about the same questions except add " what made you decide to go into SW now in your life and what do you expect to do "? So frustrating . I tell ppl "I've always Been a social worker all if my life (advocating for my children , guiding ppl to the resources needed, community action, volunteering my time." That's my definition . Yes I've questioned my career path but I know in my heart this is where I need to be !

Amanda Woolston says:

I think of social work as defined by the knowledge, skills, and values endorsed by our profession that trains practitioners to be effective at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels to move toward our uniting goal of social justice. Like you, I chose social work because its core values corresponded with my own personal values. An added surprise/benefit when I began my BSW education was discovering I would be taught to think and work from a mutli-systems perspective that is useful in an infinite number of settings.

Although trained to think in a multi-systemic way, many of us choose to specialize. I do a great deal of mezzo and macro work; however, I chose to concentrate on clinical practice when completing my master's in social work. I totally identify with what you've described as imposed upon you by others. Outside of our profession, there are some practitioners who do not understand what social work is. Clinical students from other disciplines often thought I was performing "casework" duties because of my title as "social worker," despite the fact that I was doing the same tasks and honing the same clinical skills they were. When I've testified on legislation and engaged in policy making, people assume I don't have the skills necessary because I am not a lawyer or didn't major in criminal justice. I can't help but wonder then if this is why some social workers impose practice goals and assumptions on others (or upon students) as a part of assuaging the anxiety produced by how our profession–as a whole–is undervalued and misunderstood by society.

Your post is an important reminder that support and recognition for our profession must be practiced within our community and among us as a model for how we'd like other disciplines and professionals to regard what we do.

Erica Lopez-Ruiz says:

I am so happy I came across this post! I recently graduated with my BSW and currently work as "Social Change Advocate" (great name right!) at a domestic violence shelter. I work within the school system providing education on dating violence as well as intervention and prevention groups. We also provide DV training to other agencies. I have been on the fence of whether or not to go for my MSW because what you described. I feel that the profession is pushing us toward therapy and I am just not interested! I appreciate your post, it validated what I have been feeling for a while and felt awkward expressing. As a BSW, social change was greatly emphasized in our studies through advocacy and effective case management.

Daniel Reti says:

What a great article! I missed this one! I have often felt the same way. Moreover I have no interest in being licensed at all but am constantly told that is the only way to make any money as a social worker. I support you in forging your own path and look forward to hearing more!

Brian J Tait says:

I am working on my MSW and MPA as well at this time but at ASU. Thank you for posting this Jonathan, I can relate to your feelings and ideas. This post made my day! Peace.

Zander Keig says:

Thank you, Jonathan! I have wrestled with these same issues since beginning my MSW program in 2010. I have been working as a government social worker since graduation (2012) and the same nagging feelings arise day after day: what am I doing? Like you, I was lead into social work to gain a particular lens to better inform my pursuit of social justice for marginalized communities. In a nutshell, I want to do macro social work. I have begun the process of seeking new positions that will better meet my needs and provide me with an avenue to be of more service to a greater number of people.

Dana White says:

Thank you so much for this article, Jonathan. I've experienced many of these same things as a young social worker in the beginnings of my career. One of the major reasons I've stayed in social work instead of pursuing another degree is because I believe so strongly that us social justice-focused social workers, both in direct and macro practice, need to do our part to shape and define our profession. While social work has definitely shifted toward clinical work in the past decade(s), I have hope that we're starting to swing the other way on the pendulum. Like Rachel said, it's so important to have discussions and posts like this one so that we can continue to advocate for positive changes in our profession.

Bill England says:

I have an MSW. I graduated in 1993 from the University of Pittsburgh. I consider myself a Social Worker in the traditional definition, meaning I am a community organizer and I work to improve systems to better meet the needs of people. Change is from the bottom up, and I find great satisfaction working with people to improve communities, systems and the organizations that provide services for people. But I completely agree with you – define whonuounare and what you want to do. I believe in the code or ethics. I believe in the value of education. I believe organizers are special people and have good capacities to become change agents. I wish uounwell with your studies and your journey! I love being a Social Worker and wouldn't do anything else.

