By: Denice Goodrich Liley, Ph.D., LCSW, CSW-G
A professor I once knew posted a sign on his door that read: “People going through this door bring joy—some by coming in, others by leaving.”
As a field practicum student, which are you? Do you face the opportunity as one of joy? Will your field agency experience joy upon your completion of your practicum? Have you considered how the people at your practicum agency might describe their experience working with you? Is each practicum workweek a joy for you, as well as for those at your agency?
Some social work students perceive the field practicum requirement as just another of those classes they have to show up for; the rest is a given. Clients will come and go; the agency field instructor will make assignments and provide some supervision. The week will just happen. In fact, for some students, that attitude toward each week turns into monthly, semester, to the end of the practicum year. The requirement will be finished, checked off, and on to the real job.
Many students believe that 50% of their field practicum responsibility consists of simply showing up. In the world of education, a grade of 50% is failing—a no pass. Some students believe the remaining 50% of the grade is the field agency instructor’s and agency’s responsibility to provide educationally interesting cases, assignments to solidify their social work education, and various and assorted extra events to keep them busy with meaningful experiences. Student attitudes appear to be: “I show up, now it is up to you to do the rest.”
Agency field instructors often report that social work practicum students give little to agencies beyond showing up, that some students are unreliable, and that their commitment levels change as frequently as do the winds. These behaviors make it difficult for those agencies to feel any sense of commitment toward practicum students for future placements. They, no doubt, sigh in relief at the completion of the practicum.
The reality is that the social work field practicum requirement provides students with opportunities to hone their professional skills and to incorporate classroom course content with on-the-job experience. It’s not just busy work!
Social work field agencies accept the responsibility to provide students quality practicum experiences—learning opportunities—while, at the same time, continuing to deliver services to clients. It is a fine line for an agency to ensure that students hone their knowledge and skill base in ways that do not adversely affect clients in the delivery of services. Hopefully, maintaining that balance levels out over the course of the practicum, with greater effort at the front end of the practicum, as students build confidence, competency, and abilities, ultimately to function independently.
Social work field agencies do not typically select practicum students in the same way they select permanent employees. The expectation is that education will occur during the practicum process. Agency personnel consider the goodness of fit and the potential of the prospective social work students as they interview them for selection to field practicum. Agencies sometimes perceive potential field students as half–baked, and will try to match the remaining baking time to their field agency, hopefully to turn out a finished social work student. Social work field practicum students are not just an extra set of hands. The field agency has faith and commitment in the future of the social work students to become successful social work practitioners.
Initially, field practicum students orient themselves to their agencies: what services are available, who the clients tend to be, what resources are available through the agency, and so on. The practicum student observes and gathers information. However, a practicum student who doesn’t commit to scheduled hours or is constantly in crisis mode doesn’t have the ability to observe and apply.
That said, what does joy have to do with it? Attitude! Instead of dreading the practicum as one more hoop to jump through, what would happen if you decided to believe that your field practicum was going to be a joyful learning experience? Think about it: weeks of counting the days and hours, or weeks of creating joy for yourself and others. Joy is a choice.
Once you choose joy, you will want to develop a plan to follow through and create a joyful field practicum experience. You don’t have to go to your field agency unprepared. What do you know about the clients the agency serves? Can you relate to how people become clients or consumers of the agency? Research the agency: what types of clients it serves, services it offers, resources it utilizes, its mission statement, and its history as an agency. It is important to have a clear understanding of this agency’s standards of care, and this is a priority to coming in as a joyful student. To orient yourself in such a way establishes your foundation for a joyful practicum experience.
How have you prepared yourself for your field practicum beyond your social work courses? Are your expectations realistic? Are you excited and self-confident? Understandably, it is normal that you may feel a bit uncomfortable at the onset. After all, other employees with the agency may perceive you as the newbie. Consider, though, your agency’s employees all have working relationships with one another, and you don’t. Expect that it will take a while for you to settle in. Your goal will be to fulfill the purpose of the field practicum requirements, which again is to provide opportunities to hone your professional skills and to incorporate classroom course content with on-the-job experience. Double check your expectations; be sure they are realistic. Remember that your agency has a mission and purpose beyond your education. And, bear in mind that being joyful is a choice.
The majority of schools of social work require a minimum of an hour of weekly supervision for practicum students. However, typically, this is not the case in the beginning of field practicum. Most agency field instructors are available many hours each week to assist students to acclimate and manage those initial practicum assignments, which generally include orienting to agency services, client systems, agency workflow processes, referral to other community services or agencies, and how and when termination of services occurs. It is not unusual that social work students might have conflicting opinions about an agency’s policies and procedures (they may want more freedom or may feel they have too much freedom). Students who are joyful coming to the practicum make it a point each week to discuss the process of what they are doing at their practicum field agency, not just covering the content of how to do x, y, or z.
Every social work student who comes to an agency will be at a different level of functionality, as will the agency’s field instructor. The field instructor may have much experience or little experience with social work field students. The entry challenge for the field agency is to assist students to grasp a holistic view, considering that this may be the first actual agency work for them. Understand that you will be dealing with some ambiguity, and that time and experience will help you to fill in the blanks. Things will be less confusing eventually. Give yourself permission to feel uncomfortable for a while; be joyful that it won’t last forever!
It’s not unusual for social work students to feel that they are held to a higher standard than other employees at the field agency are. The employees may make negative comments about the agency, the clients, or their workloads. They might take long lunch hours and have frequent days off. Yet, as a social work field student, you seem be asked to always be a model social worker. Joyful students coming to an agency don’t get concerned with day-to-day politics. They focus on their educational needs and their work with the services of the agency. They do this because they do have a choice in their attitudes to create joy.
The social work field practicum is not much different from a new job. The practicum requires that you put your best work forward and demonstrate your strengths and potential as a social worker, as well as your willingness to work with others. The field practicum allows for your not knowing everything and expects that you will ask questions. Your field practicum will be destined for joy, if you as a student choose to arrive each day prepared to demonstrate your best social work skills, knowledge, and values, and to do so with joy. The field practicum is designed to be the joyful experience of your social work education, but much of the joy is determined by what you put into it. Don’t be the student who is joyful upon leaving! Let the field agency experience the joy of you working in the agency.
Denice Goodrich Liley, Ph.D., LCSW, CSW-G, is an associate professor at Boise State University School of Social Work in Boise, Idaho. She is a licensed clinical social worker, certified in clinical gerontology, and has more than 30 years of clinical social work practice. Her areas of expertise are end-of-life care and decision making, gerontology, and social work education, primarily field practicum. Dr. Liley is on CSWE’s Advisory Board for Social Work Field Education. This article continues a series of articles by Dr. Liley on field placement.