Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3)* – Becoming a Practice Educator
I began my Practice Teacher training in late 1999, and as part of the 18-month course, worked with two MA students, a first-year placement student and then a second placement student. Prior this, I hadn't given being a Practice Educator much thought; I had been practising as a social worker for a few years but was not really sure I was competent or experienced enough to assess and support a student as I still felt a newbie myself. It was therefore somewhat serendipitous (like much of my career) that I had recently moved to a new social work job in a children and families charity, which encouraged staff to work with students. Also the Practice Teaching course was about to start so I quickly completed my application form and was accepted… and now, almost 20 years later, I teach would-be practice educators, and I am one of the relatively few social work academics researching the complex issues inherent in practice learning and assessment. I also remain very interested in what motivates social workers to become and remain practice educators.
International social work research indicates a number of reasons why social workers chose to become practice educators. For some, it is based on altruistic reasons, ie. wanting to give something back to the profession (Finch, 2017); and for others, less positive reasons, ie. they had experienced very poor-quality practice education experiences themselves and did not want a student to have to go through that negative experience (Finch, 2017). Other research has highlighted that motivations to become a practice educator also include being part of an organisation where learning is valued, the positive contribution that students make to the agency and the personal growth and development that the role enables (Globerman and Bogo, 2000). More recent UK research has highlighted a further range of motivators which includes the desire and reward in seeing students grow and develop, the necessity to train future generations of social workers and the opportunity it provides practice educators to reflect on their own practices as well as having a refresher in theory (Schaub and Dalyrmple, 2011). There are, of course, other reasons for choosing to become a practice educator, not least career development and in the UK context it has often been seen as a precursor to becoming a manager, given the training it provides in supervision.
My experience of undertaking the Practice Teaching programme was extremely positive, not least because of some days out of the busy office which enabled me some much needed head space to reflect and re-engage with theory. The two students I worked with whilst on the course were highly motivated, fresh and positive in an environment which inevitably could become negative and rather cynical. Learning was certainly not one way, the students taught me a lot as well, and critically debriefing with the students on journeys back from joint visits enabled me to reflect on my own practice, in terms of what had gone well and not so well.
That is not to say however that all placements will be wonderful experiences for both the student and the practice educator. Indeed, my work on supporting struggling students has highlighted the challenging emotional experiences that inevitably arise in all practice teaching and learning relationships but often come sharply to the fore if there are relationship or other difficulties (Finch et al, 2013). As part of the role, practice educators will need to offer constructive developmental feedback and assess the extent to which students have satisfactorily met the requirements. Like social work practice in all settings, practice education is a complex task, often reflecting the tensions and dilemmas in social work itself. Indeed, the role is multi-faceted, complicated and sometimes contradictory, for example on the one hand the role expects practice educators to be nurturing, supporting and enablers of learning and on the other, assessors and gatekeeper to the profession (Finch and Taylor, 2012). This can be compared with the care vs control dilemma inherent in social work. Field, et al (2016) identify yet more tasks and functions inherent in the practice educator role. These include:
The practice placement therefore is a particularly important site of professional gatekeeping and it is inevitable that for a small percentage of social work students will not be able to meet the requirements. Failing a student, as my research highlights, is a very challenging emotional experience (Finch and Schaub, 2015). Indeed, when I was working as an off-site practice educator and was required to fail a student, I felt tremendous guilt. There was a positive side however, aside from maintaining appropriate gatekeeping standards, which was to give me a chance to critically reflect on my own practice education style and practice. My research has also revealed this to be the case for other practice educators (Finch and Poletti, 2016) who used the experience to develop their report writing skills for example, or to be more vigilant to the signs that students might be struggling.
Whilst not wanting to dwell too readily on the challenges and complexities of being a practice educator, the key message here is to encourage you to either take up the practice educator role for the first time, or for those already qualified, to continue in your roles as practice educators. The placement is absolutely key to enabling students to develop into critically reflective and analytical practitioners, able to withstand the demands of social work practice.