Nikki Frankel says:

I'm graduating with my MSW in a few weeks and am quite torn with what I want to do with my degree. My school only offers a clinical track, but I've been very active with my state's chapter of NASW in fighting for social justice and doing advocacy work in my community. In addition, I have developed an interest in research and comprehensive program evaluations. I want to do everything with my degree and I still want the "social worker" title. I feel a connection to the profession because it is so broad. In my state I can get licensed as soon as I graduate and I will do that, but I will not (at least not anytime soon) be going for my independent license. I am a social worker because I didn't want to "just do counseling," I wanted to help make real change in individuals, groups, systems and communities. You are far from alone in your thinking, I just hope that you are able to reconsider your relationship with the term "social worker" and perhaps think if there is a way you can embrace it and still be true to your identity and values.

Rachel West says:

I think what has happened is that many states have given LCSWs parity with clinical psychologist and psychiatrist. But an LCSW only needs a masters degree whereas the other degrees require a PhD or MD before they can become licensed to practice independently. So those interested in being therapist see an MSW as a quicker and more cost effective path to private practice.

When I was in school there were a number of classmates who told me point blank that they only went for the MSW because it was quicker than trying to become a psychologist. Here in New York State you can get the LCSW in 3-6 years after graduating from an MSW program ( you can sit for the LMSW as soon as you graduate). Once you have the LCSW you can go into private practice.

I also think licensing laws have pushed schools to focus on clinical. Only a couple of states have a macro social work license. For example here in New York the LMSW is sort of like a general license, but the exam is focuses predominantly on direct practice. There is very little macro on that test. If too many students from a particular school fail the licensing exams the schools can find their accreditation jeopardized. So because those tests are so heavily focused on micro the schools end up focusing course work on micro more than macro because they need to ensure that as many of their graduates are able to pass the licensing exams.

Then there is the persistent myth that clinical social workers make more money than macro. Thats not true. I was recently sent a study,, which for copyright reason I can't post here, that showed that macro social workers make the same as micro social workers. The difference is that it take macro social workers on average 6 months longer to find work after graduation. The study did not look into why because it focus was on income. But the authors theorized that macro social workers have a harder time getting hired because hiring managers do not understand what macro practice is. In other words they see a MSW or BSW degree on the resume and can't understand why this person is applying for a non clinical position.

Rachel West says:

This is so true. I give webinar and coach macro social workers. I so often hear from students that they are not able to get the educational opportunities they need to be community practitioners. Even school offering a macro track often lack enough macro internships. This was my experience as an MSW student as well and thats how I ended up writing about this issue.

The best advice I heard given was "Don't let anyone Define what social work is for you." You're right Jonathan, it's not just those outside the field that fail to get what macro practice is. I what I always found most disheartening was the number of trained social workers who don't understand. 6 years out from graduation and I still get weird and confused looks from social work peers when I tell them I'm not working towards the LCSW.

This was a great article. It is important that we talk about this because it will help us to push for changes with the CSWE and the schools of social work.

I started out getting a new but two years into it I found out what I want to do I can do with an associate’s in social work. I never wanted to be a social worker, but felt pressured by advisors telling me I can’t do anything unless I had a new…..many other things you can do to have an impact in social change

As an MSW who will be 20 years post grad next month, I commend you on your passion and vision. My experience has been that where i am now is so far from where I thought I wanted to go….and I love it. It’s going to be a wild ride. Enjoy it.

Jamie Sanchez says:

I am currently in grad school with only a few weeks until graduation. Our profession has some serious issues and is suffering from what I feel is a serious identity crisis. While I have met a lot of great people who are on the clinical side of school work, I have come to believe that too many in our field are going in that direction and that there is not enough people doing macro practice. I feel the profession in general has lost its advocacy and activism edge due to too many people going into clinical work. I feel that if you want to be a therapist that doesn't actively engage in the other and equal important aspects of social work, like fighting for change, then maybe you should pursue a degree in counseling- not social work. From my perspective, social work has moved away from what should be its real role in society and into a role that is really best served by existing degrees for those wishing to be therapist.

