Even though I started my academic career exclusively teaching graduate students, I’ve found that I kind of love teaching BSWs.
I love how their discussion board posts are punctuated with exclamation points, and how they’re nearly bubbling over with enthusiasm for our profession.
I love how they’re pretty wide open, in terms of where and how and with whom they’ll practice, and how they’re so eager to have contact with real people that they’ll embrace pretty much any exercise of social work skills.
I love how frequently they reference the strengths perspective, and the focus on person-in-environment, as something that drew them to social work over other helping professions.
I love how they ask questions, and not just about their assignments; they don’t yet know what they’ll need to know (do we ever?), so they want to know everything. I feel that way, too.
But, mainly, I love interfacing with (and hopefully impacting) students who most likely won’t become policy analysts or administrators, at least not right away. I love the opportunity to help those whose working lives will mostly be filled with helping clients meet their immediate needs figure out how to integrate macro practice into that direct work.
Because that’s really where my passions lay, and where I think the future of our profession rests: leveraging this huge “army” of direct practice social workers into a powerful force for social change.
This semester was a particularly rewarding one (and the grades are all posted now–it’s officially over!). I had two great sections of the same class: Community and Organizational Dynamics and Human Behavior (even though I can never remember the title without looking it up). Virtually without exception, I had students who were curious and compassionate and committed, and it made me feel really good about the future of our profession.
And, the most fun for me, they came to the course open to the idea of working with larger systems, and pretty quick to grasp how their clinical skills would help them with these bigger contexts. We could spend the semester, then, connecting their new theoretical understandings to these specific environments, and continually tying that work back to the heart of the matter: the impact on the clients we serve.
I tell my students at the beginning of the semester that my goal is not to turn them into macro social workers, but that I will work hard to help them become social workers who do macro practice (not necessarily the same thing). I believe that every social worker whose primary responsibilities are administration or community organizing or policy advocacy should be constantly focused on client well-being as the “bottom line” (otherwise, there’s too great a danger that we start acting like those job functions instead of like social workers, with our particular professional mandate and value base) and that every clinical social worker needs a complex understanding of how policy and other environmental constraints impact clients’ lives (and a commitment to remove barriers and make those environments more supportive).
That’s the mashup that our profession needs, and I really think these students will be part of bringing it to reality.
As part of the class, I ask students to share with me their evolving ideas about this integration, and what it might look like for their practice. I have their permission to share a few of these ideas, which are noteworthy not so much for their novelty as for their origin–these are the plans and hopes of our newest social work colleagues. And they bring a refreshing and pretty inspiring dedication to live them.
What I love, every day, about working with these BSW students, is that, while they decided to become social workers because they want to save the world, they’re not overwhelmed by that prospect. Instead, they are eagerly looking for ways to dive in. This kind of “I may not be able to do everything, but I must do something” attitude, applied broadly throughout our profession and others, really could change the world.
There are thousands of ideas that could be added to a list like this–ways that social workers and other professionals can weave some systems change work into their daily interactions with those we have the honor to serve. What’s on your list?