By: Nicholas Rutledge, MSW, QCSW
Social work students sometimes experience some dissonance between classroom instruction and field education. New social workers frequently struggle with what they are prepared to do versus what they are expected to do. What’s at the heart of this issue, and what can be done about it?
When I was in graduate school, I had a poignant conversation with one of my advising professors. I asked him why the course in psychopathology was an elective in our MSW program and not a requirement. From my perspective, every social worker, regardless of concentration, should have exposure to mental disorders, clinical assessment, and diagnosis. He responded, “Graduate school is education, not training.” I pondered his words and continue to do so to this day. I struggled with the difference between the two, as I felt strongly that getting an MSW should equip one with the knowledge (education) to apply skills (training) learned in the program. He told me that the reality of the profession is that most MSWs will graduate to take a job in an agency setting, becoming a “cog in a wheel.” That’s where we learn to “do” social work. The message he was trying to convey was that the advanced generalist model is meant to prepare students with what they need to be effective in a variety of social work roles. This I agreed with, but I remained confused for some time.
Today, I am a trainer, a classroom instructor for the Child Welfare Training Academy at the DC Child and Family Services Agency. CFSA is the state-level child welfare authority for the District of Columbia. My job bears a striking resemblance to that of a professor teaching in a college or university setting. Every 30 days, we receive a new class of 10 to 20 trainees who participate in a 2-month curriculum that includes didactic classroom instruction combined with applied professional training experiences. Trainees come from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of professional social work experience. Some of them are new MSW graduates with little practice experience. Some have years of experience in different fields, such as gerontology, supervision and management, macro practice, and private clinical practice. Academy faculty are charged with delivering an integrated curriculum that acknowledges and validates the richness and quality of this experience while ensuring that pre-service training imparts the basic principles and processes of effective child welfare practice using the language and philosophy of the agency practice model.
One challenge the Academy faces is that training has to be foundational, because once trainees complete the curriculum, they then transfer to their respective administrations and engage in different aspects of child welfare practice: child protective services, in-home services, foster care and adoption, and youth development. The individual jobs they are tasked with vary greatly in their day-to-day work. Thus, I sometimes get the question, “Why doesn’t training better prepare us for what we’re going to do when we get to our desks?” And so I find myself revisiting the conversation I had with my professor back in graduate school: “Graduate school is education, not training.” But I am in training and find myself faced with a similar issue years after the fact.
Of course, it’s impossible to train each and every new employee for his or her specific job duties and functions. Teaching trainees how to conduct a CPS investigation is completely different from completing home studies and adoption plans for court, or applying for transitional housing for a youth-in-care. The child welfare universe is simply too vast. We can, however, provide the foundational knowledge, common language, and critical thinking skills that facilitate the clinical decision-making and case conceptualization that is at the heart of effective evidence-based child welfare practice.
So I’ve found my answer to the dilemma I experienced with my professor’s philosophical approach in grad school: the social work universe is simply too vast. Of course, we can’t be taught or trained to do everything. How would we ever become really good at doing anything? So if you’re a social work student struggling with a similar issue in your field placement, a new graduate just beginning your professional career, or even a seasoned practitioner who may have recently joined a new agency and switched to a new field of practice, here are some tips and pointers on how to make your workplace (or field placement) work for you.
It’s All About the Clients
And don’t ever forget it. Say it to yourself every day. Write it on a piece of paper, stick it on your wall, make it a screen saver on your computer at work. When the going gets tough and you’re tired and frustrated, when you’re aggravated with your boss (and it will happen!), when fiscal affairs at the agency are tight, when things seem to be getting a little too political, or when emotions and tensions in a staff meeting run high, remember who you’re there for and why you do the work that you do. This little nugget has been the saving grace for many a social worker, myself included.
We hear it all the time in social work. But this tried and true “how-to” will be invaluable as you embark on your new journey or your recently discovered detour. Rigidity in education and work can lead to immense dissatisfaction, which in turn negatively affects the quality of your educational experience or the services you provide to vulnerable populations and will quickly lead to burn-out. What are your strengths, and how can you capitalize on them within an often fast-paced and uncertain environment? Our work is difficult, and it will never get any easier. Make it fun and look for the abundant humor that life has to offer every day.