Hi Michael, I won't speak for Jonathan, but I don't think his argument is in relation to direct practice as a whole. A student such as yourself can be on a case management/direct practice tract which is different plan of study from a clinical tract which focuses on becoming a therapist for the individual/groups. Although, all MSWs do and should receive training on the biopsychosocial assessment/perspecitve and understanding the client on the clinical level, I believe he is trying to relay that social work encompasses more than only working as a clinical social worker. In some sw circles, case management is not considered social work because in some states a clinical social work license is not required to do your job. Depending on your state, you may eventually need an LCSW to continue doing your job at the law firm even though you are not providing therapy or diagnosing clients with a mental health disorder.

I too went into social work with the desire to effect social change. During my studies I was also feeling pressure to study psychotherapy and I had no notion to do so.
As you mentioned, I wanted to focus on social change.
The leadership of the school were supportive and helped me to network with social work with a macro perspective.

Michael Chancley says:

Hi Jonathan. I'm also a MSW student and I am finishing my degree in a few weeks. I've felt a lot of the same sentiments as you. Those outside of the profession often think I'm building a career as a case manager, which is furthest from the truth.

I will say that I decided to change my concentration from Administration and Policy to Direct Service, not because my mentors in the field told me I had to, but because they showed me how the two can go hand in hand. I don't look at my path as "cheap therapy", but as a much needed component of social justice. Social change does not happen over night and until that change happens, I have a duty to help the individuals affected. I currently do my internship in the legal services department of an AIDS service organization and we not only handle case management duties, but also engage in a lot of policy work. When I do intake and assessment on a client who has been discriminated against, I am doing my part to help the attorneys in my organization get case laws on the book that will help others who are discriminated against.

You may not be interested in direct service at all and I respect that, but as a social worker, you should have a full understanding of how direct service, administration, and policy work are all intertwined. Good luck.

Kate Renna Kate Renna says:

Great article!

Education

Tough Conversations: A Tool for Parents, Part I

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The “Courageous Conversations Compass,” a tool for ensuring that conversations around race and culture are productive in the workplace, was designed and shared by Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton to promote courageous yet respectful dialogue.

Public school personnel, especially Montgomery County Public School teachers, are probably familiar with both Courageous Conversations and Singleton and Linton’s compass. I personally have encountered instruction or reference to the compass on several instances during professional development classes and trainings, staff meetings, and parent conferences.

What began as a tool for the education realm has evolved into a helpful resource for several different types of conversations requiring courage, honesty, and perspective-taking. For struggling parents, an understanding of the compass and the philosophy behind its methods could certainly help facilitate communication with their teens.

What is the compass?

The compass, pictured below, is a visual, symbolic reference point that participants use to assist in communicating when conversations and viewpoints are not only difficult, but divergent. The four points of the compass, which help to identify from which perspective a participant is entering the conversation, are moral, intellectual, emotional, and relational. When we speak to others, especially about controversial or deeply personal topics, we typically go into the conversation with a certain mindset. The axis from which we enter a conversation depends on our experiences, values, beliefs, and opinions.

Additionally, we may enter a conversation from a combination of two or more points on the compass; it all depends on our thought processes pertaining to the specific topic of discussion. For example, on the very relevant topic of violence in schools, the discussion can quickly morph into a debate, which can then digress into an all-out argument. The reason that a controversial conversation like this would escalate quickly is because participants are entering the conversation from several different points on the compass.

For instance, a family member of a victim of gun violence would likely enter the conversation from an emotional standpoint—the topic resonates with their feelings because of their personal experiences. These feelings will conflict with or push back against a person who enters the conversation on the intellectual axis because it is hard to separate logic and emotion objectively. Therefore, the person who enters from an intellectual standpoint may try to use statistics, data, or trends to argue that guns do more to protect or defend people than to hurt them. However, this is a futile attempt for the intellectual if trying to persuade or counter a person’s emotional viewpoint. Likewise, people entering from the emotional axis will tune out the statistics—a statistic does not account for their lost loved one.

While this is just one example of how we enter the compass, the true value of the conversation strategy is that it allows us to recognize and reflect on why we may converse, debate, or argue the way that we do. It also allows us to gauge how and why another person would express themselves in such a vastly different way. The compass allows us to see, not only where we are coming from, but where the “other side” is coming from. At the root of this method is a deeply reflective practice in perspective-taking.

