By: Denice Goodrich Liley, Ph.D., ACSW
The field practicum—the culmination of social work studies—holds varying experiences for social work students, and for some, it may in fact prove to be a challenge. Imagine, if you will, that you are selected out of all the other students who applied for the practicum of your dreams. The practicum director told you this agency would be a great placement for you, and that the field instructor was highly respected in the community. Other students who had completed their field placements with the agency described their experiences as entirely positive. However, you find yourself encountering entirely different circumstances.
At this point, you dread returning to your field practicum agency, but not so much the agency, the staff, the clients, or the work you are doing. You dread working with the field practicum instructor, and furthermore, you sense the field instructor is not all thrilled to work with you, either. There’s no open hostility, but rather, you feel an undercurrent to every contact between the two of you. You feel as though this person expects you to read her mind, and occasionally is being demeaning to you. She treats you as though you don’t know anything about being a social worker, and you sometimes wonder whether she intentionally withholds information to sabotage you. You even wonder whether it’s your competence that threatens this person. Your coping strategy has evolved to the point of the less contact the better, the quicker the better, and to communicate through other people better yet!
This whole experience is puzzling to you. This is not what you envisioned for your field practicum. You had not heard of anyone else having this type of situation with this field agency; in fact, you’d heard quite the opposite.
The first response, of course, is to wonder, “What’s going on?” You may be inclined to objectify the situation, making it a student versus the field instructor issue. It’s common for students to personalize their feelings, and to reflect on all experiences at the field agency as either good or bad. You may then reinforce this with thoughts such as, “I am okay. The field instructor is bad.” In reaction to an experience such as this, we tend to think, “It’s me…there is something about me, my age, my background, my past experiences or lack of experience, my culture, my gender, my religion, or something that the social work field practicum instructor does not like about me.” You might start comparing yourself with other students known to have been at this agency and come up with a litany of reasons why they reported a different type of experience than yours.
You begin to second-guess the situation: Second-guessing is avoidance. You second-guess whatever you think might be the root of the discomfort and distance between you and the field instructor. In reality, second-guessing only serves to increase the distance between you, the student, and the field instructor. A dance of avoidance sets in. This is the least effective approach in this situation. Frequently, this gives way to feelings of the need to escape. You might begin to think, “I need to get out of this practicum setting,” or possibly, “I need a new and better field practicum where I can learn something, be appreciated, work with someone I respect or....”
Such an escape plan might occur internally only, or a student might explore the thought of escape with classmates, trusted family or friends, and/or possibly university faculty. Alternatively, the student might experience an internal dialogue consisting of thoughts, such as, “Is it better to just wait it out or rush out immediately? Or, “Anything would be better than this!” Students consider the length of time left in field, the level of discomfort, whether they can tolerate the placement, and whether the agency is the only one that has a certain client population or is convenient. Regardless of whether the student physically stays, a psychological barrier between the student and the field instructor exists—one that at this point will only worsen.
The reality is that the field practicum instructor may have an entirely different perspective on the situation. He might view the student’s constricted interactions as the lack of self-confidence, skill limitations, a disinterest in the social work practicum, boredom, or lack of personal commitment. The field instructor might wonder, “Why did this student want to be in this setting?” The field instructor could also be seriously concerned about the student’s fit for professional practice as a social worker.
It is crucial to student development into the role of a professional social worker to explore this discomfort, rather than to avoid it or run away from it. A few strategies that could be helpful to investigate include the following:
Past Work Experiences: First, it helps to be reflective about past encounters you have had in work and volunteer experiences. In what kinds of environments did you excel? Which types of environments proved to be challenging? Have you had experiences similar to what you now experience? How did these conflicts become resolved, or did they actually become resolved at all? Did you tend to “quit” or “leave” these jobs?
Expectations of your Field Practicum: What did you expect from your field practicum? Did you have dramatically different expectations from what has proven to be the case for you? Did you see yourself as having more responsibilities, or possibly being optimistic about all that you could learn from this field instructor? Have you had expectations that were different from actuality before? Have you set yourself up to have “higher” expectations than can realistically occur?
Experiences with Other People: What were your other experiences working with others? Are you now having feelings or thoughts similar to your past work experiences? How did you handle previous challenges? What were those results? Did you expect one thing, only to be disappointed when the actual experience played out? Is the problem a disparity between expectation and reality?
Many times students’ field practicum experiences are similar to what students have experienced in the formal classroom setting. Students might avoid conflicting situations by refusing to work in groups unless forced to do so by faculty’s assignments. When group participation is compulsory, these students are sure to avoid certain people at all costs. Some students always position themselves as the leader in the group project. Other students take a passive role, taking a stance of “whatever” in order to avoid any conflict or to mediate the conflict between other group members. Some students will always try to avoid group projects, using the rationale that their lives are too complex, or that it is too hard to juggle anyone else’s schedule of work, family, living away from campus, or just preferring to work on their own. Avoidance is not necessarily in the best interest of social work students. The ability to engage in teamwork is a crucial aspect of the social work professional.
Reflect back over your life and consider this: What about this current experience is similar to any of your previous experiences? Some students have no experience working out differences appropriately and effectively. The differences they experienced may be viewed as personal, and not, in fact, have been personally owned or addressed. The resolution may have simply been that the two individuals involved simply parted ways as quickly as possible. As social workers, we find that supervisors, colleagues, and clients we work with will perhaps often display some discomfort or distance in relating to us. It is important to examine this distance to be sure it is not impeding the working relationship. Furthermore, it is crucial to address and acknowledge the distance and attempt to work to resolve anything that has become a barrier to working together. Walking away or parting as quickly as possible is not the ideal solution professionally.
It is critical to examine our personal role in interactions. An inventory of previous experiences is a helpful step, but it is vitally important when one is experiencing discomfort interacting to immediately examine the situation. What is happening specifically, and what feelings are you associating with it? Is there some aspect of your personality that tends to make you react to certain situations in a certain way? Does this situation remind you of some other person or relationship in your life? Are you audibly saying one thing, but saying something else nonverbally? Are you thinking something entirely different from what you are saying? Is there incongruence between the interaction and your feelings? Can you put words to what is actually happening versus what you are feeling?
The failure to be introspective leaves us vulnerable to readdress similar situations repeatedly. It is important to use the opportunities of the social work field experience to examine our interactional style, such as being an adult learner, how we deal with power relationships such as supervision, and whether we have a tendency to give a nonverbal message that others interpret negatively. Is approachability a challenge for us or others? What specifically is happening versus the feelings we are having? Can we remember previous similar situations? This type of introspection is key to confronting this discomfort from a personal ownership perspective, rather than as student versus field instructor.
Personality traits, communication styles, approachability, flexibility, or the way a student receives instructions or receives evaluation may be the challenge. Receiving field instructor feedback and exploring the discomfort that you experience may be a turning point in your social work education and the development of your role as a professional social worker. As a social work student, you need to risk—to explore the “undercurrents” you feel. A student may share feelings and find that the instructor had an entirely different view of the situation. Open communication and feedback make it much more likely that some resolution can occur, rather than avoidance and waiting it out for the practicum to end.
The social work field practicum provides an environment to learn. It is not merely about the actual social work practice of skill development, knowledge, and values, but the evolution of a social work student into a professional social worker. It is vital through the field practicum experience to gain some professional feedback about how others perceive us and how we operate in a variety of situations. Yes...it might be you who is the challenge in the practicum setting, but it might not be...check it out!
Denise Goodrich Liley, Ph.D, ACSW, is an associate professor of social work at Boise State University School of Social Work.
This article appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. Copyright 2006 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved. For reprint permission, contact Linda Grobman .