By: Denice Goodrich Liley, PhD, LCSW, CSW-G
You breathe a sigh of relief. At last, you’ve settled into your field practicum. You feel as though you have the lay of the land. You know where your desk is, where the restrooms are, who the clients are, and who is staff. And you feel you have a fairly good sense about what the agency does, in general. It is not like you have been there forever, but the agency staff no longer asks if you need help each time they see you. It feels as though things are moving along quite well. Smooth sailing, you think. You’re gathering more experience, more opportunities to learn and to work...yet you feel as though a black cloud is hanging over your practicum experience.
One of the social workers with this agency is newly employed. As it happens, this person only recently graduated from the same school you presently attend. He or she, too, did a field practicum in this same agency, and was then hired.
Initially, the two of you quickly struck up a friendship. After all, there were so many common threads. The social worker appears so eager to be helpful to you and to explain what’s going on with you, your clients, and the agency. However, to you it feels as though the friendship rapidly has engulfed each and every aspect of your practicum. You have that nagging feeling that this has become something more than just a friendship.
It feels as if this new-found friend has assumed the role of being your self-appointed supervisor (aka: SAS). You are not quite sure when, why, how, or what happened, but suddenly it seems that SAS knows what is best. Your SAS tells you how you should do XYZ and what ZYX means. You begin to feel as though your SAS can read your mind before you can.
You are supposed to feel blessed that the SAS shares his or her vision about what is happening, should happen, or might happen. SAS has assumed an air of authority, a knowing expertise. There is no need for you to question or to seek information elsewhere, so you will have a better idea next time the situation arises. SAS says everything with a tone of authority, not just as one individual’s perspective. It is a rare moment that you are left to wonder, ponder, or question. SAS hovers with an ever-ready answer, even when you don’t have a question.
When you begin working on an assignment your supervisor has given you, SAS is there. SAS takes over, framing his or her action as “helping you.” This, you realize, interferes with your learning process, which evolves by way of your fumbling through options, strategies, potential processes, and stumbling through the steps to complete the assignment. You are prevented from making any learning mistakes or questioning any of the things that need to be done, because the work (thinking, acting, and reflecting) is done for you. Your seemingly helpful SAS has usurped your learning experience. Your supervisor for acclimating to the agency and your work is quick to compliment you. However, you have an uneasy feeling that something is just not quite right.
SAS frames his or her help as watching over you. You think, Why do I need watching over? You ask, Am I not capable of doing the work at this practicum? Or are there some really mean or bad people I need to be protected from? You begin to question what kind of message you are sending out.
The situation with this SAS begins to raise self doubt regarding your functioning at the social work field practicum site. This seems almost crazy to you. After all, this person only wants to help me. Is that so bad? Whose issue is it? Maybe as a student, I am just feeling too much ownership. Maybe this is how teams work. Many other thoughts come to mind. You seem to feel more insecure than you did before beginning your practicum!
An Outsider’s View of SAS’s Actions
The SAS may feel that he or she has more in common with you as a social work field student than with peers at the agency. In some ways, beginning a job has many similarities to being a student. The SAS’s friendship with you may well be genuine. SAS may truly believe that he or she is being helpful to you. In reality, SAS was just recently a student, a successful student–got hired! Perhaps SAS hasn’t comfortably settled in with the new job responsibilities.
SAS may feel that peers still view him or her as an inexperienced professional. The SAS could believe that it is safer to display confidence and know-how and how-to with a student than it is with one’s peers. SAS may not know just what the role of new social worker is, as opposed to being a social work field student. A successful student role is much more comfortable.
SAS might feel that agency peers perceive him or her as immature and, possibly, not self confident with the new role and position in the agency. It is not threatening to assume the position of leader with a student who is viewed as a closer peer relationship. SAS is at ease as head of the peer pack. Remember, SAS was successful as a social work field practicum student. There is less risk directing a student around than interacting with more seasoned social workers in the agency.
Your Perspective of Your Actions
Undoubtedly, you are filled with question after question. What did I do to cause this? Did I appear incompetent? Did I ask for too much help? Or am I being too sensitive? Maybe this is not even what I think is happening.
SAS appears to know everyone, to be in good standing with all the staff, and gets along great with everyone. You don’t want to rock the boat and be viewed in a negative light.
SAS was a student in the agency and was hired. You think: I need to watch, observe, and do everything the same, so I, too, can become employed. SAS was viewed as competent, was well liked, and got hired. Who am I to question the help? You play it over and over in your head. The bottom line is: Whose issue is it? Am I being too sensitive? To whom can I talk about this? Should I even be concerned? By being concerned, am I weird?
Strategies for Addressing the Challenge
Admit that a challenge exists. Recognize that you don’t feel comfortable with the situation as it exists and that a change is needed, if you are to have a successful social work field practicum. As a student, identify a clear picture of what you see as the challenge. Write out what you see happening, and describe the events of the day. As you describe the events, associate the feelings and emotions that you feel as the day plays out. How do you feel before you get to the agency? What happens as soon as you walk through the door? When you begin your work at the agency, when and how does SAS become involved in your work? Attempt to identify at what point the SAS initiates the role of your confidante, expert, and the answer to your success as a practicum student.
Some questions to consider are: Is there a close physical proximity to where both your desks are? Are the caseload or work assignments performed in a team manner or by individuals? Does your supervisor expect that you will go to SAS first or to another staff social worker if you have questions? Is your direct supervisor so busy that you don’t want to bother him or her, so the SAS is an easier source of help? Or are you intimidated by the direct supervisor and feel that SAS is more approachable?
Attempt to get as clear a picture as possible of your day’s scenarios in your mind and down on paper—the interactions, the facts, the feelings and emotions, the interactions, who initiates what, and so forth. Once you feel you have a good handle on that, then it is time to consult with your faculty field liaison at the university. The social work field liaison may have insights to share with you regarding SAS. Chances are that the faculty liaison may have been the supervisor of SAS’s field practicum, too. The faculty liaison may know the agency supervisor and have previous experiences with the agency. The faculty liaison’s history and experience may be helpful in grounding the experience you are encountering now.
The faculty liaison may suggest that you ask your classmates in a field seminar class to help you problem solve. This can be especially helpful if the seminar class runs concurrently with the practicum. Other students may share similar concerns with their practicum agency personnel. This approach assumes that many heads are better than one. It is also important that you, as a student, feel support and validation that this is not all your problem or something that is only happening to you.
Whether you work with just your faculty liaison, or with faculty and peers, this is a very important learning opportunity. There will be other times in your professional life when you will need to work with boundaries. The social work student role often is very “squishy,” and it can be unclear where and how authority works within the agency. It won’t always feel clear to you to whom you should go and to whom you directly answer. The SAS is confusing roles and authority, as well as muddying the water for you as a student.
You can use your peers and faculty liaison to role-play ways to handle the situation to provide you with a more autonomous role as a social work field student. It is vitally important that you empower yourself to talk with SAS about your feelings and what you perceive to be happening. It is important to acknowledge the help and assistance of SAS, but it is also important to point out your need to try to work more independently.
Your first line of attack is not to talk with your supervisor and ask him or her to rescue you. There will be many more opportunities for you as you progress in your social work career to define your boundaries and to help other individuals with their boundaries. This situation should be approached as a win-win both for the SAS as a competent new social work employee, and for you, as a new social work field student. The goal is for both of you to succeed.
It is key that you keep in mind that this is YOUR field practicum experience. You need the opportunities to struggle and question, so that when you are successful, you can feel the victory!
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.
This article is from the Spring 2010 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. Copyright 2010 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved.