June 16, 2019

Welcome to the Field of Social Work

On July 20, I was privileged to give a brief talk to the 2012 summer graduates of the Ball State University School of Social Work program. Following is the essence of the speech to 20 students that will be entering the “Field of Social Work.”

“Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.” Chief Tecumseh

Hello, I am a Social Worker. I want to formally welcome you to the field of Social Work. You now have your degree; I expect you are relieved and excited. You have graduated from a quality School of Social Work at Ball State University. Some have that first job lined up and others are looking — wondering where and when it will be.

Some years ago when I decided to become a therapist, I told my friends and family that I would enter the School of Social Work at the University of Tennessee. They said “Are you Crazy?” They did not understand the field and frankly neither did I. The truth is, I knew that working with people and adding value in terms of direct improvement of life was necessary for me. I knew Social Work would help me in that process. I wanted to be a psychotherapist (or as my son says psycho therapist). So off I went to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.  I earned the Master of Science, Social Work degree that allowed me to practice psychotherapy.

In the school we talked about “What is Social Work?” Our definition was (and mine still is) “A Social Worker is what a Social Worker does.”

Partly, though I did not own my place in the field. The prestige was not great and I found I would call myself a therapist and identify as a Social Worker only occasionally. 

Then 20 some years into my career, I had occasion to present at a meeting for the Indiana Chapter, National Association of Social Work. NASW an organization I had not been a member of for years.

I was moved by the depth of involvement and the dedication of many I met at that first meeting. The saying a “Social Worker is what a Social Worker does” was relived with honor. It is a field with depth of character and nearly endless variety of involvement in the process of helping others. Shortly after I (re)joined NASW and am a proud member today.

In the 37 years since I earned my degree, I have worked with 9,000 different clients and completed about 34,000 hours of face to face contact. You are at zero.  Your numbers will accumulate soon.

Use your hours well. Each hour is important and, no matter what, the hours will add up.

You will have all these opportunities to practice. Be careful what you practice. How you practice will affect the rest of your career. You are in the field because you want to serve. Remember the quality of care you provide to the humans you work with must be job one.

You will be seduced by numbers of quota and production. While it is the case that agencies must financially survive, it is more so the case that we must serve with quality.

The helping field is growing and filled with clear research that shows we add significant value. We do not, however, have the marketing ability that drug companies have and must contend with the idea that solving problems is as presented on the drug advertisements. Just take a pill and the pill they advertise results in immediate rather passive progress.  

You have learned the importance of relationship with your client. If your clients trust you and you can help them find hope, they will do better. Hope is necessary in all of our lives. The research or relationship is clear. Relationship as rated by the client is highly correlated with successful outcome. In fact, we know that when you see your MD, if you have confidence in the MD, the medicine will work better. Honor those relationships episode by episode. Often the provider who does relationship well, but provides placebo treatment, is more effective than the provider with poor relationship who provides the so called “correct treatment”.

You will be pointed to doing more paper work than you can imagine. You may need to do that to keep your job. Do not let that get in the way of treating the humans you work with honorably and respectfully.

There is a movement in the field to do concurrent documentation. This involves looking at a computer screen and typing as you ask personal questions of human beings. It seems to me inherently disrespectful.  

Always respect your clients. Always remember your goal is to help, even as your organization may (WILL) insist certain information needs to be collected in way called “timely”.

As you do your hours, remember you are practicing? What you do you will get better at, even if you are doing activities that are not helping. If I practice for hours and years at bad golf swing, the hours of practice help me ingrain that bad swing.

In your first two years, you will create a basis for your habits of practice. You are looking for the best habits at working with people and will be seduced with the idea that paper and numbers are more important. Productions, timeliness of paper, quality of paper, in that order, are the most likely forms of feedback you will get from your supervisors. Your priorities must have clients at the top.

Research shows that helpers with lots of experience are not much better than new folks. (So much for my years of experience!)  In part this is because some start out and develop bad habits. They think they are doing well because their colleagues like them, they do great production and good paper work; their reviews will then be outstanding. Some though never improve the quality of their care; they just complain about the clients and the tough case load.

NEVER complain about clients. The tough clients, I suspect, are the essence of why you are in the field. Many of the poor helpers think they are better than average. In the field of therapy, quality varies from 20% effective to 70%. Which do you prefer to be?  Always strive to improve and find ways to do that. It is important that you find ways to measure your progress. It is important that you work with other helpers that also want to improve.

Keep a Treasure Chest — way to remember successes and those that have been appreciative — for times you get discouraged.

So go forth and pay attention to the words that are often credited to Chief Techumsch:

 “Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life”…

“If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people”..

Read entire Tecumseh Poem from Act of Valor the movie (2012)

I am a Social Worker. We need your help. Congratulations and welcome to the field!”

 Bill