Tag Archives: students

Sticking in Macro Every Chance I Get

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.

  • Utilize group work more, in a residential treatment program for at-risk adolescent boys.
  • Conduct voter registration with staff at an organization serving people experiencing homelessness.
  • Create a group for social workers within a mental health center (where most other professionals are psychologists and licensed counselors) to provide a sense of professional comraderie and work out ethical dilemmas.
  • Provide policy updates to case managers working with refugee families, about developments that impact non-citizens.
  • Share information about state budget cuts with consumers at an outpatient mental health center.
  • Introduce a community service component into an after-school program for youth.
  • Record short videos of seniors utilizing home-based services, to be shared with legislators considering program cuts.
  • Join the National Association of Social Workers so that they receive updates about pending legislation that would affect their work.
  • Participate in the state domestic violence coalition’s lobby day, along with some clients.

    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?

  • My best career advice

    Because there are comparatively few macro practitioners in social work education, and because I make it part of my job to mentor students with an orientation towards community organizing, advocacy, and organizational practice, I am often asked for career advice for students headed in that direction.

    I’m quick to say that there really are jobs out there for social workers who don’t want to do clinical work, and that they can really make a living at social change, and that their skills (of policy analysis, and administration, and systems change) will transfer to this work.

    Helping students sustain their dreams of a macro social work career is part of my mission, and, in today’s economy, it can be harder to keep that faith alive.

    But when a student asks for help making a decision about what job to accept, or how to begin a career in a way that is likely to lead to a rewarding role in organizing or advocacy practice, I really have one main piece of advice, which has, to my knowledge, not yet failed them:

    Choose an organization that you’re excited about, not a job description that sounds good.

    Some students are reluctant to take a job with a dynamic organization working in their field of interest because it involves too much case management, or too much fundraising, or too little advocacy. Or, conversely, they are drawn to an organization with a poor reputation because the idea of being “Director of Public Policy” is just so appealing.

    The reality, confirmed by my own first twelve years of macro social work practice and by the origins of the careers I’ve watched in my students, is that, while there are certainly positions that are poor fits for given social workers, a less-than-perfect job description at an organization you can really believe in is always preferable to the reverse.

    Part of this stems from my belief that there are multiple ways to integrate macro practice into one’s social work career, if the organizational support for a radical orientation is there: case managers can get their clients involved in advocacy to address root causes, fundraisers can go after money to support community initiatives, and administrators can weave advocacy into the organizational culture.

    Part of it, too, is connected to my own experience working at an organization in a position that, initially, was anything but ideal: me, the person who still can’t read a balance sheet (and, okay, honestly, doesn’t even balance her checkbook), was supposed to create a financial literacy program from scratch? But I believed in the organization’s work, and in the vision of the leadership, and I was allowed, in pretty short order, to create the job I wanted and, in the process, to transform our advocacy work with clients.

    I wish I could tell this year’s graduating class that the perfect job description at the perfect organization working in the perfect “niche” is waiting for you (oh, and it comes with full benefits and a company car!).

    But your job search to date has belied that.

    So, instead, when you’re weighing a job description that sounds kind of “eh” at an organization you keep hearing great things about versus one that sounds textbook (that could be because it is!) at a mediocre agency, choose the former. Be as honest as you can with your supervisor about where you see your career headed, and look for opportunities within the organization to chart that course. Learn valuable skills while you’re there, and make connections with people who have great reputations, and take advantage of the opportunities that come with association with a stellar entity.

    That’s my best career advice. What’s yours?

    In the rearview mirror: thoughts on virtually teaching social policy, virtually

    At the end of this first semester of “blended” (half online, half traditional classroom instruction) social policy teaching, I’m fairly conflicted. There were some aspects of the experience that I found very rewarding, especially the blurring of the lines between “learning time” and “regular life”–I tend to think about social policy a lot of the time, weaving my ruminations into my daily interactions, and I think that the more fluid nature of the blended course prompted that among my students, too. But it was a semester with considerably more angst than usual, which, for someone who teaches people who want to be social workers about the part of social work (social policy) that we tend not to think too much about, is really saying something. I would love to share this discussion with my own students, current and former, as well as other students and instructors who have engaged in online or blended learning. Here’s where I sit, with one semester down:

