University of AL DC Program
Alison Bramer (third from right) and Becky Corbett (second from right) with BSW students in the University of Alabama’s Washington, DC, program.
by Alison L. Bramer, MSW, Becky S. Corbett, MSW, ACSW, and Carroll Phelps, MSW, LCSW, PIP
Social work education...shapes the profession’s future through the education of competent professionals, the generation of knowledge, and the exercise of leadership within the professional community. --CSWE Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (2012)
Leadership training and development is essential to our profession as we face the numerous challenges of the coming years. Social workers are increasingly called upon to do more with less to meet the needs of our clients—whether they are individuals, groups, or communities—in a rapidly changing world. As social work’s emerging leaders, students are in need of rigorous education and training, mentoring, and leadership development to ensure the strength of the profession and its ability to overcome these challenges.
While formal social work education has been established as the avenue through which emerging social workers receive the necessary training to become competent practitioners, social work leaders are developed when schools of social work partner with members of the community to provide a unique and tailored field practicum experience. Through a partnership that is student-centric, educators and members of the social work community are able to cultivate student leaders and, in turn, “maximize the ability of the nation’s social workers to serve their clients with competence and care” (Hoffler & Clark, 2012, p. 43). In short, by developing their leadership potential, students will have a positive impact on the lives of the vulnerable populations we serve as social workers.
Role of the School and the Community
Field education is our profession’s signature pedagogy. By providing the opportunity for a field practicum experience, the school and the community can work together to develop the leadership potential in social work students. Educating students through a structured leadership program exposes them to a wide variety of practice experiences that assure their competence and creativity as they enter the profession.
A model of this type of leadership program can be found at The University of Alabama (UA). UA offers BSW and MSW students the opportunity to develop leadership skills through field education in Washington, DC. The field practicum experience prepares students personally and professionally by exposing them to cutting edge direct service programs and policy and advocacy implementation. This intensive experience helps students obtain the knowledge, tools, and techniques necessary to be prepared candidates for employment and to succeed as viable leaders. Innovative and progressive at its inception 35 years ago, the program has grown significantly over the years through partnerships with the social work community. Creating these partnerships, ensuring exposure to all facets of social work practice, and providing mentorship in addition to the required supervision are core objectives of the leadership component of this unique field program.
It’s all about relationships. The NASW Code of Ethics (2008) details the importance of human relationships by noting that “relationships between and among people are an important vehicle for change.” Essentially, when social workers work together, the change we are able to make for individuals, families, organizations, communities, and systems is amplified. The same is true for social work education. By establishing partnerships between schools of social work and the social work community, students will be provided with the foundation to grow into leaders. This foundation includes utilizing and maximizing supervision and mentorship from experienced social workers and interacting and networking with social work leaders in innumerable roles in all levels of practice.
The goal of the field practicum experience, in tandem with classroom education, is to teach students how to establish a vision to address the profession’s future challenges. This experience prepares students for professional practice by providing them with the opportunity for meaningful personal and professional growth. While students should be ultimately responsible for their own growth, the school and community should work together to facilitate learning experiences that help students access and develop their strengths and leadership potential.
Students’ leadership growth and development into competent practitioners is maximized with the field practicum experience. However, it may be too easy for social work students to fall into the “intern” role at an agency. Here, the responsibility is on the community to ensure that students are exposed to all facets of social work practice and are given ownership over their practica.
Mentorship (Mutual Growth)
Whereas formal supervision is necessary to ensure competent practice and meet the requirements for licensure, mentorship takes the relationship one step further and focuses on personal and professional development of the student both inside and outside of the student’s current role. Community practitioners who are supervising students in the field practicum should ensure that the student is not only receiving direction regarding skills, competency, and ethics during the practicum, but is also considering the future as an established social work leader.
In addition to the weekly one-on-one supervisory sessions that are required by formal supervision, mentors also provide ongoing or fluid supervision to their students that can include daily discussions of experiences, debriefing sessions after meetings, and discussions about the student’s values and reactions to certain events. Essentially, a supervisor gives the “how,” and a mentor gives the “why” by connecting the dots for the students. Exceptional community practitioners provide supervision and create a mentoring relationship that is mutually beneficial. The person who mentors is also growing, as a result of the relationship.
You are Responsible for Your Own Intentional Growth
You—whether you are a student, educator, or social work practitioner—are responsible for your own growth. As leadership author and speaker John C. Maxwell (2012) urges, “We don’t improve by simply living. We have to be intentional about it.” A core component of the ability to develop into a successful leader is drive to become one. In clinical settings, the social worker can only help the client if the client has a motivation for change. It’s similar for developing leadership potential—you have to want to become a leader.