So, if you have ever thought about being a practice educator, or, are a practice educator and have not done it for a while, or currently have a student with you, here are 10 good reasons, why, in an era of even bigger and more complex workloads alongside rapidly disappearing resources, you should just carry on and practice educate regardless.
|1||It reminds you why you went into social work in the first place
It can be too easy to become rather jaded, or cynical and you can sometimes forget the reasons and motivations you wanted to be become a social work in the first place. You are reminded therefore of the importance of social work values.
|2||Paying it back and paying it forward
This may feel a little cliched but the whole system works on social workers passing on their knowledge, skills and expertise to the next generation. You were supported on placement and so it's time to pay back that investment. Students if they have a positive practice learning experience will then more likely be willing to become practice educators themselves.
|3||A two-way learning process, the student will learn from you and will always learn new things from the student
Students generally should arrive with up to date knowledge of legislation or research. Students are often good at asking important questions about the agency – why they do certain things for example. Its always good to have a fresh pair of eyes as it's too easy to become institutionalised.
|4||Confidence boosting - reminds you that you are knowledgeable about your social work role and know more than you think
My experience of social work was that I never felt I knew enough as I was always confronted with new situations that could leave one feeling uncertain. When you work with a student however, you quickly realise that you do know a lot and have developed huge amounts of skills and knowledge.
|5||Opportunity to develop teaching, coaching, supervision and mentoring skills
This seems a very obvious reason but one that is perhaps overlooked. You will develop new skills and new knowledge about teaching and learning that will benefit you not only in your practice educator role but also in your social work practice.
|6||Directly influencing the next generation of social workers
Too often, I hear experienced practitioners being critical of both social work students and newly qualified social workers. So it's time to think about your vast knowledge and expertise and help develop the next generation into critically reflective practitioners.
|7||Gives you a valuable opportunity to reflect on your own practice, as well as others
As a practice educator you should be modelling critically reflective behaviour, after all you can't expect a student to be critically self aware without you doing it as well. So you have an ideal and a captive audience (ie the student) in which you can appraise and reflect on your own practice as well as the practice of others.
|8||Gives you an opportunity to re-engage with theory and begin to use it in a conscious way again
Given the pace of social work practice, theory is often utilised in practice in an unconscious rather tacit fashion. In enabling students to develop theory to practice, you will also have the opportunity to become consciously aware of the theory that underpins your knowledge of particular service users or indeed, in terms of interventions.
|9||Develops your leadership skills
As mentioned earlier on there are lots of roles within the overall role of the practice educator but what links them all is a focus on leadership, which is important, and perhaps not emphasised enough in social work practice.
|10||It is highly rewarding and satisfying to see the student develop over the course of the placement
As a former practice educator and now social work educator for 16 years, seeing students develop, grow and mature over the duration of their courses never gets boring. Similarly on placement, to see students go from being unconfident and anxious into knowledgeable and capable newly qualified practitioners is always a joy.
I have clearly focused on the very many positive sides to practice education, and it can, of course, be a challenge with the increasing demands of social work practice to find the time to support a student on placement. In my experience, however, it is time well spent and in my many interactions with practice educators from all around the country what I mostly see are very cheerful practice educators, working hard in a vitally important role. On the whole, being a practice educator is most definitely a reason to be cheerful.
* For the uninitiated, "Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3" is a song and single by Ian Dury and the Blockheads, initially released as the single "Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3 / Common as Muck" issued on 20 July 1979 and reached number 3 in the UK Singles Chart the following month.
Field, P., Jasper, C. & Littler, L. (2016) Practice Education in Social Work: Achieving Professional Standards (2nd edn.), Critical Publishing,St Albans.
Finch, J. (2017) Supporting Struggling Students on Placement: A Practical Guide, Policy Press, Bristol.
Finch, J. & Schaub, J. (2015) Projective Identification as an Unconscious Defence: Social Work, Practice Education and the Fear of Failure. in Armstrong, D. & Rustin, M.(eds) Social Defences against Anxiety: Explorations in the Paradigm, Karnac, London.
Finch, J., Schaub, J. & Dalrymple, R. (2013) Projective Identification and the Fear of Failing: Making Sense of Practice Educators' Emotional Experiences of Failing Social Work Students in Practice Learning Settings, Journal of Social Work Practice, Vol 28 (2), pp:139-154.
Finch, J. and Taylor, I. (2013) The Emotional Experience of Assessing a Struggling or Failing Social Work Student in Practice Learning Settings, Special Edition – Field Education, Social Work Education, 32 (2) pp:244-258 DOI: 10.1080/02615479.2012.720250
Globerman, J. and Bogo, M. (2000) 'Changing times: understanding social workers' motivations to be field instructors', Social Work, vol 48, no 1, pp 65-73.
Schaub, J. and Dalrymple, R. (2011) '"She didn't seem like a social worker": practice educators' experiences and perceptions of assessing failing social work students on placement', available at www.swapbox.ac.uk/1151 (accessed 1 December 2012).
Kirstin Parkes writes about safe collisions: working with students to reconcile divergent personal and professional values. Thursday 5th July - www.scopt.co.uk/thunking