Just Be Helpful
One of the most significant things I’ve learned in my career as a social worker is the value and power of just being helpful, and not just to your clients. Whether it’s your supervisor who’s asking you to do something that might fall under the “other duties as assigned” category, or a receptionist who needs a helping hand grabbing refreshments from her car for a board meeting, just be helpful. It will be returned in kind, it will highlight the value you add to the agency, and it will facilitate personal and professional networking opportunities that will be valuable across your career.
Know What You Need and Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for It
I had colleagues in graduate school who had absolutely horrible experiences in their field placements because they didn’t take charge of their education, they didn’t own it, and they took no responsibility for the quality of their experience. They let their education direct them, not the other way around. They didn’t speak up, and they didn’t invest time into investigating what types of classes or field experiences would ultimately move their career in the direction they wanted to go. They were stagnant. So while I was observing forensic interviews of children, preparing kids for court testimony, participating on multidisciplinary teams, or running a therapy group for abusive parents, some of my friends were at Good Will folding clothes all day.
Figure out what it is you want to do and reach out for it. This doesn’t just apply to education and field work. It works for training, as well. In your workplace, I’m sure there are a number of committees, task forces, work groups, or other activities that you could potentially find yourself involved in if you simply express an interest. Keep things interesting. Pursue opportunities that capitalize on your strengths and those things you feel are important. I have loved every field experience and every job I’ve ever had, because it was what I wanted to do. I took charge of my experiences. I found the work engaging and interesting. Be proactive, not stagnant. Take ownership and control of your career direction. Which brings me to my next tip.
Commit to Professional Development and Life-Long Learning
What we know about social work practice is different today than it was ten years ago, even five years ago. Times are always changing, and the profession is always evolving. I’m sure each of you have a particular population, practice area, or social issue that you’re especially interested in. Go for it! Engage in every opportunity to immerse yourself in what’s going on in professional social work, and continue it for a lifetime.
In the same way that you must take charge of your learning while in college or grad school, you have to also take charge of your professional development in the workplace. Are there additional licenses or certifications that interest you? Certain training courses or conferences that you’d really like to attend? Certain newsletters or journals that might help you do your job more effectively? There are lots of resources out there, and many of them are free. Talk with your advisor, your field instructor, or your supervisor. Develop a professional development plan at every job you ever take, and hold yourself to it. Trainings and CEUs aren’t just about maintaining licensure—they’re about a commitment to making sure that you’re providing the most efficient, effective services you can to the people that you serve. Professional development is about good public service.
We can’t expect our degree programs, our field experiences, or our employers to do all the work for us. Take the initiative and advocate for yourself and your educational and training needs. Continue to investigate and explore everything about social work that makes it interesting and meaningful to you. Advance in your career. Become a resident “expert” on something. You’ll be glad you did, and you’ll learn so much more than you thought you could.
If you remember that it’s all about the clients, maintain flexibility and a helpful attitude, if you know what you need professionally and you advocate for it, if you commit yourself to lifelong learning to better serve and support the vulnerable populations you work with, then I assure you, you can make your degree program, field placement, or workplace work for you. Take charge of your profession, take initiative for your career, and take care of yourself.
For More Information
Below are some Web sites that offer free online training opportunities from reputable sources, primarily in the fields of child welfare, mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Many provide free CEUs (check with your state social work board’s CEU requirements to determine how many online hours you may receive credit for and which distance education providers are approved in your state) and printable certificates of completion. Several offer supplemental materials, such as handouts, PowerPoints, and PDF-format handbooks.
I hope you find these resources helpful as you commit to providing effective quality services to vulnerable populations throughout your social work career. Enjoy!
Child Abuse and the Law
Domestic Violence and Child Abuse
National Child Advocacy Center Online Training Library
Substance Abuse and Child Welfare
Child Welfare and Mental Health
Trauma and Attachment
Nicholas Rutledge, MSW, QCSW, has worked in child welfare and mental health for 10 years. He has extensive experience in child and youth residential treatment settings, forensic social work, crisis intervention, and child and family mental health. He is currently a trainer for the Child Welfare Training Academy at the DC Child and Family Services Agency. He received his MSW from the University of Alabama.