I really enjoyed the debate last night and feel that I learned a great deal from it. However, I was very aware that some students felt dissatisfied with the way in which their courses were being run. I came away from the debate concerned that some people were also feeling actively oppressed by those in charge of their social work education. Some of the language about powerlessness, suffering, injustice and lack of support reminded me of the way service users described feeling when confronted with institutions like social services. So I would like to respond to some of what was said last night speaking from the viewpoint of a student and of a social work lecturer. I hope that some of what follows may be beneficial to students who feel that opportunities are being wasted in their social work education and also for those who feel that they are struggling unsuccessfully to get the social work education they had hoped for. We talk about empowerment all the time as social workers, but it is very difficult to utilize your own power when you feel powerless, exhausted, ‘dehumanised’. However, there are things that you can do to increase your chances of being listened to by those in authority.
My first suggestion is perhaps a rather strange one. Take time to look at how you are feeling, and try to understand how your treatment is affecting your ability to function and interact as you would wish to. Try and analyse what it is precisely that has made you feel like this. Is it the way others are behaving towards you? If so, what is it about their behavior that is so damaging? Is it the lack of access you have to decision-making processes? Or the fact you are being ignored or sidelined? Is it something about the fact that you are not receiving services you believe you are entitled to without any reasonable explanation being given? Resolve to learn from this experience and integrate those lessons into your future practice.
Then I suggest that see yourself as a service user and try and social work your situation.
1. Keep a journal:
This is so important. A journal can allow you to see how far you have come and the strategies you have tried. It allows an outlet for pent up feelings and can allow for a more thorough reasoned analysis of your position. After all, you are seeing things from a certain point of view and it is important to recognize what that point of view is exactly and what effect is may be having on progress. In addition a journal should be an accurate record of what has happened, what you have tried, what results you have had and what reasons you have been given for particular situations. It can be an important basis on which to draw up a chronology should that type of action become necessary.
2. Seek support for yourselves/ exercise self-care strategies:
It is really important that you have a support network to sustain you. This is a valuable resource throughout your career, and this may not be the only time when you feel that all those in power are against you, undermining you, or preventing you from doing what you think needs to be done. In addition, from some of the tweets last night, the way you describe being treated is possibly having a destructive effect on your own psychological functioning. Let us not forget how damaging stress (NHS, 2010), or insomnia (Hicks, 2012), or even learned helplessness (Peterson et al, 1996) can be. Personal and professional support can be vital, and there is no shame in accessing services that are provided by Universities to support students such as the student counseling service.
3. Think about how you can help yourselves:
Is this a situation that you can resolve without the direct assistance of the university? If you feel your course is not as academically well rounded as it could be, think about starting up study groups and going beyond the parameters of the course yourselves. In the age of the internet there is a great deal of information online that is open access. In addition, libraries now have access to a wide range of journals that can be used by students. You could perhaps team up with students from universities with a different emphasis and enrich each other’s theoretical understandings. Perhaps you could invite speakers from a different tradition to give one off lectures or be involved in debates at your college. If you were to take this on, you would be doing a great service to your fellow students and to your university as this type of networking is usually highly valued.
4. Make alliances:
I think this ties in with leadership. If there is a problem with your institution then the chances are you are not the only person being affected by it. Canvass opinion from other students – what are their experiences? What do they think can be done to improve the situation? Whether you are formally or informally representative of your fellow students, the fact of your representation is important. One student stating that the course is not delivering the training that it should be doing can perhaps be overlooked. If that one student speaks for all the students on the course then it is very difficult to minimize the issue.
5. Come to the table with solutions to make things better not just observations about what is going wrong:
We often fail at this. It can be very easy to see where things are not working, but not what they would look like if they were working. What would satisfy you and make you feel that all was well? What specific steps would improve things for you? What are you asking your institution to do? Be as detailed as possible and break what is required down into little chunks making it clear how the proposals will fit into the existing scheme of things and how much they are likely to cost. It is far easier to ignore a generalized complaint than a well thought out plan of action.
6. Ask for written feedback:
If you are met with a negative response, rather than giving up, ask for feedback in writing. This really helps to focus the mind on what can and cannot be done and why not. It can also form the basis of a further proposal from you. I think it is particularly important to ask for constructive written feedback if you are being told that you are the problem. There may be things you can learn about the way others are experiencing you that might contain valuable lessons for you in the future. In addition, thinking about how to respond may make the writer aware of the ways in which he/she is being unfair or overhasty. Once you have the written feedback try and view it as dispassionately as possible. You may often have to write difficult reports about others as social workers. What can you learn from this report. Does the writer have a point? Are there things you could be doing differently? Does the feedback change your analysis of what is going on?
7. Keep a clear written record:
This is so important where things feel as if they are not being resolved easily. If you have meetings with people, take minutes, date them and get each participant to sign a copy. Use email where possible and keep hardcopies off server. If decisions are taken make it clear who is going to carry out the decision and by when and then follow up if it has not been done. Do not let things drift.
8. Know your university complaints procedures:
These can be a very effective way of making it clear to those in the university structure that all is not well within a particular course and allowing them to rectify it.
9. Enlist the help of your student body:
I am aware that not everyone who participated in the debate was from a British institution, but here the student’s union is there to assist students who are encountering problems for whatever reason. This body has well established mechanisms for both supporting students and for communicating with those at the top of the institution. Participation in the student union is of course an effective way of leading within the student environment and of being an ambassador for social work outside the confines of the social work department. I hope that other universities have similar bodies. If not, and if it is safe for you to do so, consider starting one.
10. Seek intervention from outside the university:
This should be a last resort because it may encourage the university to actively oppose you rather than try and work with you to improve things. Universities are very protective of their reputations and may not respond well to outsiders attacking them in a public arena. However, if things are really bad then this can be an effective route to promote change, of not for you then for others who follow you at the institution. There are many different routes you could take to complain: professional associations, accreditation bodies, even a legal challenge may all be worth considering.
I am in no way minimizing the difficulties that individual students may be experiencing – my heart goes out to you, and I am sure others involved in social work education were equally saddened and outraged by your experiences. Social work education should be rigorous and challenging, yet it must also be enriching, supportive, inspiring and empowering of you as student social workers. Your training must equip you with the tools of thought and action that allow you to become the best ‘you’ possible for those you will interact with in your social work career. Those of us involved with teaching social work students are also always learning where we could do better. We need you as students, and as practitioners, to help us improve. This is a role for student leadership.
It’s very easy to talk about making lemonade from lemons. However, I do think that sometimes even negative experiences can teach us a great deal if we will let them. You could view your situation as an opportunity to develop and hone skills that you will need as social workers. Being proactive on your own behalf and that of your peers should not only improve the quality of your social work courses but it may also prepare you better for your role as advocate for service users and assist you to more fully appreciate the service user experience and perspective. In the long run, I hope you will be able to draw on these experiences positively and use them to add depth, commitment and passion to your practice as social workers.
Hicks, R. (2012) Insomnia available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/health/physical_health/conditions/insomnia1.shtml [ accessed on 20th February 2012]
NHS – National Health Service – (2010) Stress available at http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress/Pages/Introduction.aspx [accessed on 20 February 2012)