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What Does your Name Tag Say?

Supporting social work practicum students in your work setting has multiple benefits. It contributes to building a foundation for professional practice. You not only have the opportunity to contribute to the development of safe, ethical and competent future practitioners of the profession but you will also have the opportunity to learn and discover from the students about what may have changed in social work education and be brought up to date with current research in the field. Please read the following, from Lucki Kang, Field Education Co-ordinator and Co-chair of the CASWE National Field Education Committee, regarding the benefits and challenges of supervising a student. Lucki also highlights what some may consider to be the ‘watering down’ of our profession through the use of various titles other than Social Worker. The Social Workers Act provides for the legal use of this title and as she so aptly points out, let’s proudly own it and use it in our professional realm.

Forward by Chelsea Cooledge

What Does your Name Tag Say?

By Lucki Kang, RSW

Mental health worker? Therapist? Counsellor? Facilitator? Case manager?, Program manager? Clinical Supervisor?  Clinician? Youth Care Worker? …. or perhaps Social Worker?

We are Social Workers…

We engage in areas of practice such as mental health, therapy, counselling, facilitation, case management, program management, community development and much more.  Should we be asking ourselves why we as a profession are not advocating for the title of Social Worker and why we are allowing systems to provide us with other titles that they may think are more socially acceptable?
Imagine having an opportunity to share your definition of social work.  What might it be?  How can we, as a profession, take an active role in profiling the strength and value of our profession for what it is and dispel the public myths that we just take children away? Although protecting children is a pivotal and very important part of our work, we are educated to do much more.  Let’s start with defining social work and naming our skills rather than limiting ourselves by defining ourselves by saying we ‘help’ people.  We are a unique profession guided by a Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice.  Owning our title and articulating what and how we go about our work is important.

Social Work is a regulated profession that is deeply rooted in social justice where we assess and address the oppression faced by individuals, groups and communities while using a strengths-based and person-in-environment perspective.  We engage in leadership skills of teamwork, collaboration, and creativity to bring about social change.  We do this through education and awareness building, community development, clinical work at the individual and group levels, navigating systems, analyzing policy and advocacy. Social workers require undergraduate and graduate University degree credentials.

We all have a professional responsibility to advance the profession and can do this in many ways. As Social Workers, we have all completed supervised field placements through our formal education. National accreditation bodies outline clear standards for the provision of field education and provincial regulatory bodies have developed clear Standards of Practice supporting Continuing Professional Development and mentorship of students.

There is a recognition that the field of Social Work is diverse with qualified social work graduates taking on many roles.  Social Work accreditation standards require field instructors: to have a Social Work degree at the undergraduate or graduate level; practice experience in the social work field for a minimum of 2 years; and, to have met the criteria for registration with the provincial regulatory body. Those of us who do not have a work-based title of ‘Social Worker’ are welcomed to provide field instruction to social work students if the criteria are met.  Universities are keen to hear from you as students have much to learn from Social Workers who practice social work in diverse areas.

Social work field education has been based on the principles of service with an expectation for qualified social workers to give of their time freely as part of their professional responsibility as do other professions. The model that has historically been used for social work field placements is individualized where one student is placed with one social worker. It is often reported that most social workers remember their learning in the field placement with it often being referred to as the signature pedagogy of social work education.

With such a strong commitment to education and collaborative practice, why then, is it so challenging for Social Workers to provide field instruction to students?  Is it that Social Workers feel they don’t have the skills or confidence to mentor or is it that systems that they work in are limiting their ability to engage in mentorship of students?

There is a current crisis in field education resulting in an imbalance between the number of field placements available and an increasing number of students being admitted to University Social Work programs.    Although we have all had to complete field placements to qualify for our degrees, there appears to be a disconnect as Social Workers in practice are not putting their names forward to mentor students.  In fact, it has become very challenging for University programs to recruit qualified Social Workers to provide field placement learning opportunities that meet accreditation standards. The field has shifted to individualized practice with Social Workers experiencing increased demands in the workforce, higher caseloads, and they are faced with organizational policies and procedures that limit the ability for social workers to provide mentorship and supervision.

With these increased demands in the field, Universities often hear from practitioners that there is an expectation for social work students to enter their field placements prepared with a strong practice foundation as there is not the time in the field to invest in basic practice skills.  The challenge is that students enter their post secondary education journey with varying degrees of life and professional experience.  University Social Work academic courses tend to focus on the development of the theoretical foundation of the profession leaving the practice based learning to the field placement which, in fact, comprises between one third and one quarter of the core social work curriculum. The reality in the field has shifted the learner centered intent of the field placement to more of a job readiness expectation and the development of potential employees.  The placement is often viewed as a lengthy orientation to the job with a need for students to have a higher level of preparedness for practice prior to entering the field placement; this has affected the number of placements available to students.  We must remember that field placements are part of the core social work curriculum to ensure student development of practice based skills, to foster critical thinking and develop reflective practice at a deeper level.

Supervising students can be challenging as it can be a different focus than the Social Worker’s own experience of supervision from a management, disciplinary perspective. Perhaps it is time to use our strengths of creativity and flexibility to review the feasibility of the current models of field education and explore alternate models of field education to build capacity in Social Workers to collaboratively mentor students.

As we invest and commit ourselves to the future of the social work profession, we are encouraged to think outside the box, or, like there is no box, and reach out to University Social Work programs in your communities to collaborate and share your innovative ideas to engage in field education and develop your capacity to teach, mentor, and support your future colleagues.  Universities are committed to professional development as a Field Instructor/Supervisor and look forward to hearing from you.  There are many Social Work programs situated throughout the province with some providing distance education as well.

We have the power to profile the diversity and strength of Social Work and can do this through engaging in social work field education.   We are agents of change…we are Registered Social Workers.