The compass shows us that neither opinion is incorrect or invaluable; instead, it highlights why we disagree when it comes to such contentious topics. So how can we utilize this tool when speaking with our teens? Read ahead to learn how to implement methods for productive conversations using the compass.

 

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NASW Highlights the Growing Need for School Social Workers to Prevent School Violence

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – School social workers play a critical role in schools. They serve as the liaison between school, home, and the community. The underlying premise of school social work services is based in strengthening students’ academic progress by removing barriers to learning including meeting their basic physical and emotional needs.

Any form of school violence, including the mass shootings at schools around the country such as the recent incidents Florida and Maryland, prohibit students’ sense of safety and their learning. School social workers work to prevent mass killing in schools as well as guide schools in recovery after a crisis has occurred. Today more than ever, there is a growing need for school social workers to help prevent school violence and to support students in moments of crisis.

Unfortunately, school social work positions across the country have been eliminated or replaced by other professions. Due to extensive financial deficits and constraints, as well as competing priorities, local education agencies are often unable to hire enough school social workers to adequately meet the needs of the student population. In many instances, school social work services are eliminated altogether.

School social workers work in preventing school violence. They are trained to understand risk factors and warning signs of violent behaviors. They are knowledgeable in classroom management and behavior intervention and can assist teachers and school personnel in identifying concerning behaviors of students and developing supportive intervention plans. They are experts in research-based school discipline policy development that can increase school connectedness and decrease incidents of school violence.

School social workers work to provide support after a crisis. They are extensively trained to manage and deal with crisis and are equipped to assist school administrators and teachers.  School social workers are experienced in delivering difficult and sensitive information and can assist in developing messages that are age-appropriate and culturally sensitive.  In addition, they can lead the development of strategic plans that prepare other school personnel to respond adequately during the times of chaos and crisis.

School social workers can link students and their families to community resources. They are well-informed regarding relevant resources in the community and online and can aid in connecting students and families to the appropriate resources during times of crisis.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) advocates for ratios in its latest revision of the NASW Standards for School Social Work Services that reflect the need for an increase in social work positions across the nation in all schools:

School social work services should be provided at a ratio of one school social worker to each school building serving up to 250 general education students, or a ratio of 1:250 students. When a social worker is providing services to students with intensive needs, a lower ratio, such as 1:50, is suggested (NASW, 2012).   

Violence in schools has increased dramatically over the past decades and is seen by many as a public health issue. School social workers aid in the prevention of school violence and provide much needed services and support after a crisis has occurred. NASW strongly urges the funding for an increase of school social workers in schools across the country to adequately meet the needs of students and decrease school violence.

NASW is in partnerships with coalitions that are working to support school social work positions. We urge our members and the larger social work community to contact their elected officials to advocate for school social work positions in schools. For more information contact NASW Senior Practice Associate Sharon Dietsche, LCSW-C, LICSW, at [email protected]

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Diversity

Cultural Competency in the Classroom

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A beneficial, yet challenging, factor of education today involves the increasing diversity in our schools. Because of the ever-growing demographics, teaching cultural competency has become a major focus in the classroom, especially for a public school system as vast and diverse as Montgomery County.

It’s not only students that are getting instruction on cultural competency. These lessons start at the top with administrators, curriculum writers, and educators all participating in this movement in favor of cultural awareness and appreciation.

Because culture involves a deeply personal, ingrained set of beliefs, behaviors, practices, and values, most people are at least somewhat unaware of cultures to which they do not prescribe. This is especially the case for young children who are just beginning to explore the world around them.

Culturally-responsive instruction truly begins with a look at one’s self through reflection—it isn’t until we truly understand ourselves that we can begin to understand others around us.

Build a classroom environment founded in cultural appreciation by abolishing the word “normal.”

Just because a behavior or characteristic might be our cultural norm, this does not mean that it is the “normal” or “right” way. Likewise, just because a behavior or trait may be unfamiliar to us, this does not mean that it is weird, wrong, or abnormal. Remind children that, just as we are all unique beings, our beliefs and values may cause us to speak, dress, and behave differently. Reinforce the mindset that cultural diversity provides learning opportunities that a culturally-homogeneous classroom would not necessarily have.

