by Jennifer Soule, Ph.D., MSW
As a social worker, you do not have the external appurtenances of other professions: no stethoscopes or set of laws and court decisions to use as tools. Your main tool is your self. In actuality, this enlarges your power enormously, as well as your responsibility.
My 25 years in social work have included time as an educator, program director, therapist, and card-carrying advocate for various social causes. I have been taking some time to write and am about to reenter the workforce. It was good to have an extended period for reflection and writing. I think it is important for professionals to build this into busy routines. The following suggestions are part of my reflections as a professional social worker.
You are a professional-not simply an employee.
What' the difference? To begin with the dictionary definitions, a "professional" is engaged in a profession and a profession is a vocation, a calling-especially one requiring advanced knowledge or training. At the very core of this definition is the notion of self-regulation: this is in relation to a very specialized body of knowledge. Other characteristics of a profession include a national professional association (NASW), licensing laws, and a formal code of ethics. Social work is a profession. Social workers with degrees are professionals. "Employee" implies a person who works for a wage. Clearly you do want to find someone to pay you. But the word "employees" conjures up images of people doing what someone tells them to do without critical thinking. Professionals are not technicians. We are thinkers.
Be a good animal.
Animals know how to care for themselves. Eat, sleep, stretch, and sniff good smells-even if you have to stop to do it. Spend time outdoors. Play. We need to learn not to burn the candle at both ends. Social workers are notorious for this. Take care of yourself. You are an organism, not a machine. If you can’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to help anyone else.
Engage in lifelong learning.
Professionals at all levels can make contributions to the knowledge base not only in doing research projects or dissertations. Practitioners in the trenches know more than anyone else what is going on with their clients-what works, what doesn’t, what policies need to be changed, and what resources are lacking. The Code of Ethics asks you to add to our knowledge base and to share this with others. It is part of your responsibility to the profession and your clients. Read your journals. You need to keep up.
Stop, look, and listen.
These are basics in education. First you must stop-still yourself. You need to do this in order to look and listen-to observe and to hear your clients and community. It means you pay attention. Observation and listening are two fundamental skills in social work. They deserve your full attention. They do not work well with multitasking. When was the last time you felt that someone was listening to you when they were also doing something else? This is like talking on the cell phone and driving.
Show the flag.
Social work is a worthy profession. We even have a Nobel Prize winner in Jane Addams. You are not entering a profession that you have to apologize for. Call yourself a social worker. You can say you are a social worker in a hospital. You can say you are a social worker and you work with children at the Department of Social Services. I always say, "I’m a social worker and I teach. I’m a social worker and I do therapy." Educate others about what social workers can do. Join the professional association (NASW) so you have a cohort of like-minded people with whom you can interact who understand what you do when no one else does. The dues are well worth the benefits of a professional organization.
Don’t settle for the same old answers. Look for new paths to service. If we buy into the same old way of thinking about an issue or serving our clients, we may not be doing the best we can. This goes beyond working with individuals or families. How can communities and the country or the world address some of the big issues of our time? Social workers have a responsibility to weigh in here.
Collaborate with colleagues.
Collaborate with social workers and other professionals. The more we work together, the more we can accomplish. Don’t be the Lone Ranger. It is more fun to have companions. Most animals know this well. Many of our companions are other workers in all the places social workers can be found-schools, hospitals. Collaboration produces more Nobel Prize winners.
Keep values in the forefront.
This is a value based profession. No other profession describes itself this way. We have a Code of Ethics. This is part of being a profession. It is your baseline for professional conduct.
Stand up for others.
Social justice is one of our values, but it is also important enough to be mentioned separately. You are joining a profession that proudly claims to advocate for the most vulnerable and marginalized populations. It needs to be part of who you are and what you do wherever you go.
A sense of humor is essential. If you can’t laugh at yourself and the state of affairs the world may be in on any given day, you are doomed. A sense of humor is one of your most valuable survival tools. It' what you need at the end of the day when you have done all of the other nine-and nothing has gone right anyway.
Enjoy yourself in your new professional career. You have made a good choice. It is a career in which you will never be bored.
Jennifer Soule, Ph.D., MSW, is president of the South Dakota chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
This article appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER (Vol. 11, No. 3, p. 17). Copyright 2004 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint, please contact Linda Grobman .