The first thing that came to mind when I started thinking about why I became a social worker was, ‘different reasons at different times.’ It’s a developmental journey. Early on, I related to young people because I was young myself. Later I became interested in the application of the practical skills and theories of social work. And following on from that, I have become interested in developing academic knowledge and professional training of future social workers. But the development continues. I realize that I am still becoming a social worker. My use of the well known phrase from Carl Rogers is my acknowledgement that social work practice is for me, and I believe should be always, a work in progress.
At first, I was influenced by the stories my mother told from a group home for teenagers where she worked, not as a social worker, but as a bookkeeper. Still, through her work stories, I was exposed to the world of young people, my age who, for various reasons, could not live with their parents. My mother talked mainly about how much she enjoyed spending time with the young people when they came to the office for their counselling sessions. And maybe I saw some of the similarities to my own adolescence in their stories.
Next, through gaining a job as a residential worker at the group home while I was in college, I further developed my understanding and empathy for young people in difficult circumstances. I also realised that I myself was vulnerable when one of the residents threatened me. I began to study psychology and those Rogerian ideas of empathy and genuineness took on practical value. I thought that those were the qualities I would like to bring to whatever work I did, and that they were especially helpful in my work at the group home.
My 15 –year old self looks at me now with raised eyebrows when he sees that I have become a social worker. He still thinks of the time when my parents took him and my sister with them for family counselling. I explain to him that it has been my experience of getting help myself that has motivated me to give help to others.
My next step in becoming a social worker was getting a psychology degree. After that, I got a job in a family service agency as a caseworker with families at risk of having children go into care. I had the opportunity to work with several skilled Master’s level social workers. They taught me that social work at its best listens to young people, to parents, to vulnerable people, and allows them their own voice. Social work at its best asks people what they think the solutions are to their problems, and recognizes that we all have our own solutions with us all the time.
The social work skills I saw these mentors of mine use could produce a calm and productive conversation with an upset parent or young person. These skills could manage an unruly group of disagreeing professionals, young people, or even staff members. The practical skills of social work helped professionals reflect on, understand, and improve their work. I wanted to have those skills, because I could see how helpful they could be to just about anyone, but particularly to vulnerable people or people in distress.
When I was working at a community mental health clinic in New York State as a student social worker I was confronted with a client who talked about the idea of drinking several beers and driving off a bridge. That brought home the responsibility of becoming a social worker, that social work is a serious job. And when that client got better from counselling with me, that’s when I realized that I could do it. There have also been times when I have needed help myself. Then I had my own social worker – a clinical social worker trained in counselling. I got to know what it feels like to get help, the vulnerability and powerlessness. And also, the relief.
Social work at its best also knows its limits and why sometimes you need the police or the courts to protect children and vulnerable people. Social work is not naïve – neither is it cynical.
Now, as an experienced social worker, I have observed the application of theory at work. Social work at its best uses theory to create understanding and avoid blame. Theoretical approaches help social workers be not just a conscience, but a guide. The social work theoretical approach of Person In Environment exemplifies the idea of the fit between person and environment, taking into account all those factors that people can’t control but that affect them nonetheless. Theory allows social workers to be strength based, to understand the impact of attachment and to see the family (and indeed themselves) as part of a larger system.
Becoming a social worker allows and (in some cases demands) that I continually challenge myself to grow and learn. As a team manager, I reflect on my relationships with the social workers I supervise. I try to build those relationships with the same skills I use to build relationships with clients. Becoming a social worker is a job where the skills of working with clients are the skills of working with colleagues, and are the skills that an organization needs to take care of it’s social work staff.
A colleague of mine says that if you ever feel like you have all the answers in social work, its time to find another job. It’s then that you stop becoming. Social work is a skilled professional job. It is a creative job. It’s about always becoming.
Join us on World Social Work Day (Tuesday, 20-March-2012) at 8:00 PM GMT / 4:00 PM EDT to discuss and explore the “Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development” in a rich and lively Twitter Debate @SWSCmedia.
Tim Odell, MSW is Team Manager, Children with Disabilities Team of a Local Authority.