By: Kaila Williams
During orientation, every student is introduced to the expectations of the school, the internship, and the social work profession. I was no different from any MSW student—being thrown process recordings, state laws, academic honesty, and APA style. I was fully willing and prepared to take on all these responsibilities and begin my coursework as a master’s student. That being said, I wasn’t expecting to begin advocating for myself on my first day. I discovered I would not only have to develop my Learning Contract, but also know and demand tasks designed for an MSW student from my field supervisor. This concept is difficult to comprehend and virtually impossible to implement when we, as students or even Americans raised in a capitalist society, have been taught at a very young age to not question authority and to essentially “know your place.”
Throughout my internship, I thought I was implementing this concept, but in reality, I was only participating on a superficial level. I went through my field placement much like I had every other job—with a subordinate attitude. As such, I was missing critical aspects of what a foundation student should be learning, such as knowing when to trust your instincts in what cases you can handle and when to ask for help. I felt emotionally exhausted. I did everything my supervisor asked of me, yet I still wasn’t getting the acknowledgment I felt I deserved. Every week when I went to supervision, I felt as if I was going to battle with my supervisor—explaining my actions and why I didn’t do something the way she thought I should have. My perceived view of supervision was very different. It centered around a discussion with my supervisor about the challenges I experienced with my clients and the way I implemented the skills I would learn in class.
Tension began to build between my supervisor and me. I began to think of my field placement as a place with unspoken expectations that I would never quite reach. This tension rose rapidly until it came to a screeching halt during my midterm evaluation. I remember one particular area of critique my supervisor gave me: she wanted me to contact the families of my clients more, so I would gain a more holistic understanding of them. This was especially frustrating for me, because she had told me on several occasions that I wasn’t “ready” to contact the families. Even though this infuriated me, I still did not say anything. I was stuck on the subordinate attitude.
Later that week, I finally got up enough courage to mention this to my supervisor. Her response was to simply advocate for myself. She told me that if I felt I could handle it, I should say something. So many questions were going through my head as she said this: How was I supposed to know how to advocate for myself? How was I supposed to know what I am and am not ready to do? What is the point of a supervisor if not to tell me these things? As I was running through all these questions, I kept thinking back to orientation and my school’s expectations for me to advocate for myself.
This was probably one of the most important conversations I had with my field supervisor. It changed the way we related to each other. It made those unspoken expectations spoken, and it ultimately led to a more constructive intern-supervisor relationship. Although I am grateful I eventually came to this realization, I could have been so much further in my learning if I had been given a little more guidance and structure during the first month at my internship. I knew the school expected me to advocate for myself at my field placement, but this had only been a concept and nothing I had brought into actualization. As a new student to social work, I needed a spoken conversation about my supervisor’s expectations of me—not the everyday case management expectations, which I thought this concept implied, but my supervisor’s expectations from me as a student intern. In addition, a supervised session or two in conflict resolution in an internship setting and how/when to advocate for yourself at your field placement would have been helpful in making the transition to a social work student. Regardless of who your students are or their personalities, this conversation needs to be made formal.
In addition, field instructors need to structure supervision in a way that will begin to transition the student from a subordinate state of mind to an advocacy state of mind. This should be done much in the same way that social workers speak to their clients (i.e., sitting next to each other instead of across from each other and changing accusatory language such as, “Why haven’t you done this?” to “Could you explain your thought process during this interview?”).
Another helpful practice to use is constructive criticism. I know this might seem obvious, but it is surprising how many students have told me they only received good or bad criticisms. Supervisors need to acknowledge the good skills used during an interview, indicate the progress of the student since his or her first interview, and note the improvements that could be made during every supervision session. Without an equal balance of all of these skills, students will often feel as if they are either not improving or do not see the multiple skills that can be used during interviews. An example of this could be pointing out a skill used during an interview and having the student explore what the interview would look like if a different skill was used.
By changing these few things in supervision, supervisors can facilitate a social work student’s transition from the expectations of what they were culturally taught about being a student (the “teacher knows best” attitude) to the expectations of a social work student (the “advocate for yourself” attitude). This will ultimately lead students to engage and take necessary steps in the journey to becoming a social worker.
Kaila Williams is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. She received a B.S. in psychology and sociology from Jacksonville University and has a wide variety of experience from working on the Outreach Committee for National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week to her current specialization in working with aging adults. She integrates her unique skills learned through dance, yoga, marketing, and research to bring a new light to the practice of social work.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER magazine, Summer 2013, Vol. 20, No. 3. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 White Hat Communications.