Because each student comes from a different upbringing, with different customs, traditions, family structures, etc., the perspectives that we can gain by embracing our peers’ cultures are limitless. If we hold one another’s culture in high esteem by valuing it as a chance to gain knowledge about something new, we no longer see our peers as “odd” or “different.” Instead, children learn to place the emphasis on the fact that a peer’s culture has provided them with information and knowledge that they would not have known otherwise.

Beef up the classroom library with culturally diverse options for students to explore.

Keep in mind that a culturally-relevant text does not receive its credit simply from the author’s culture. A novel about a child growing up during British imperialist India could provide plenty of opportunities for culturally-rich discussion—or it could oversimplify a culture or lack an important perspective all together. The key is to explore an abundance of different styles of texts, by many different authors, on a plethora of different subjects and themes. After doing plenty of research, and taking your students’ cultures into account, set up a culturally competent classroom library.  

Encourage courageous conversations surrounding cultural norms and where they originate.

For instance, when examining the protagonist throughout the course of a novel, prompt the class to ask analytical questions about the character’s motivations, thoughts, and decisions. What do we know about this character’s values, background, upbringing, family structure, etc.? How are our lives similar or different because of our own cultures? How might our own beliefs impact the way that we view or characterize the protagonist? What more would we need to know or discover about the main character in order to fully understand why she behaves a certain way?

If we take steps to expose students to diverse cultures and guide their exploration of different customs, traditions and perspectives, they will learn to embrace new ideas and better navigate our world.

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Diversity

Teaching Inclusion in the Classroom

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General education teachers are tasked with keeping many balls in the air, which is half the fun of working in a classroom—there are so many constantly moving and evolving pieces for which to account.

One of these essential pieces to ensure equitable learning for every student is inclusion. Of course, this term is nothing new to educators—we work to create an inclusive environment on a daily basis. What might be new, however, are the many ways in which we teachers can look at inclusive practices. Since every child is different, we must continue our exploration of strategies and practices that best suit the needs of all students.

One best practice that supports inclusion is to vary the output of information. By this, we mean that teachers should relay content and instruction in different ways. Some students, especially those with auditory processing difficulties, find that verbal instruction is hard to grasp. To ensure inclusion for these students’ special needs, teachers should try to present information in visual or tactile ways, in addition to the verbal instruction.

Depending on the class or lesson, this might take the form of a demonstration, video, or hands-on activity. Some skills or lesson objectives may even lend themselves to a more kinesthetic or tactile approach. Even students without an auditory processing deficiency would find it confusing to listen to a verbal explanation of cursive letter formation. A demonstrated approach to writing using clay, beads, shaving cream, etc., makes more sense.

Similarly, when teachers are introducing concepts like grammatical conventions or figurative language devices, an audio or visual approach might work better than a written explanation of how a properly formatted sentence should sound. Teachers should also practice inclusion by encouraging students to demonstrate their learning in various ways.

This means that not only is the presentation of information different for each child, but the means by which a student exhibits mastery should be individualized, as well. Some students might prefer to write a formal, organized research paper to convey their knowledge of a subject, while others might feel most comfortable presenting a visual demonstration of their topic. The key is to provide multiple opportunities for students to display their knowledge so that everyone’s learning styles are being incorporated.

Another way to look at inclusion is to utilize multiple means of engagement. For students with attention issues, memory difficulties, or other learning disabilities, engagement in the classroom can make all the difference. Engagement might mean listening to music to identify metaphors, similes, or narrative voice. A film study might help students understand a new culture or part of the world. An analysis of a slow motion field goal might help students understand kinetic energy, velocity, or other properties of physics.

The point is, when students are engaged, learning not only flourishes but behaviors and attentiveness increase, as well. Engagement also assists with moving information from short-term memory into long-term memory. Inclusion, with regard to engagement, means that teachers are not only teaching with methods for each type of learner but also appealing to each learner, so that memory of the information or skill can solidify. In order to provide engagement, there must be a level of interest on the student’s end. As different as each student’s learning style may be, so maybe their interests.