While students are ultimately responsible for their own growth and development, educators and practitioners can assist students with intentional growth and help them set measurable, specific goals; discover and maximize individual strengths; learn how to enhance positive traits and manage weaknesses effectively; identify and understand emotional intelligence; and develop a personal leadership style.
For a profession that is built around putting others first, it can become too easy for social workers to neglect our own growth and development. The NASW Code of Ethics states that social workers have an ethical responsibility to clients to “assist...in their efforts to identify and clarify their goals” (NASW, Ethical Standard 1.02 Self-Determination, 2008). We should also have that responsibility to ourselves.
In personal and professional development, goal-setting provides the framework for growth. Social work students should be able to effectively set measurable, attainable goals for their field practicum and future growth, and educators and community practitioners should foster an environment in which students feel comfortable and supported in their development and achievement of their goals.
Leaders know who they are. Learning about strengths, enhancing positive trainings, and identifying areas for growth effectively allow social work practitioners to have a positive impact on the lives of the vulnerable populations we serve. Educators and community practitioners should work through the classroom and the practicum to help students have a greater understanding of who they are as social workers. By knowing where they are most effective, students are able to be more impactful in their practice.
In addition to discovering personal strengths, developing an understanding of emotional intelligence is vital for social work practice. In A Dictionary of Psychology, emotional intelligence (EI) is described as the “ability to monitor one’s own and other people's emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately; and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior” (Colman, 2009, p. 244).
Why is this important in cultivating social work leaders? Clearly recognizing and understanding our clients’ and staff’s emotions are integral parts of competent practice. However, the ability to identify our own emotions is necessary for motivation and empathy. This level of emotional awareness is not only important to understand, but it’s also important to implement in interactions with clients and colleagues.
Leadership and Professional Presence
As part of recognizing and cultivating leadership potential in social work students, educators and community practitioners should also nurture the leadership style by preparing the student for professional presence. Professional presence—the integration of all aspects of professional behavior into practice—is a core tenet of effective leadership. Although well-known tips about professional presence come to mind (be on time, wear work appropriate attire), true professional presence is the ability to convey who you are and what you can contribute through your behavior.
Students trained in all aspects of personal and professional growth bring excellence to social work practice—all forms of practice. The students we educate today are the emerging leaders of our profession, and innovative leadership training will guarantee their success in creating meaningful changes in the lives of clients. By designing and implementing a structured program, social work educators can assist students in developing their skills to address clients’ needs. Tomorrow’s social work leaders—the students of today—will implement this vision and, by developing their leadership potential, students will have a positive impact on themselves, their families and community, and the lives of vulnerable populations they serve.
Colman, Andrew M. (2009). A dictionary of psychology (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Council on Social Work Education. (2012). Educational policy and accreditation standards. Alexandria, VA: CSWE.
Hoffler, E.H., & Clark, E.J. (Eds). (2012). Social work matters: The power of linking policy and practice (pp. 9-13). Washington, DC: NASW Press.
Maxwell, J. (2012). The 15 invaluable laws of growth: Live them and reach your potential. New York, NY: Center Street.
National Association of Social Workers (NASW). (2008). Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Washington, DC: NASW Press.
Bonura, S. (2006). As mentoring flourishes, so does the intern. Journal of School Counseling, 4(8).
Clark, E.J., & Hoffler, E.H. (2015). 100 ways to start smart and get ahead in your career. Middletown, DE: S2C2 Publishing.
Doelling, C. (2004). Social work career development: A handbook for job hunting and career planning. Washington, DC: NASW Press.
Alison Bramer, MSW, is the Research Manager for an association consulting firm, McKinley Advisors in Washington, DC. Bramer graduated from The University of Alabama with her MSW. During her graduate studies, she was selected to participate in the Washington, DC, Internship Program. Bramer served on the NASW Board of Directors and continues her involvement with her professional organization by serving on the NASW DC Chapter Board of Directors.
Becky Schwartz Corbett, MSW, ACSW, is a nationally recognized consultant, trainer, coach, and speaker in leadership, Producktivity®, and career development. She has 25 years of nonprofit executive management experience. Becky received her MSW and BS degrees from The University of Alabama (UA). She is President and CEO of BSCorbett Consulting, LLC, and adjunct faculty and leadership consultant for the UA School of Social Work.
Carroll Phelps, MSW, LSCW, PIP, teaches in the MSW and BSW programs at the University of Alabama School of Social Work. She is the Coordinator of the Washington, DC, Internship Program for MSW students and, most recently, the BSW Washington, DC, Internship Program. She received her MSW from the University of Alabama.