Keep Educating Yourself
By: Samuel A. Hickman, ACSW, LCSW
Can you change your outlook on life? To be a social worker is to believe that many struggling people, with guidance and support, can fundamentally change for the better. What about us social workers who view continuing education requirements as an onerous burden?
One factoid that’s stuck with me over the years is that most social workers stop reading professional books and journals within two years after graduation. If we knew this about our health care provider, we’d probably start shopping for a replacement.
We’ve got our reasons: takes too much time, costs money, keeps me from my work, I get as much from skipping sessions and talking to colleagues (my ‘MO’). Let’s face it. It’s our attitude. Maybe we just don’t like being told what to do. Maybe our public school experience wasn’t the finest—traumatic even—and reading seems like a chore. Maybe we genuinely feel adequately prepared by our educational experience.
The practice aspects of the social work curriculum came easily to us because they meshed with and built upon our natural abilities. Our classmates drawn to the academic side were perhaps a little intimidating and perplexing to us. We squeaked through research.
Now in the field, we are happy to put textbooks, articles, papers, and quizzes behind. The knowledge we gained is safely tucked away in our brains, ready to be accessed as the need arises. To paraphrase the Harry Potter character Sirius Black, “We’ve done our learning!” Let’s get on with the doing! We’ve waited for this a long time!
As a social worker who has organized a large, annual continuing education conference for 28 years, I vividly recall an incident from perhaps 15 years ago. Two colleagues were walking out as the training continued inside. “Did you get your name on the sign-in sheet? That’s all that matters,” said one. They must have noticed me (too late) as I sat exhausted in the lobby. Just this year, that same colleague (he had noticed) acknowledged his cavalier attitude. He has since become a skilled clinician who embraces professional continuing education for its potential to improve his ability to have a positive impact on the lives of others. He has become a lifelong learner.
I suppose you could say he grew up, determined to pursue excellence. I’m sure that starting a family, gaining perspective and focus, and ever-increasing responsibilities in social work practice all played a part in his transformation. In short, he changed his attitude.
Most social workers have to earn continuing education hours to renew their state professional licenses and/or to maintain credentials. Sometimes hours in specific topic areas are required. For those who view this as a burden, embracing mandated continuing education as an opportunity for self-improvement and lifelong learning could be as easy as changing our attitudes...and maybe making a plan of action so you don’t get overwhelmed.
State requirements vary widely. Most require that licensed social workers earn “approved” continuing education (CE) hours, sometimes called “category one” hours. These are typically formally organized learning events, such as conferences or workshops, and may include content delivered via audio/teleconference and/or online/webinar courses. Many states also allow limited hours earned via “category two” or informal events, which could include professionally relevant content gained from non-approved sources/events, or through what may loosely be described as “self-study.” Approved (category one) events usually must be specifically approved by the state licensing body or sponsored by a provider authorized by that body. Your licensing body may or may not allow the consideration and approval of teleconference, videoconference, online, and/or webinar courses. It can also be difficult to determine whether hours earned at out-of-state events will apply toward your CE requirement.
Approved (category one) hours take the most effort. They may require travel, registration fees, and significant time away from the home or office. When earning CE hours is required to maintain a professional license, employers’ personnel policies may offer leave time or reimburse registration and/or travel expenses. CE fees and expenses paid by the social worker to maintain a professional license may also be tax-deductible (check with your tax advisor). Licensed social workers who are also enrolled in a social work degree program should find that their academic hours or credits will apply toward their CE requirements for licensure.
To find your state’s requirements, check your state social work licensing law, rules, and policies for details. An easy way to do this is to visit www.ASWB.org. Click on “Find a Licensing Board” to locate your state board’s Web site and navigate to continuing education topics.
If you’ve seen yourself described in any way in this article, you may be asking, “How do I adjust my attitude toward mandatory CE and start making the best of it?”
Replace your internal mantra of “mandatory” with “required.” Mandatory implies a degree of coercion and even paternalism, which social workers often bristle against. The concept of earning CE hours as a requirement for continuing competency in your field expresses a higher ideal. You challenge yourself to learn and improve so you can better serve populations at risk.
Realize that people don’t always know what they don’t know. My partner-in-life, Betsy, completed her MSW degree after receiving a master’s in a related field and gaining several years of practice experience. She, and others I’ve spoken with who did the same, uniformly say they didn’t realize how much they didn’t know until after completing their social work degrees. On a smaller scale, the same can be true in your professional continuing education experiences.
Embracing the challenge of required CE can promote growth, humility and flexibility.
Similar to a 12-step program, acknowledgment (self-awareness) is the first step. The similarities stop with the next step; you are not powerless to control your attitude.
Be honest with yourself. Have you ever been surprised by what you learned at a CE event? At the last event you attended, what might you have done differently to get the most out of the experience? Pay particular attention to your behaviors. If you were inattentive or bored, was it the content/speaker, or did you resent being there? Did you “suffer in silence” or might you have disturbed those around you in any way?
Exploring sources of resentment, anger, fear, and guilt in your life can lead to a greater understanding of who you are and why you react the way you do.
If you can do so without reacting angrily or sinking into depression (or both!), try asking your friends and colleagues for an honest assessment of their impressions about your attitude.
Use positive language when you speak of subjects that are difficult for you. When you find yourself embroiled in negative thoughts, interrupt the negativity by replacing it with positive thoughts.
Use proven brief therapy techniques such as Motivational Interviewing or Energy Tapping on yourself or ask someone to help you.
Most of us would have to admit that this isn’t the only area of our lives in which we exhibit self-defeating behavior. Mustering the energy to tackle your attitude toward required CE might just establish the successful track record you’ve needed to confront other self-improvement projects!
Can you change your outlook on life? Yes! So, why wait? As a wise person once said, “There must be a better way to go through life than kicking and screaming all the way.”
Sam Hickman, MSW, LCSW, ACSW, has since 1985 served as the Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of Social Workers, West Virginia Chapter, which organizes the nation’s largest NASW Chapter annual conference with more than 1,500 participants. Hickman and his partner-in-life, Elizabeth Kent, MSW, LICSW, began the annual Spring Conference series together in 1985 following the passage of the state’s social work licensing act, which mandated 50 hours of professional continuing education every two years for renewal of license.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Spring 2013, Vol. 20, No. 2. Copyright White Hat Communications. All rights reserved.