This is where building relationships with students become essential for inclusion. Cultural inclusiveness provides students with a platform to express themselves on a more personal level. This also promotes a positive classroom environment, one in which students feel heard, understood, and accepted. Cultural inclusion allows students to see beyond themselves, as well, which fosters perspective-taking.

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Non-traditional Students Require Non-traditional Policies for Field Placements

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I am only six weeks away from completing my BSW degree; a degree that has taken nearly twenty years to complete.  As I am nearing the end of my current educational journey and in the final hours of my field placement, I have found myself becoming quite reflective about my educational experience.

Now, I am not your traditional BSW student, and as such, my experience is dramatically different from many individuals who enter a BSW straight out of high school.  I have never sat in a physical class or classroom; I have never met any of my classmates and my professors or instructors face-to-face.  I am thirty-six years old with two children, and I work full-time in a field where I have spent the last sixteen years in.  No, I am not your traditional BSW student; I am a new breed of student, an older nontraditional online student.

Advances in technology have flung wide the doors of innovation in higher education. Online programs, developed in the last ten years and refined in the last five, have drastically changed the face of higher education for non-traditional students like me, who would have had no other opportunity to complete a degree.

Due to their ability to offer flexibility to students, online programs have become a permeant feature on the higher education landscape, and their popularity and student population are growing at an exponential rate. The academic training of future social workers has not been exempted from the advancements in technology and education. My soon-to-be alma mater and one of the leading online social work programs in the nation have reported a 34% increase in the number of students enrolled in the online BSW program this year alone.

While there have been major leaps forward in distance learning and online education, there has been little to no innovation regarding CSWE accreditation policies concerning this new breed of students, especially as it pertains to their field placement.

As it stands, all CSWE accredited schools, including non-traditional online programs function under the same blanket policy regarding field placement. Students enrolled in BSW programs are required to perform a minimum of four hundred unpaid hours of field placement at a social service agency. The policy also requires that field placement hours be served in conjunction with educational direction.

The CSWE considers field placement the “signature pedagogy” of social work education as it offers future practitioners the opportunity to apply theories learned in the classroom by exposing them to all sorts of problems and situations.  There is no debate concerning the importance of the field placement experience.  Incongruence occurs, however, due to a lack of nuance in policy when it comes to the unique needs and strengths of non-traditional learners.

Many non-traditional students, like me, who find an educational home in online BSW programs, are typically older adults either seeking to complete a bachelors degree they forsook earlier in life, seeking to further their current career, or shift their career entirely into a new filed.  While the reasons non-traditional students have for returning to school through an online program vary, one thing is common for us all.  Each student brings many years of life experience and employment history to the program.

Personally, when I started my online BSW program, I had over sixteen years of social services experience; working for years in a therapeutic boarding school for teenagers on the verge of incarceration, pastoral ministry, and serving as the Executive Director of a large non-profit social services organization.  I am not alone in bringing this level of experience in my current distance learning program.

In an informal survey conducted by current and former students of my school’s online BSW program, sixty percent of students reported that their resumes reflect positions comparable to that of social workers with fifty percent of responders stating they were employed by a social services agency while also performing their field placements. Students reported they have or are serving in capacities such as SUD Therapist, Program Coordinator, Outreach Specialist, Case Manager, Addiction Recovery Specialist, Youth Career Specialist, and Parent Mentor.

It is safe to assume that students from other online programs would report the same data. As such, it is important for the current CSWE and school policies concerning field placement for online programs be reviewed and discussed to create the most effective learning environment for these unique students. If the current policies are followed, older non-traditional students will not have the desired experience as CSWE and accredited schools for BSW students.

If there is no change in how these students are viewed and the policies surrounding their placement, the CSWE and institutions of higher learning run the risk of non-traditional students viewing their service hours as a mere assignment that must be completed to graduate.

To be honest, this has been my thinking on more than one occasion during my field placement. While I have learned a substantial amount about the agency I have worked in and it has been truly informative, I have also found myself questioning whether this experience was truly fulfilling the mission and vision the CSWE and my school had in mind when policy was crafted concerning BSW field placement making it the signature pedagogy.

