By: Denice Goodrich Liley, PhD, LCSW, CSW-G
Are you fit enough? Do you have the stamina to endure your social work field practicum experiences? You probably haven’t given these questions the faintest consideration, because, let’s face it, they are not commonly the questions we associate with beginning a field practicum. More pressing questions might be related to the type of agency to which you will be assigned, the clientele you might encounter at the social work practicum, the size of agency, and so forth. However, it might be wise to pause and take stock of a few things that might make your field practicum a more rewarding and fulfilling experience.
Consider for a moment, if you will, what your school/work/family/community schedule already looks like. Is your week already too full? Do you frantically struggle each week to finish up last week’s commitments, as the calendar rolls over into next week? What will your life look like when you add your social work field practicum to all of your other commitments? Will your week accommodate another 15 to 20 hours of practicum? If your weeks are already too full, what will have to give in order to fit your field practicum in? Will you have to give up sleeping, too?
Just for the sake of amusement, let’s imagine that all your commitments do fit into a regular week, but no spare time is left. Realistically, what commitments can you give up or reprioritize to fit the field practicum in? As a reminder, you more than likely will have classes to attend for concurrent social work courses.
Reality check! Do you really think you can continue to work that 40-hour work week, be an active member of your family, and meet your community commitments? Just how many balls can you juggle before there are too many to keep them all in the air? What will give?
These are very realistic questions you will need to consider prior to beginning your field practicum.
The practicum is the opportunity for social work students to demonstrate their competency to practice social work professionally. The field practicum provides a hands-on-environment approach to demonstrate, try on, and adjust social work learning. If students treat the practicum as something they just simply need to show up for and go through the motions, then that is probably all they will get out of it. It is hard work, paired with classroom learning. For most students, their social work field practicum is the most demanding part of their professional education, as well as the most rewarding.
Some students would describe their life as a balancing act or juggling routine, perpetually putting out fires. Their life resembles a teeter-totter: one aspect of their life is up and going well, while the other area is down, resting maybe, or sitting on a shelf somewhere, waiting for time and attention. Sometimes those items on the shelf or lying in wait rear their ugly heads and jump on the teeter totter, throwing everything else helter skelter. At the least, it is most difficult to maintain a perfectly balanced teeter totter.
Practicum stamina is very important. The shape one is in plays a pivotal role in a student’s social work field practicum. Consider for a moment the intensity of the practicum. You will be adding to your life an extremely demanding and active learning environment where—if you are not already doing it—you will soon learn the art of juggling
Are you emotionally prepared to engage with clients? Or will you be so overwhelmed that it will be difficult to maintain professional boundaries? Will you go all mushy and mix your stuff with their stuff?
Can you guarantee that you will be mentally alert? Will you be on the mark? Or will the train have left without you? Will you be focused and be present with the client, wherever that takes you?
Frequently, social work field placements are in settings involving vulnerable populations. You will, perhaps, be exposed to germs, viruses, or illnesses you’ve not previously encountered. A practicum student whose schedule is seriously overextended tends to be one whose immune system might be compromised.
You will have the opportunities each week to choose what your priorities will be: classes one week, family next week, homework another week, and practicum—what? Every fourth week? Does this sound like a recipe for success?
Consider your SHAPE for Practicum
- S Stamina Are you prepared to go the distance? This is a long commitment.
- H Health Are you healthy? How are you going to keep yourself healthy?
- A Attitude How will you approach your practicum?
- P Psyche Is your mind an open flexible can? Are you open to learning?
- E Endurance Can you go the distance with success?
Being in SHAPE means:
- S Successful, sensitive, scrupled, sincere, safe.
- H Heartfelt, healthy, happy, helpful.
- A Accepting, alternatives, appropriate, ally.
- P Physical shape, purposeful, priorities, pleasing.
- E Emotionally sound, empathic, energetic, enriching, earnest, embracing, engaging.
Consider that the cost of not being in SHAPE leaves a person feeling:
- S Sluggish, sleepy, slow, shifty, slacker, screwball!
- H Half-hearted, (half “anything”), hurried, hoping to end early, and horrible!
- A Asleep, apathetic, airhead!
- P Pessimistic, perplexed, problematic!
- E Emotionally absent, emotionally withdrawn, emotionally empty!
The shape you will be in for your practicum is a choice. What will your shape be? Will it be a Goodness of Fit? How do you choose your shape for your practicum to be? Can you maintain your shape? For how long?
There is a huge payoff for a positive practicum. Most frequently it is from the social work field practicum that students find professional employment or contacts that lead to early entry-level positions. Demonstrating competency in the field practicum is not just about going through the motions.
A mature social work student knows what, when, and how much one can handle. Not only is it vital in the social work field practicum, but also in life. Setting boundaries is crucial. Knowing that one cannot do everything and do it all well, as well as knowing it is appropriate for an individual to say no in order to stay focused on priorities, is a necessity. The social work field practicum is where one demonstrates the professional nature of social work education. Being FIT is essential for a successful social work field practicum.
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 begins a series of articles by Dr. Liley on field placement.