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“By the End of the Term, You Will Have Gained Power in the Classroom and I Will Have Lost None” The Pedagogical Value of Discomfort and Vulnerability in the Teaching of Community Practice


Everyone who becomes a teacher of social work practice is necessarily influenced by the experiences, skill sets, values, and beliefs that shaped her or him in one's work outside the classroom. While adhering to a school's curricular emphases and the inevitable mandates passed down from the Council on Social Work Education, a new practice teacher enters that first classroom brimming with high hopes. My hopes were as heartfelt as they were fundamental: that the primary nuggets of practice wisdom gained through the rocky, uphill road of experience will somehow be imparted through the lectures, discussions, and case studies over the academic term. Theories from the classics + my practice experience + their fieldwork = praxis! How great is that!? A new teacher's course on practice will help students get needed skill sets and the critical reflection to use them well in any situation.

If only that were true. The following is the case study of a once young, dedicated community organizer whose lessons as a practitioner and professor have been more of the humbling kind of imparting what did not work rather than illuminating points of activist brilliance. Paradoxically, my own growing capacity to embrace the forms of discomfort such stumbles have created perhaps has made it possible to impart something of value along the way. As the reader will see, the more I embraced my vulnerability, the less I and others in the classroom had to fear; the more my fearful edginess at student disagreement was replaced with respect, the easier it became for them to receive and for me to impart my skills; the less I uncomfortably struggled for power in the classroom, the more authority I could claim—alongside that of my co-learners, the students.

This chapter examines how my community organizing curriculum has evolved from a content-heavy and more theoretical emphasis on models, strategic options, and historical examples to a blend ofpresent-day experience—including dynamics in the classroom that model actual organizing processes, such as the use of power, privilege, the creation of voice, and model building—as well as the needed theory. As such, my classroom learning framework consciously engages with a mix of student skepticism, critically reflective questioning, and purposeful discomfort that ends, 14 weeks later, with our classroom engaged in lively debate, respectful challenging of ideas, and deeply felt openness to the personal and collective strategic challenges that await us in the 21st century.

The pedagogical approach throughout the term is modeled on two underlying design principles—one drawn from history, the other from theory.[1] Each is operationalized through my own openness to struggle with the students on how difficult it can be, whether organizer or professor, both to truly share power and to engage in the mutual discovery of how co-learning and collective voice enriches rather than diminishes expertise and individualized forms of learning and leading.

The historical principle comes from Gandhi and later updated by the organizational theorist Peter Senge: “Embody the change you seek” (Gandhi, 2002; Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, & Flowers, 2005). What a noble idea! What organizer or practice professor doesn't aspire to that? Oh, really? For the organizer: In the crush of time and limited resources, is that meeting really open to all? Are new people genuinely trained for leadership, or is there just not quite enough time? Are decisions a mutual process of search for agreement or maybe, just maybe, predetermined? For the professor: Can a smart student's offering of a reading be sent around to her classmates? Who gets the last word on strategic debate? If some students disagree with your preferred model of organizing, is there an implicit and even explicit downgrading of their work? Are those two conservative students given the same respect in the classroom as those progressives who think more like you? Really?

The theoretical principle on living your values in all that you do and who you are, drawn from Paulo Freire and reinforced by bell hooks's writings, seems to pour cold water on Gandhi's noble idea. It, too, is presented in the first class as both an organizing and a classroom design principle: “The fundamental problem (for the practitioner seeking co-creation) is this: Initially, for the oppressed, as divided, inauthentic beings, to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor” (Freire, 2000a, p. 33). In other words, people arrive in a moment of investigation and action, whether in a campaign or a classroom, as historical beings whose primary experience heretofore has been all-too-often as recipients of others' knowledge and direction—followers expected to follow, not lead; students expected to learn from whoever is in front of the room, not from each other. The result, the brilliant Brazilian pedagogue went on, is that the inevitable resistance and fears associated with a new model of learning (or organizing) necessarily require understandable resistance and necessary respect from learner and teacher, and likewise from organized and organizer).[2]

And thus by the end of our first 2-hour session, the classroom principles have been elucidated in order to breed personal discomfort and collective struggle. By the end of that session, strategic answers have been replaced by my questions:

  • • If a teacher or organizer is to embody openness to others' abilities, how does he or she handle their inevitable initial resistance?
  • • Furthermore, as a teacher or organizer, isn't one supposed to have something to offer that is more strategic or more informed than others?
  • • After all, one is not hired without skills and strategic smarts. Isn't an organizer supposed to demonstrate those smarts and strategic savvy?
  • • Likewise, if the goal is co-learning in the classroom or genuine member empowerment in a campaign, what actual value does the teacher or organizer have in the first place if everyone is truly “equal”?
  • • Couldn't this approach end up as a futile example of democracy in inaction, or verbiage masquerading as education?

This is probably not a typical practice class in social work because only dilemma-filled questions are posed rather than answers given. I offer design principles that create unresolved paradox instead of strategic direction. Here I am, an older white man with a bunch of published books, sitting in front of the room discussing some of his limits, not his insights, while he invites often- perplexed students, most of them women and in combination a mosaic of color, gender, and sexuality, to share their own stories. Sometimes that first class ends well, with lots of enthusiasm; more often than not, less so. Years ago, such ambiguity and uncertainty with the potential for student discord would have unnerved me; now I embrace it.[3] This chapter seeks to explicate how such an admittedly challenging approach to learning has had sustained value for all of us who enter that first classroom together. It may also explain, 40 years on, why I still look forward with anticipation to each new class. After all, there's so much more that I'm going to learn.

  • [1] As will become obvious, much of this work builds on that of Paulo Freire, whose theories are written about elsewhere in this book and are not repeated here. His other worksthat have influenced me greatly include Pedagogy of Hope (2000b) and Educationfor CriticalConsciousness (1973). bell hooks's writings, especially Teaching to Transgress (1994), havealso been highly influential. These three books pose a serious, albeit implicit, critique ofthe limits to “competency-based” educational models because they require efforts towardmastery of incompletion rather than additive models of only “positive” growth.
  • [2] This approach has some similarities to problem-based learning pedagogy used in somesocial work education. (For a review of this approach, see Altshuler & Bosch, 2003). Whatremains distinctive are the dynamics of power as well as the expressed vulnerabilities of thefaculty/leader as part of this particular pedagogical approach.
  • [3] I am well aware—and make sure the issue is woven into discussion in some modest wayduring that first class—that as a white, male, straight, WASP from New England, issues ofmy social and racial privilege, power, and position may construct unfair advantages in relationship with others and have given me unearned benefits others do not possess. I am alsoaware that given these socially constructed dynamics, other faculty will confront a differentbalancing act between demonstrating substantive smarts and humility in their “embodyingthe change they seek” in the classroom. Although the balancing act will require a differentcalibration, I argue the effort nevertheless was worth it, for truly liberating pedagogy thatfrees us all to grow and learn from each other across our differences is a pressing historic taskof the 21st century.
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