Often times in my placement, I found that due to my life and employment experience, I was more qualified to perform the duties and tasks than those I was shadowing and being supervised by. I do not relay this out of a sense of arrogance, but sheer professional experience.

Due to the nature and requirements of my field placement setting, I have spent a majority of my time shadowing new social workers or others who do not have a BSW at all. There is much to be gleaned by working with these individuals in an agency setting and hearing about their roles and responsibilities.

There is also great value in navigating through interpersonal issues that arise in a field placement setting. This aspect of placement has been invaluable to me.  What has become cumbersome, however, is trying to relate to my agency, my placement, and my future practice of social work as if my life experience and employment history were non-existent and as if the position I may potentially secure after placement will be my first professional job.

The current framework concerning BSW field placement is to provide students with experience in generalist practice with the hope that after field placement and graduation, students will secure jobs in social services agencies as entry-level generalist social work practitioners. This is a fine and noble objective to have, but the reality is a majority of older non-traditional students will not seek entry-level positions.

As their resumes reflect extensive knowledge and experience, the addition of a BSW degree will only elevate them to higher levels of employment.  To use a professional metaphor, these older non-traditional students will most likely not be starting at the “bottom of the ladder.” With that being the case, it would be prudent and wise for these students to be placed in advanced practice settings with more intensive supervision, settings that will mirror the level they will be entering the profession of social work in.

While this may not be true for everyone enrolled in online programs, it is true for many; and those individuals deserve to have a field placement setting and experience that will rightly prepare them for the work they have before them in the professional field.

I am by no means suggesting for a cessation of field placement for older non-traditional students. Field placement is imperative and a means by which students safely test theories and gain invaluable experience.  I desire to open a dialogue concerning the needs and strengths of the non-traditional students and how to best serve them during this crucial time of learning.

However, a new examination of the CSWE requirements, policies, and procedures of institutions of higher education with a manner of nuance should be given to this growing student population. It will ensure these older non-traditional students who are finishing their degree and entering the practice of social work receive a placement that meets their educational and professional needs rather than being an exercise in futility to complete a requirement.

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Education

The Long Pathway: Journey to Understanding Mental Health

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Written by: Iman,  Introduction: Rosie, Billy, Anisah, and Fahim – Haverstock School Journalism Project

*Editor’s Note: UK Social Work Helper Staff Writer, Chey Heap, and myself worked with the Haverstock School Journalism Project to support budding young journalists in their pursuit to better understand mental health issues. The below work was written by an 11 year old student, and I am proud Social Work Helper was able to be apart of this effort. The article is a collection of interviews and collaboration with her classmates. They did an outstanding job of exploring and processing a complicated issue like mental health. – Deona Hooper MSW 

A recent survey stated that 20% of adolescents may experience a mental health problem in any given year. In the Journalism project, we choose the subjects we want to write articles on and because I personally had an experience that traumatised me when my brothers had been separated from me. It really felt like I had been deprived of the things that gave me the most pleasure, and it put me into a deep depression. No one could understand the way I felt.

If we had physical problems, people would have noticed, but the inner ones are not noticed. If you break your arm everyone knows, but there is a stigma attached to mental health problems.

I wanted to know about how psychologists and other professionals work and understand how they can help us so that young people who are experiencing mental issues will know they are not alone and can get help.

The article is titled ‘The Long Pathway’ because it takes a long time to train to become a helping professional and to research and understand different conditions, but it is also a long pathway to healing.

So, I decided to ask my classmates who have experience with mental health issues including depression and bereavement to help me with this project.

One person, we shall call him Stephen told me: His Nan had a very rare disease that messed with her head. It made her see things. “When we went to visit her she saw everybody but me! It made me feel sad and left out but no one knew how I felt”.

Another a girl called Sarah told me: “My Mum and my Nan were fighting and they stopped talking to each other and when I wanted to go out with my Nan my Mum wouldn’t let me that made me very upset and angry”.

I then wanted to know what it was like to train, work and research in the field of mental health.

Journey Through a Psychologist and her Trainees Eyes

Dr Gursharam Lotey, a young person’s clinical psychologist and Jasmeet Thandi a trainee clinical psychologist agreed to an interview at Camden Open Mind – an organisation that reaches out to young people and helps them deal with life situations including bereavement, bullying or educational issues. It gave us a unique insight into their work.

