Bridging the Gap: A Big Thank You to Field Instructors

Aminda Heckman

Happy Social Work Month! Did you know that the Council on Social Work Education has identified field education as the “signature pedagogy” for social work education?

No, wait, come back!

I know. It’s difficult to read a blog about “signature pedagogy” when you have a stack of paperwork to do, there’s an audit next week, your favorite client is in crisis, and that great and fantastic new record keeping database keeps freezing up because your computer still has Windows 98. Oh, and my personal favorite: for some mysterious reason, your pens keep disappearing.

Ah, the practice world. Four years ago, I made the decision to leave direct work, pursue a PhD, and work in social work academia. It was a hard transition, and it took me a while to adjust to a whole different type of organization. I missed conducting direct practice. I especially missed my clients. I missed just being, well, a social worker.

I am now in my last semester of doctoral classes and have been hired as the Field Education Coordinator and full time faculty at Mercy College. And guess what? Even though I am more adjusted to the world of academia and enjoy my job… I still miss my clients. I still miss direct practice. I even miss the pen thieves.

Being in field education allows me to go out to agencies and meet practicing social workers. I thought this might help me stay connected to the practice world, however, I have learned that it’s a double-edged sword. While I am able to still peek into the agency world, I feel the loss more acutely. Even more difficult is when field instructors lament, “You social work professors really are out of touch with what’s going on in agencies these days.”

Ouch.

Yep, believe it or not, I just had this conversation this week with a field instructor I highly respect. She relayed that one of her MSW students had asked her during supervision how the agency manages the practice around a particular policy. The student explained she had learned about this policy in a recent practice class. Confused, the field instructor explained to the student that this policy had been changed several years ago. She ended her story to me by saying, “I swear. I sometimes have no idea what’s being taught in social work classrooms these days. It’s like you guys can only teach a student antiquated theories about why a client might be crying but you forget to remind them to offer the client a tissue.”

When the field instructor was finished, I pondered my next words carefully. I validated her frustration (see, I’m still a practitioner!), and then replied, “In all fairness, that’s exactly why we need you.”

Integrating classroom material into practice and practice into the classroom is a consistent and persistent dilemma. And, in case you’ve forgotten your own time in grad school, it certainly isn’t a new challenge. And it’s definitely not unique to social work. It extends all the way back to… well, it’s been a long time. But the relationship between “book” knowledge and practice wisdom doesn’t have to be a contentious one, albeit I concede it’s an oft-frustrating and perplexing one.

As every year passes and I continue my career in social work academia and field education, I increasingly value my ties with the practice community: educational coordinators, field instructors, and field liaisons. They are my windows into the social work world and messengers of new ideas and challenges. I have come to the realization lately that they actually keep me grounded.

I cannot do my job without them—and not just in a literal sense because I need to place students in internships. What I mean is that getting field instructors’ feedback from the practice world helps me figure out where the profession is heading and what type of social worker will be needed for the next generation. This feedback is like my measuring stick.

I suppose this is my long-winded way of saying thank you to all of you who have chosen to become a part of field education, our “signature pedagogy.” Even if you may not be appreciated for it all the time, you truly are the gatekeepers for our profession. You help us determine if a student will become a social worker we would feel comfortable sending a loved one to or working alongside with as a colleague.

I very much hope you continue to work with us in field education. We certainly need you. Sure, academia is an imperfect system at times, but then again, we’re social workers and used to negotiating imperfect systems. But we need new generations of strong social workers who will become leaders, and we can’t do that without you.

So, I would tell you to hug your nearest social worker/field instructor, but since we’re all about boundaries in our profession, I’d like to suggest something else. Contact a local social work school’s field education department (here in the New York City area, you have plenty to choose from!) and ask about becoming a field instructor. Being a teacher and mentor to a budding social work student won’t always be an easy job, but you might just end up loving it—and reminding us folks in academia why we became social workers in the first place.

______________________________________________

Aminda Heckman, LCSW, is currently the Field Education Coordinator at Mercy College. She is also a PhD student and Adjunct Professor at Fordham University. Ms. Heckman is also the Co-Chair of the Asian American Social Work Task Force at NASW-NYC and was honored as one of the first Emerging Social Work Leaders in 2007. To contact her, you can email her aheckman@mercy.edu

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2 Responses to Bridging the Gap: A Big Thank You to Field Instructors

  1. ataner72 says:

    In my experience as a graduate social work student at Fordham University – all my professors were, at times all too painfully ;), in touch with what’s going on in agencies these days. I did not experience this disconnect, however I did hear about it from a colleague intern who attended a different NY school of social work.
    Also, trough my interactions with other MSW students, I have become aware that the relationship between theory (“book knowledge”) and practice wisdom is sometimes conceived by field instructors as a mutually exclusive one. This is, of course, a false dichotomy, as I believe most of us would agree that a theory is only good to the degree it captures a good practice -and practice wisdom comes from skillful integration of theory with experience…

  2. Aminda Heckman says:

    Hi ataner72, Thanks for your feedback. I, too, am a Fordham MSW graduate (and current PhD student), so I am always happy to hear that our professors are keeping up with the “real world.” I appreciate your perspective about the relationship between book knowledge and practice wisdom, and I encourage BOTH sides (professors and field instructors) to have more open dialogue and listen to each other about the integration of the two. Thanks again for your thoughtful response.

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