March 25

How to become a better social worker

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Introduction

I must confess.

I have been wanting to quit social work.

It’s not because the work isn’t fulfilling, or that the work isn’t meaningful.

It’s that I keep falling over the same things, over and over again.

I keep struggling whenever a client raises difficult emotions, especially at me.

I have no idea how to manage it.

I think:

Maybe this just isn’t for me.

Maybe I’m not cut out for social work.

As you do more and more social work, you slowly find yourself plateauing.

The phenomenal progress you saw yourself having from university to your first year of social work… has stopped.

You get stuck on the same issues.

Why bother improving, since good enough is… well, good enough? Isn’t it too much effort to keep trying to improve?

We already don’t have much time! And you’re asking us to spend more time trying to improve?

What are we working towards anyway?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you’re not good enough as you are. But I’m saying that even in your ‘enough-ness’, there is still space to be more.

Why bother improving?

It’s for your own sanity.

After some years in social work, you will realise yourself stumbling at the same issues.

For example, you have difficulties around managing difficult emotions in clients, especially when they are angry at you.

If you want to continue stumbling over the same thing, you can keep doing the same thing.

My guess?

You don’t want that to happen, right?

When you see yourself growing at your social work skills, you will see yourself finding more satisfaction in your work.

There’s something innately satisfying about seeing yourself do something better, especially when that something always seemed difficult.

In Grit, Angela Duckworth studied how people became great at the skills they exhibited.

She wrote,

Some people get twenty years of experience.

Others get one year of experience, 20 times in a row.

It’s your choice.

20 years of experience? Or 1 year of experience, 20 times in a row?

It’s for your client.

Can you remember the first client you helped?

Look at the client you help today.

Is there a difference?

Yes, a big one!

You would have seen yourself getting progressively better as the years went by.

Getting better at social work is about understanding your strength, using your strength, and growing your strengths!

But somehow, you may have gotten stuck.

Remember why you came into social work.

My first experience with the helping profession came as a 17-year-old, as a volunteer with people with learning disabilities.

It’s a Sunday afternoon. I am helping a man to draw out a Mother’s Day card.

We’re trying to write the letter A in block letters.

After 10 minutes, he looks at me and says,

I don’t know how to write this!

Then it occurs to me.

As a student, I was complaining daily about the sports I had to train for. The studies I had to read. The students I had to interact with. It never occurred to me that chasing these academic A-s was a privilege.

Not a problem.

These people might have been shunned, neglected and abandoned by society.

I began to see the possibility of leaving the imprint of my legacy, on the lives of others.

How?

I know.

You have little time, energy, and effort to bother reading more books, articles, and study of your craft.

Besides, don’t you have supervision already? Isn’t that enough?

It’s not.

Take a craftsman approach to social work.

When everything comes from Amazon, at the click of a button, you may forget that there’s much thought that goes into the design of every product in your hand.

Take your Apple iPhone, for example1.

You would have watched the ads by Jony Ive, where he talks about his thinking behind the iPhone. How he designs it.

Similarly, take a craftsman approach to social work, where you are thinking through the design of your session. The design of your interactions with your client. How you can make it better.

The craftsman approach is about being deliberate about what you do, and how you improve what you do. It’s about recognising that social work is a craft and an art, and not just a job.

When I observe my supervisors deescalate difficult emotions in a client, I see the beauty in what they do. The ability to tune into the client’s deeper emotion, and label it.

The ability to use emotional judo to use negative emotions, as a force for good for the client.

All these doesn’t come by chance.

It come through a deliberate focus on the craft of social work.

Have a system.

When you’re pressed for time, it’s tempting to drop deliberate practice.

After all, when you have your case notes, case files, and your clients screaming for your attention, taking time to look through a recording can seem stupid.

In Chow, Miller and Hubble’s chapter in the Cycle of Excellence, they share a system for improvement.

  1. Schedule time in your work week for deliberate practice.
  2. Have a reference point.
    1. Look at your outcome data. At the start of casework with clients, I find it helpful to set the goals they are interested in working towards. Then, I systematically monitor if we are moving towards those goals monthly.
    2. Using Daryl Chow’s TDPA, monitor your learning objectives.
    3. Record your sessions.
  3. Experiment playfully.
    1. Look through one 5 to 10 minute recording and consider how you might carry it forward more constructively.
  4. Find a supervisor/coach who can analyse your therapy recordings and develop key learning objectives with you.

The most important thing isn’t to think through a fancy system. Rather, it’s to work through an imperfect system, and constantly refine it along the way.

Having a system is like having a GPS in your car. It’s a perfect system, but your route won’t be perfected until you use it!

Don’t just start with social work, stay with it.

You may be at the time of your career where you wonder whether staying with social work is worth it.

After all, starting something doesn’t mean you need to end with it. Sometimes, the emotional nature of social work can confront us so much that we want to get away from it all.

That choice is for you to make.

But at points like these, it’s useful to remind yourself of the stories of impact you’ve had.

A few weeks ago, I was close to leaving the industry for good.

I told myself,

Enough of social work!

But that afternoon, a client called to say,

John, I’m really grateful for your help.
Thanks for taking the time to listen to me.

I wanted you to know that you’re doing a very important job.

It forces you to remember that for all the bad that can happen in people’s lives, there are still pockets of joy that can be found.

Catch those moments of joy.

Conclusion

John, thank you for listening.

You really did.

As I walked out of the home that morning, I had a bittersweet feeling in my heart.

This was the last day of my student placement. But it was also the end of my time as a student social worker.

No longer could I say that I was still learning. After this, I was fully qualified, and fully expected to handle social work, like a professional.

You and I know that doesn’t happen that easily.

You’re always learning. You’re still a student at heart.

But as you have more and more work, it’s tempting to forget that you first began your career, as a student, and you will still remain as a student.

So take the time to enjoy the journey of becoming better.

For clients.

For communities.

For yourself.

Comment

What makes you better as a social worker? Feel free to share below!

Byline

John writes about how newly qualified social workers can be effective at social work, whilst living well at www.savethesocialworker.com.

  1. Full disclosure: I own shares in Apple.

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