  • Part of the psychological challenge for my students was that they did not have a choice to select blended instruction or a traditional model, and, while it hadn’t truly seemed like a make-it-or-break-it thing to me initially, it pretty quickly became obvious that it was: we know that people everywhere are resistant to change and, quite expectedly, more resistant when they didn’t choose the change. We’re now trying to figure out ways to build an element of choice into the curriculum design, because it seems that its lack is a hurdle that students struggled to get past.
  • Online instruction doesn’t seem to work as well in a course, like this one, where students are diverging into pretty new material, and, indeed, a new understanding of their profession, as compared to those courses which are an extension of what they already know. A lot of my job as a policy instructor is to make policy relevant, and accessible, and, indeed, conquerable for social work students, and that’s harder to do without the sustained face-to-face contact.
  • Students need real-time access to the instructor. We started off the semester with this blog, and closed-circuit discussion boards, and other online communication structures built in, but without a real-time chat set up, and I’m going to include that for sure next time. Students want to process their readings, in particular, and need a sort of free-form discussion in which to do that. Live and learn.
  • My sense that this blended model would work particularly well for certain students with certain learning styles was confirmed; I had several students who really flourished, for example, with the discussion boards, because they could look up material in advance, make connections between different parts of the course, and engage in “conversation” with students in other sections. I was right about that, but I underestimated the extent to which online instruction would fail students with other learning styles, and it was really a nightmare for students whose primary learning style is through oral communication with peers. There’s just no way to really replicate that outside of a classroom.
  • Online instruction is different, in so many ways, from a traditional classroom, that instructors are well-served to not try to pretend that it’s similar. I made the decision to allow students to engage in the online content for any week’s unit at any point in the semester, rather than assigning artificial due dates to “contain” that content, and that was the right decision.

    I believe that online instruction, in some form, will continue to play an increasingly prominent role in higher education, so it’s critical that we get this right. I worked harder this semester than in any since the first time I taught the course, and I hope that those efforts helped to mitigate the losses that this cohort of students experienced by being the experimental first class.

    What do you think about online instruction in higher education, specifically social work? How can we make sure that this technology will work for students, and for our profession?

  • Hey! You! It’s Election Day!

    I’ll be working the polls this Election Day (6AM-8PM, for the whopping sum of $120!), so I’m writing this up the week before.

    I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to write about on Election Day, from a preview of the races most critical to social justice causes to a discussion about voter protection to ideas for addressing the critical shortage of poll workers in much of the country.

    But, then, what I really want to say is:

    via Flickr Creative Commons

    If you had a really great (or really bad) Election Day experience, please leave a comment. I’d also be interested in any predictions about the outcomes, and their impact.

    Happy Election Day!

    Guest post: adventures in regulatory policy

    Photo credit, The Pregnancy & Postpartum Resource Center

    Too often, we equate “advocacy” with “lobbying” and, so, overlook all of the changes that we can achieve through other means, by focusing on other types of decision makers.

    I’ve learned through teaching and my own advocacy that stories are particularly potent tools for inspiring us to act, so today’s post tells the story of some advocates for women’s health care who took an unexpected route to their desired social change. Along the way, they learned how to navigate a specific regulatory environment, added new skills to their advocacy repertoire, and, perhaps most importantly, moved closer to a significant advance in women’s health care.

    To craft this post, I interviewed Jen Stoll, one of my rock-star former students who has been featured here before. I’m not quick enough to get everything she said word for word, so these are paraphrases, not direct quotations, but she has verified that they are accurate reflections of our conversation and of her experience.

    I want to hear from others (and Jen does, too!) who have used regulations to change social systems and improve people’s lives, too. How do your skills transfer between legislative and regulatory advocacy? What learning do you want to share?

    ML: How did you define the problem you wanted to tackle?
    JS: As a doula, I experienced first-hand the frustrations of not being able to work with clients who were Medicaid recipients unless I volunteered–Medicaid would not reimburse for doula services, even though there is compelling evidence that doula-assisted births are less expensive and less potentially traumatic for women. Women I met who were Medicaid recipients were upset because they often didn’t understand their options and disappointed because they didn’t have the births they expected. I started to talk with other doulas in my network about this, connecting this policy to poorer birth outcomes for some low-income women. One doula told me that Minnesota had passed legislation that directed Medicaid to reimburse for doula services, so it started to seem like a wider policy change would be possible.

