by Alyssa Lotmore, LMSW
The first day of field can bring anxiety and excitement. You may ask yourself a lot of questions. Am I cut out for this role? How do I make a good first impression? How can I define my role? Do I have enough experience and knowledge to even do this?
After reading those few sentences, you may think this article is going to be about a social work student’s first day of field. This segment will actually be discussing the role of the field supervisor. When I first began supervising students a few years ago, I asked myself those questions. I had a wonderful supervisor when I was a student, and I wanted to have the same positive impact on current students.
Just like students, as a field supervisor I had anxiety and excitement. I was nervous about not possessing the knowledge, skills, and teaching ability to help shape a bright-eyed student just entering the field. At the same time, I was excited about this new role that I was taking on.
A survey of longtime supervisors found that the greatest aspects interns bring to placements are a sense of optimism and enthusiasm. They believe that interns bring a new perspective, and many supervisors value the opportunity to be a part of training future professionals (Baird, 2008). Those reasons are what led me to sign up for this new role.
Despite my willingness to accept interns, I still had nerves. Only being in my mid-20s, and somewhat new to the field myself, I questioned my ability. I forgot about my high GPA during college, or that I did well at my job. I now felt this added pressure of being a role model to future social work professionals. How do I ensure that I give them the best learning opportunities and make their experience worthwhile?
I went straight to the Internet and began looking up articles about being a field supervisor. There were a few articles written over the last few years, but it all was similar, as they just went over the how-to’s to providing supervision. As important as supervision is, there is so much more that makes an internship a great learning opportunity than simply the hour of face-to-face supervision each week. I decided to revise my search and look for what students want in a field supervisor. Bingo! I found pages and pages of results ranging from articles to blogs to message boards. After some hefty reading, I discovered what I needed to do.
“Mini-Curriculum.” I took a step back from anxiety and reflected on all that I have done in my schooling and career. I knew that I was qualified to take on this role. I needed to develop my own mini-curriculum to be able to share with my interns my knowledge and what they would find valuable. I looked at all the possible learning opportunities—diversity among clients, trainings, opportunities for home visits, macro work. I laid everything out, so I could discuss with my interns what interested them and what could be used to challenge them to develop new skills.
Resources. Students are in college to learn. There is only so much a student learns in the classroom. After I graduated, the professional development trainings I attended really helped me take my ability to practice to the next level. I took to my office my binders of information and PowerPoint slides from trainings I had attended. I placed them on my bookshelf specifically for my interns to have access to. I wanted them to be able to go through the binders and see all the various training models and types of interventions that could be used. They could discuss what they were interested in with me during supervision. As much as field is a place to get hands-on learning experience, it can also be a place where educational and academic resources are available.
Open Communication. From my Google search, I found that several interns stated they were not being challenged enough. My first day with my interns, I sat down individually with each of them and asked them about their experience, their goals for this placement, and their expectations from me. I also went over my experience, my goals for them while here, and my expectations from them (and the consequences for not meeting some of the mandatory expectations). I found that sitting down and having open conversations in which we both talked and listened to each other was the most beneficial. It not only helped build our relationship, but it conveyed that I was a person who could be easily approached, even though I had authority. I also discussed advocacy with them. If they are not feeling challenged, or are not getting the experience they hoped to get, they have to speak up in a professional way. Letting your interns know that you want feedback from them helps make the students more comfortable to advocate for their needs.
Student’s View of Supervision. Research has shown that during supervision sessions, areas associated with student satisfaction are mainly issues concerning students’ practice experience. Examples of these include the practice skills used by students, types of cases and clients, ongoing performance issues, and personal strengths and limitations. The topics that were not associated with student satisfaction were discussions about administrative issues, community issues, and career plans. Students want the “direct and practical information that is going to help them become ethical and effective social workers” (Dettlaff, 2003). Topics such as career plans are wonderful to discuss, but not during supervision. Leave supervision as a time for students to discuss their practice, work in the field, and areas that need improvement.
Allow Practice Time. Much is discussed in supervision. Allow students time to practice. A supervisor must monitor interns, but being too directive hinders their ability to learn and grow. Internships can always be a learning opportunity. Some days at an internship can be uneventful in regard to clients, yet that is not a reason to assign new tasks to interns that do not meet the learning needs of the student (such as photocopying). This is another reason why I have the bookshelf with educational materials for my interns to have at their disposal when they have free time. No student wants to be bored at his or her placement. There is always a way to enhance the learning experience.
There is no start and end-point when in the professional work world. There is no minimum grade you need to achieve to pass. For interns and eventual social workers, learning is on-going, and the demand for high standards and continued learning will continue throughout your professional career. As a field supervisor, I have the opportunity to prepare the future of our profession. As with our clients, we need to empower our interns by acknowledging all the great skills they are developing and practicing. As interns, they are still learning (as we all are), so it is critical to provide feedback and discuss areas they need to work on. Being too nice and always saying that they are doing a “good job” is just as harmful as not recognizing the areas in which they are excelling.
Field supervisors have the privileged role of shaping the next generation of social workers. As graduates ourselves, we should want to give back to our college by taking on this privileged opportunity. We should come together as supervisors and share advice, resources, and experiences to gain in our own learning and continued development in this role.
Have confidence in yourself and do your best to listen to your interns and provide them with an opportunity to learn, practice, and grow. Be the supervisor that you yourself would have wanted to have when you were that bright-eyed, eager student.
Baird, B. N. (2008). The internship practicum and field placement handbook: A guide for the helping professionals (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Dettlaff, A. J. (2003). From mission to evaluation: A field instructor training program. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.
Alyssa Lotmore, LMSW, is a graduate of the State University of New York at Albany School of Social Welfare. Her focus is on social work in the educational setting.