Jasmeet: I am constantly thinking about feelings. You are talking to someone you have never met before and you are asking:

“How do you feel?”

And it is probably a bit much. So we get beautiful Russian dolls, name each doll that we have made: happy doll, sad doll Yesterday, one girl put a sad doll inside a happy doll. So, on the surface, she seemed happy but on the inside, she was feeling a bit sad.

Q: Do you use your own experiences to connect with patients?

Gursharan: It is really important to be aware of your past to be able to connect with a young person

Jasmeet: A patient will tell you something and I think:

 ‘Ah I have experienced that…’

Q: How do you deal with the unexpected?

Gursharan: The best thing to do is to not panic and to just think why that person might be sharing something with you that might be a bit out of the ordinary; and to be able to hold this inside, even if you are thinking: Wow! This is not what I expected!

Q: Do you ever get scared of your patients?

Gursharan: Not scared as such… I worry about them but our aim is for them to go home and be safe.

Jasmeet: Not scared I worked on a unit where adolescents had committed crimes. Once you get to know someone you can really understand the context and why things have happened. Understanding them is really important.

Q: What challenges do you face in your work?

Gurshuram: If something really complex and serious is happening within a young person’s family and you have several families like that all on the same day it can be quite challenging to not think about it when you go home.

Gursharam and Jasmeet explained training to be a clinical psychologist was like embarking on a long pathway and it felt like we were given a fascinating peek into what that entails.

Thank you, Gursharan and Jasmeet. We think Camden Open Mind gives an invaluable service.

Journey Through a Psychology Lecturer’s Eyes

Tony Cline is a now a psychology lecturer and trains child psychologists. When Tony was twenty-one, he found himself in a room with a new computer, but this computer was gigantic. It took up a WHOLE room!  He punched information into cards and it would take three weeks to process. Unfortunately, when Tony made a mistake, it would take another three weeks to process. Since then, technology is the biggest change he has seen.

Tony specialises in research as well as teaching and over the years has worked on subjects like dyslexia and has organised dyslexia conferences. Elective mutism was another subject in which he took an interest. This is where a young person can talk but only with some people. People thirty years ago often thought the child was just being naughty, but Tony’s analysis showed they weren’t, they genuinely had problems.

An example would be a pupil refusing to communicate with their teacher. The review of research highlighted a treatment called ‘Fading In’ where the child talks to the people they are comfortable with. For example, while the child is talking to their parents about something very interesting, the teacher appears at the door but does not enter. The second time, the teacher might come in but not stay, and on the third time the teacher stays and joins in the conversation. There is now a new name for the condition is called Selective Mutism.

I asked about the difficulties his students face to become trained professionals:

Tony: One of the things students do is they carefully train and prepare for an interview and then despite what they have been told about the child before they meet them, there is sometimes much more than is said.

I wondered whether there are difficult situations whilst he was teaching.

Tony: Yes. You can sometimes see that it is making someone in the group think about their own lives and they have had a bad time; for example noticing when a student is being hit by a subject like bereavement because they have experienced it.

Although Tony has years of experience, he still says to his new students: “I am going to learn something from you.”

I learnt lots from everyone I met on this fascinating journey and hope this article will be the first of many that shed light on an area that is difficult for people to understand.

Thank you. Gurasharam, Jasmeet, Tony, and classmates.

Brief description of the project:

The Haverstock School Journalism  Project exists to give underprivileged young people a very high standard of journalism training and proper assignments.

The students have interviewed all sorts of people from a lady firefighter to Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey, recently they contribute to the University College London, Amnesty Journal, and provide regular articles for On the Hill Magazine. The project is funded by the John Lyon’s Charity.

The Project Co-ordinator

Danielle Corgan worked in broadcast documentaries for over a decade, mainly with the award-winning documentary company Goldhawk Media Ltd. She helps the students research their subjects, prepare interview questions, organises the interviews, and write and structure print quality articles. She strongly believes every child can write well and encourages them to develop their own voice. She has worked with youngsters with Special Education Needs and Looked After children on the project with very good results.

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