    ML: So, if Minnesota had achieved this change legislatively, what made you start with regulatory advocacy?
    JS: We actually didn’t start out with that intent. We knew that we needed to know more about how Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) viewed doulas, and what they knew about the impact of Medicaid policy on women who give birth. I serve on a committee through Doulas of North America focused on this issue, and we divided up a list of dozens of contacts, at various levels in the Medicaid system, to start conversations with regulators. A friend who works with Medicare also gave me some contacts to guide this work. We started to make cold calls, telling a story of a client who gave birth attended by a doula. The story wove together the narrative of better outcomes with some persuasive data on cost savings. We were all calling independently, but we shared the same objectives: to educate and to listen.

    ML: So how did an informational campaign result in actual regulatory change?
    JS: Every person with whom we spoke was responsive. It was really quite amazing; we also have some campaigns underway with private insurance companies, but we’re not making nearly as much headway with them. With CMS, every message we left was returned, and everyone listened and asked questions. Still, we never found someone who could, or would, answer our question about what the process would be to achieve this change. No one ever said, “oh, that’s my job.” So we just kept calling.

    ML: And then?
    JS: And then, one day, the committee received a letter from CMS stating that doulas had been issued a provider number (we didn’t know that that was what we should have been asking for). We still don’t know whose advocacy really made that happen. It seems like we kind of created a drumbeat for change, and that our persistence paid off, in finally conveying the necessary information to someone(s) with the authority to take action.

    ML: So what now?
    JS: Now we’re initiating the next step. States have to take action to require their Medicaid programs to reimburse doulas, and each state has a different process for that decision. In Kansas, it wouldn’t take legislative change, but we’re starting with some states with greater doula representation where, like Minnesota, the legislature will need to act. Simultaneously, we’re educating doula providers on why they should apply for Medicaid provider status, and how to proceed with that application.

    ML: What lessons did you learn from this regulatory advocacy that you want to share?
    JS: First, you really don’t need to know that much. We made the progress we did by asking lots of questions. Regulators are experts in their field, and, for the most part, they want to share what they know. Second, stick with it. Many of these regulatory agencies are complex by design, and they certainly don’t make it easy to navigate through for the information you need. We figured that, since we were taking shots in the dark, we should shoot wide and long! Third, change can happen in unexpected ways and, while you can’t always be prepared for this, you do need to be able to pivot to the next step quickly. And, finally, ask for more than you might expect to get. Regulators care about the programs they administer, and we had very different conversations about the health care of low-income women than we could expect to have in more politicized contexts. That can create openings for change beyond your expectations.

    I know that Jen would be happy to answer your questions about this process, or her ongoing work. And, regulators, if there are any reading, you can be anonymous–how do you like to be approached by advocates, and what is most persuasive to you, in terms of tactics?

    Why the Census Matters II: Social Indicators

    If only I could get him to come to my class. In Philanthrocapitalism, Bill Gates tells the story that what turned him into a large-scale philanthropist was a World Bank report on global health that exposed him to the global injustices to which he had been largely blind.

    That’s the power of a stark social indicator, folks. Worth billions of dollars. Literally.

    Okay, so even someone as pro-social indicator as I am can’t promise that you’ll see that kind of response to all of your data. But it’s important to remember that the 2010 Census, the results of which will start flowing soon, matter for more than just federal allocations of dollars.

    U.S. Census data help us know our communities, plan our programs, justify our needs (and our very existence), and tell our stories. They provide the backdrop to the grassroots, participatory research that we’re doing, and they can help us to identify trends that demand our attention or signs that we’re making progress. They put new issues on the agenda, focus media and public attention on the status of our society, and (if we play it right) give voice to problems and populations that might otherwise be overlooked. You’ll turn to them dozens of times over the next 10 years, weaving them into grant applications and referencing them in your reports and citing them in policy briefs and projecting them in dramatic maps.

    So they need to include the people with whom you work, those who populate your community, those whose lives need to count. Not just because it means more highway dollars for your MSA, but because, otherwise, all of the decisions and conclusions that flow from these data (do we need to translate government documents into Spanish?, should we invest more in services for young families or older adults?, which populations need the most attention in terms of educational attainment?, where have we made the biggest gains?) will be made without them, too.

    We don’t know, yet, who might be watching those social indicators, looking for something to catch their eyes, needing the right piece of data to convince them that a problem deserves their attention. But we know that the U.S. Census continues to be the leading source of the indicators we’ll count on to guide our work on our most vexing challenges in the decade to come, so we know that we all need to count.

    The courts and the tyranny of the majority

    The evening after the California court decision ruling Proposition 8 (California’s voter-approved gay marriage ban) unconstitutional, I posted this status update on my Facebook page:

    [Melinda Lewis] would like to thank Judge Vaughn Walker for single-handedly lifting my post-primary depression. That’s why we have three branches, folks!

    Later that night, one of my former students initiated an online conversation about the role of the courts in overturning what, in this case, was obviously the will of the majority. She asked some very profound questions about who should determine public policy in this country, and about the role of the courts within our democracy. She cited examples where time has definitively proven that the courts were correct, such as desegregation of public schools, and much more questionable decisions, such as this year’s campaign finance law.

    This is why I love teaching.

    Early the following morning, I crafted a response, and that exercise got me thinking, anew, about the way in which our system of government works, and why the courts are, to me, such a critical component.

    I responded, “It’s a good question. The key is not whether the will of “the people” is being upheld; while few would argue (I am actually one of the few, but that’s another issue!) that the legislative and executive bodies’ roles are to represent the people, the courts’ role, according to our system of government, is very definitely not. The courts are accountable only to the Constitution, not to public sentiment (which is why, of course, they’re not elected). Of course one’s interpretation of what accords with the Constitution can differ, which is why the appointment of judges is so contested. You’re absolutely right to point out examples where the courts’ judgments have countered public opinion in a way ultimately judged to be correct, and also to point out the fallibility of the judiciary. Even in the case of the campaign finance decision, though, Congress was given a sort of “blueprint” of the kinds of campaign finance laws that would pass constitutional muster, although it remains to be seen if they can get the political will to do so. That’s what I mean by the three branches–people call it a separation of power, but it’s not so much a check and balance on each other, really, as it is the inclusion of a branch accountable only to our Constitution, our core government principles, so to speak, not to popular sentiment (which is the only way that a minority’s rights can ever be protected–if everything went according to the will of the majority, there would be no such vehicle). So, in essence, it’s not that the Court has a “right” to overturn a popular vote, but, rather, that no legislative body or group of citizens has a “right” to pass an unconstitutional law.”

    We had a couple of additional exchanges, related to the passage of clearly unconstitutional laws as political messages and organizing vehicles, and the resulting distortion of the policymaking process.

    But the idea to which I keep returning is the courts as protector of those who, by very definition, are likely to be excluded in the more “democratic” functions of government–the minorities whose rights are not, well, ‘popular’ enough for popular sovereignty.

    Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much of my career representing a group–undocumented immigrants–who most often come out on the short end of votes subject to the will of the majority, but there are many moments, in our history and still today, when the beauty of our constitutional system is almost breathtaking, in its power to lift up the most downtrodden.

    Even when it would have been expedient, like when we were sued by anti-immigrant organizations trying to overturn the instate tuition legislation for which we had fought so hard in the Kansas Legislature, I wouldn’t use the “courts should not overturn the will of the people” argument. Because you just never know when you might need that one yourself.

    As an advocate of social justice, first and foremost, I celebrate fervently the power of the courts to do what’s right, even if that means telling many, many people that they’re wrong.

    Social workers as policymakers

    Social workers are not, as a general rule, very comfortable with power.

    Listen to a group of social workers, or social work students, talking amongst themselves for any period of time, and this will usually become quite apparent. “You know, I wanted to make the big bucks; that’s why I became a social worker!” (facetiously, of course) “They don’t tell me anything; I’m just the social worker!” You get the idea.

    The reality, of course, is not only that such self-effacing attitudes are quite self-defeating (more on this later, since I just realized I’ve never written up my whole “power speech” for students!), but also inaccurate.

    Social workers have tremendous power. Ask any client who has ever been rejected for services, been made to feel ‘less than’, had her children removed from her home, been required to attend condescending classes, or been scheduled for an appointment at a terribly inconvenient time.

    In fact, every day in many ways large and small, WE are what our clients most directly experience as power, and as policy.

