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Home arrow Sociology arrow Holistic engagement : transformative social work education in the 21st century
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THE COURSE BY 2012

By 2012, the course had undergone substantial revisions. Via successive approximation, these revisions served to deepen the learners' reflections, reinforce the connection between inner life and external outcomes, and strengthen skill proficiency with regard to both learners and clients. One illustration of this process appears next.

Professional Identity Development

As I listened to hundreds of students in class and field, themes, patterns, and principles began to emerge. Beginning social workers embark on an internal process as well as an external journey that requires an integration ofprofessional and personal selves (Loseke & Cahill, 1986). The process of developing a professional identity involves developmental tasks, obstacles, and milestones (Deal, 2002), and there is an ongoing evolution despite long stretches ofrelative stability. When these tasks, obstacles, challenges, and crises are encountered, workers often respond in one of four ways. They struggle and muddle through privately, seek input, bolt, or burn out.

A parallel exists between the contracting phase of practice with clients and the fundamental questions that underlie the psychological and emotional life of the social worker. Essentially the client wants to know from the practitioner, “Who are you and how is this going to work?” Similarly, the new professional enters an identification process asking of the profession, “What is this?” and “Where do I fit in?”

When I introduce the topic of professional identity in class, I start by writing a phrase on the board—“Fake it ‘til you make it.” There is usually plenty of smiling and nodding. We talk about what this means, and they quickly connect it to field. I suggest it may be a solution strategy and invite them to consider the problem with which it helps. Ultimately, two needs collide within the learner: the desire to prove competence to oneself and to one's supervisor and coping with the vulnerability of not knowing (what is happening or what to do about it) (see Rodgers, 2002).

I draw two characters on the board facing one another. The client on one side is producing a great deal of information extemporaneously while the new social worker, on the other side, frantically checks and rechecks her mental file for some way of helping. But the client is not giving her X, Y, or Z from class. So now what? To gain perspective on the predicament, I ask students to consider the same question from a different angle: If a classmate asked you, “How can I be doing so well in class and struggling so much in field?” what factors might explain this? On reflection, students begin to recognize that two different skill sets make for success—one for success in class and another for field. We clarify each of the items and I add a few. Ultimately, the list looks similar to the one shown in Box 10.1.

The students and I review these lists, discuss their implications, and acknowledge that they are not mutually exclusive. We examine “The Vulnerability of Not Knowing” and “The Desire to Prove Competence.” Because managing the balance between these two needs is a beginning developmental task, we then proceed to examine self-soothing as the primary skill for this. Students are invited to share their methods for self-soothing and their levels of satisfaction with their approach. I sometimes point out that my sloppy professor character was itself partly a solution strategy that reduced my anxiety by substituting acting expertise for scholastic expertise.

We cover two additional developmental tasks—Agency Sort and Population Sort. In exploring the issue of Agency Sort, the students are answering the following questions: “Where do I fit in?” and “Who am I working with?” By interning at an agency, students receive an extended snapshot of one place that some social workers would call home. Can they imagine themselves working there? Is it too big or too small, too fast or slow, too loose or too tight? What is the organizational culture and climate? We share lists of personal criteria that are beginning to form—criteria they will need to guide themselves through the job market after graduation. Some items are negotiable, and others are non-negotiable.

Next, we explore the task of Population Sort. What type of client or client group seems to easily elicit my compassion? Some professionals continue to explore this by changing jobs, whereas others seem clear from the beginning. Should one be ready and willing to work with all types of clients? Is this necessary or even realistic? I assign an exercise that helps students get in touch with their biases and preferences. They discuss the outcome in pairs first, then with the larger group.

Box 10.1

DIFFERENT DEMANDS FOR THRIVING AND SURVIVING

Academic Success Field/Internship Success

Time Management Self-Soothing

Note Taking Spontaneity

Writing Ability Improvisation

Critical Thinking Adaptability

Analysis Acceptance of Learner Role

Organization Confidence

Study Skills Establish and Maintain Boundaries

Reading Comprehension Role Transitioning

Test Taking • Detective

  • • Enforcer
  • • Salesperson

Now in the home stretch of this unit, we address the Myth of Cruise Control. Many beginners assume that 10 or 15 years in the field will result in having all questions resolved. However, the process of identity development remains ongoing despite stretches of relative equilibrium and stasis. We review the transition from direct practice to supervision or administration noting the challenges and fresh tasks. Students watch a videotaped interview of a social worker who candidly discusses his decision to give up agency work for private practice. The students identify developmental concepts and cite evidence for their applicability. Finally, we divide into small groups to review the following mid-career position statement:

 
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