by Polly Chester, B.Soc.Wk.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard this phrase. It came from the mouth of one of my closest friends, during a discussion about assignment marks we’d just received in one of our (if I’m honest) less inspiring subjects. I considered my grade to be mediocre. I had achieved a low credit on a short reflective practice piece, and I am certain that many people would have been delighted to receive such a mark. However, seeing as my grades were usually far better, I equated this grade with failure.
I lurched between extreme self-flagellation, trash talking this particular lecturer’s teaching style, casting aspersions on the lecturer’s credentials, and above all, making assumptions about what a terrible practitioner the lecturer would have once been - because, as my dear friend said to me:
You know what they say, don’t you? Those who can’t do, teach!
“I can’t wait to get out into the field,” I thought to myself. “These marks won’t matter once I am a grown-up social worker. Marks don’t matter in the real world.”
“Marks don’t matter in the real world.” Let’s break that down. I’ve since figured out that this sentiment is true, but only to an extent. During my Bachelor of Social Work, my feelings of self-worth were directly proportionate with the marks I received. Since completing the degree, I’ve noticed a significant reduction in my stress level, which I feel is associated with a decrease in the number of circumstances during which my ability to succeed in my chosen profession is being judged by a third party.
I’d also like to add that during those moments, it had never crossed my mind that I would not make it to the “real world,” which I perceived as the world of micro practice. I’d never envisaged working anywhere other than in direct practice in mental health - or not just yet, anyway.
I am sure that the phrase those who can’t do, teach is not exclusive to the social work discipline, but from the conversations I’ve had with other students in my field, I’d say that academia is not usually the objective for most. Social work is considered to be a predominantly practical discipline and about getting your hands dirty, despite the fact that we are taught that social work occurs in micro, mezzo, and macro arenas in practical, as well as theoretical, contexts.
There were very few subjects that I encountered during my university degree that didn’t resonate with and inspire me, and I absolutely loved attending lectures. Because I was so engaged, if I did badly at something, I beat myself up about it. I found assignments challenging and inspiring, and as I learned, I felt a wonderful sense of everything falling into place - as if everything I had ever known and felt was being validated by others who felt the same ways that I did about the world. This gave me the confidence to let my social activism take flight, and gave me confidence in the career choice I had made.
Now that I have finished my degree, I can say with confidence that although the feelings of self-doubt that I experienced during my undergraduate degree have lost some of their debilitating momentum, they never fully resolve; they simply change context. My newly graduated colleagues who were also high achievers as students express similar sentiments. There was never some finite moment when the insecurity ended and relief set in, as we had expected. Some of us hypothesize that our performance anxieties are a hangover from university assessment processes, but I disagree.
I think that some people are hard-wired to be conscientious (almost to the point of martyrdom) and naturally geared toward engaging in critical self-reflection (almost to the point of masochism). I believe that these are enduring personality traits, rather than habits we can opt out of.
I don’t think I would ever have acquired a taste for research if it weren’t for the academic who led us through an introductory human services research subject in the 2nd year of university. He illustrated human services research in a way that I found so inspiring. I loved the formulaic approaches and the thought of exploring, proving, and disproving hypotheses, and how doing so would serve to improve the lives of the people with whom social workers engage. This was the first time I realized that research was a viable career option for a social worker, but I considered it something I would do much, much later in life. And always, in the back of my mind, were those five ominous words: Those who can’t do, teach.
During the last year of my Bachelor of Social Work studies, a twist of fate landed me within Griffith University’s School of Human Services and Social Work for my final field placement, where I was under the instruction of the Bachelor of Social Work program convenor. I liked her very much and respected her immensely. During my research placement, I had my first taste of research assistant (RA) work and my induction into the vast depths of the research world, and I saw a glimpse of what it would take to be an academic in the field of human services and social work. But I wouldn’t be doing that – I would be getting a job in the real world, wouldn’t I? Because we all know the truth, don’t we? Those who can’t do, teach.
During the last three months of my degree, my head spun. I had been present within the school for nearly four years, but I was blind to the breadth of career opportunities that potentially existed within it. My key area of interest is mental health policy and legislation, and I began to realize that perhaps a Ph.D. would be the most expedient route into my practice area of choice. I was also aware that the social work job market was competitive, to the point of discouraging. I was not feeling confident that I would land a direct practice role in an area that really interested me. My heart was, and still is, set upon mental health.
I’d presented a paper I’d written at the Gold Coast University Hospital Symposium on Health in the 21st Century which critically discussed the effectiveness of Federal policy and legislation that supported carers of people with serious and persistent mental illness. My appetite was whetted. I had found an area of interest - an area in which I wanted to use myself as a resource to try to make a difference in people’s lives - and I wanted to keep going with that. I wasn’t sure how I could make a difference, but was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to do it by working in a branch of human services that had nothing to do with mental health.
So as it stands, I am working as an RA on a mental health research project, teaching part time, and applying to enroll in a Ph.D. as soon as I can. Although research is hard work that leaves me exhausted, and the uncertainty around funding often feels a bit unnerving, I love what I do. And I no longer feel that I have to make any apologies for that.
The primary purpose of this piece is to dispel the rumor that those who can’t do, teach. The more people I speak to, the more I realize that starting my social work career in academia is an unusual thing to do, but not the wrong thing to do. It doesn’t mean that I will never work in the field, or that I will always work in academia or in research. What it means is that after I finish my Ph.D., I will have a broader range of career options available to me.
I urge my fellow social work students and new graduates: if you have a passion for research and academia and are offered opportunities to develop your skills in these areas earlier than you might have planned, consider taking them. There is no right or wrong way to begin your career as a social worker. Don’t be discouraged by naysayers. If you are a social worker, you take the ethics, values, and ethos of the profession with you wherever you go, and you can make a difference in any way you like.
Polly Chester is a social worker, researcher, thinker, and writer who lives and works on the Gold Coast in Australia. She is passionate about human rights, caring for the environment, social justice, social policy, philosophy, and recovery-oriented mental health practice.