    And when we deny this, or when we fail to recognize it, we don’t win any points for our martyrdom. We don’t empower anyone by pretending that we have less power than we do. When we fail to adequately account for and ethically employ the power we have, we, instead, fail our profession, our institutions, and, most importantly, those we serve.

    This is an often uncomfortable realization for social work students who, after all, got into this business to help people, not to wield power over them. But power, and the way that power works in relationships, is really at the heart of any clinical relationship–how would we, as social workers, ever help anyone to change his/her life if not for the power granted to us by virtue of that mutual relationship? And it’s an integral part of administrative and advocacy practice, too, particularly when it comes to the discretion that social workers at all levels enjoy–to apply eligibility rules, to interpret ambiguous rules, to selectively apply certain incentives or sanctions. The literature and history of our profession recognize this–skim any introductory social work text for “social control and social assistance”–and we know that, if we were honest, our job descriptions would also include words like “gatekeeper”, “rule-maker”, and “policy police”.

    This discretion is a core part of what what makes social workers (and other, similar professions) professionals, and it’s a big part of what makes social work a feasible proposition. Think about it: there is no way that an organization could create policies to account for every possibility, and there are dozens of ways, every day, in which policies as enacted are unworkable as implemented.

    The challenge for social workers, then, is to acknowledge the policies we make through our decisions, and through our inaction, too. It is to accept the ethical ambiguity of this policymaking and seek consultation and engage in deliberation to approach it with the utmost caution. It is to build mechanisms that incorporate the perspectives of those served in this decision making, and to share power meaningfully so that these clients experience our discretion as a thoughtful exercise of professional authority, not an arbitrary or capricious exercise of personal fiat.

    The brief scenarios below come from my own social work practice. I’d love to hear from other social workers grappling with this whole idea of professional discretion and of the iterations of social work policy making within our organizations. How and when have you confronted this realization of your power? As a supervisor, how do you manage discretion for your direct reports? How do you build transparency and accountability into the policies made by your actions, the same way we seek to build these measures into policy we create in other contexts? How do we create a truly empowering relationship with clients, knowing that it is only through an embrace of our own power that we can hope to empower others?

  • As an Adult Protective Services worker, I was regularly humbled and rather stunned by the tremendous discretion that I and other APS workers had to make determinations about what constitutes abuse, neglect, or exploitation, who should be held responsible, and what the appropriate corrective actions are. When social workers go into someone’s home to ask these uncomfortable questions, we are exercising huge authority and serving as an arm of government power. And, most of the time, no one’s watching over our shoulders to be sure that we use this power “correctly”.
  • My work has often required interpreting for clients. Every single time, I am cognizant of the power that comes with this role–I am literally putting words in their mouths, and I’m filtering everything that they know about a situation that is often of real importance to them. While few social workers serve as multilingual interpreters, we all play roles in helping clients to navigate the social service delivery system, bridging gaps, and “translating” their circumstances for those unfamiliar with them. This makes us creators of reality, a gigantic power.

    We spend a lot more time talking about how others do policy to us–state legislatures, Congress, federal agencies–than about how we make policy. I think that’s because the latter is a lot more uncomfortable for us; it requires confronting our power and the often ‘sticky’ nature of our policy decisions. We owe it to our clients, though, to do this confronting. We are, for many of them at many points in time, the embodiment of policy’s potential to oppress or to empower, whether we like it or not.

  • Social Work Education and Millennials

    Today is my first day of class for the fall semester. It’s going to be a big one, with my first forays into “blended” (part-online, part-classroom) instruction, a commute between our two main campuses, and a lot of evaluation, on my part, about how to best engage students in the study of social policy within this new context.

    My graduate students (which is what I’ll have this semester) are older and, for the most part, more diverse than our undergraduates, but, still, the majority of my students are in their 20s, which places them within the Millennial generation. My reading and thinking this summer about the power of this generation to transform the American political landscape has sparked some new insights about how this generation’s unique attributes may shape them as students, too, and how my teaching needs to reflect their styles of engagement and modes of inquiry. I certainly haven’t reached any definitive conclusions, but I’ll look to them, this semester and in the future, to help me sort through some of what I’m seeing in the classroom (and, increasingly, in our online discussion boards) and how to best navigate this ‘generation gap’ as an instructor.

    Some thoughts:

  • Millennials are more religiously-motivated in their progressivism than any previous generation since the GI (“Greatest”) Generation. I’ve certainly seen this in my classroom, which means that I need to figure out how to help students sort through their faith, and how it brings them to our profession and towards social justice, and how to use it ethically and appropriately in working with diverse client groups.
  • Millennials are very relationship-focused. As I’ve discussed here before, the increasingly fluid relationships that I forge with students, especially through the use of social media, come with new ethical quandries that it is, obviously, my responsibility as instructor to navigate. My students have always wanted to know a lot about me personally, but these students seem particularly interested in reciprocity, bringing me into their networks as they find allies with whom to work on the issues they care about. This also means that they don’t want to work in silos; the idea of totally “independent” work product is fairly foreign to them, and they prefer instead to collaborate in ways that add to their learning. This means, for me, thinking creatively about group projects and how to foster processes, not just products, that promote knowledge and community at the same time.
  • There’s an inherent distrust of authority, but it comes from a concern that elites are trying to control their access to information, not from an automatic disdain for institution. My students want to see detailed citations, they want transparency, they want to be able to look at data for themselves. They question where conclusions are coming from not because they have a reflexive antipathy for all authority but because their ways of relating to each other, and to content, are more dynamic than organizational rules often allow. I think that the blended course format, with its layers of content, will feed into this, but I need to always be prepared for students’ challenging, rather than being defensive or dismissive.
  • There’s increasing consensus among Millennials about many social and economic issues, which, while it bodes well for public policy reform, can create a sort of ‘groupthink’ in class, that not only may cause older students to feel excluded (even more than they may naturally) but also deprive younger students of the opportunity to debate, hone, and defend their ideas with diverse audiences. I need to think about how I bring other perspectives into the classroom and how I give space to dissenting views.

    I’d love to hear from my current and former students, Millennials and not, about how generational differences impact your social work education, and about how you’d like to see instructors adapt to students’ experiences. Other instructors and instructional experts (and generational scholars) looking at these issues, I’d appreciate any resources you have on how to best grapple with the challenges and best build on the tremendous strengths of this latest generation in the classroom.

    To all, here’s to another wonderful semester of social policy study!

  • What I’ve learned in three years of “teaching”

    photo courtesy University of Kansas

    School starts this week!

    Can you tell I’m excited?

    I was exchanging thoughts with a friend on Facebook the other day–she’s also an adjunct instructor in a social work program here in the Midwest–and we were comparing notes. The topic quickly turned to things that we’ve learned from our students, from different ways of seeing policy (she had a student point out that Bush’s expansion of Medicare, through Part D prescription drug benefits, was the largest expansion of the welfare state in the modern era) to better strategies for communicating content (in appreciation to my students who pointed out that, on video, I’d just make everyone dizzy).

    As a reminder to myself and a demonstration to students past and (almost!) present, here’s my list of the top 3 things (I chose 1 per year) I’ve learned from my students, in no particular order:

  • No one wants to hear me talk for two hours straight (except maybe Jen and Jason, bless their souls!). Seriously–my students have challenged me to come up with innovative ways to engage them with the content (debates, case studies, problem-solving, simulations), rather than just delivering it, and we’re all learning more.
  • Challenging students shows that I respect them, and believe in them; they’d rather come up short in my class than in ‘real life’. It’s hard, especially when you’re a new instructor, to get over wanting to be liked in order to hold people to the high expectations of which you know they’re capable. And, okay, maybe there are a few students who would rather coast through, but the majority of my students have repeatedly told me that they appreciated honest feedback and academic rigor.
  • Learning, and teaching, don’t stop with graduation. I spend a lot of time with former students, mentoring and sharing links and exchanging ideas and making connections. It’s some of the most rewarding time I spend as a teacher, cultivating relationships of lifelong learning with talented social workers.

    There are more lessons, to be sure: about social media and its role in the classroom, about the unpredictability of what will provide the spark for a particular student’s passion for policy, about how students need to learn from each other. Not to mention all of the attempts to tutor me in the ways of popular culture.

    And, there are probably other lessons that I should have learned, but didn’t. Maybe this will be the year for those?

    Teachers, as we head back to classes: what have you learned from your students? And, students, what are you trying to teach us (or, even, specifically, me) that you wish we’d learn?