Safe Collisions: working with students to reconcile divergent personal and professional values
The initial idea for this blog post emerged from some musing I did around findings from my PhD research study. Although nominally exploring the risk judgements made by criminal justice social workers in their interactions with sex offenders, all of the participants without exception were able to describe a period of intense cognitive and emotional labour as part of the initial risk work. The workers were very committed to safety and this included victims, the public and also those they worked to support; it was tensions in these areas which led to collisions in values. Acknowledging such hard work from experienced practitioners led me to wondering how this knowledge could be used to support students in criminal justice settings. Once I started thinking about it more deeply however, I recognised a more universal issue, equally important across a whole range of practice learning settings.
There are areas of practice where it is patently clear there will be emotional challenges to our personal values such as when working with sex offenders or with people who have caused harm to children (Ferguson, 2016). There are however other areas of practice where the challenge although less obvious, is present nonetheless. For example, I have worked with students in the past who had very clear ideas about how a neat family home "should" look and had to be supported to unpick how their personal views were impacting on their assessments. Conversely, I have also worked with students who made assumptions that insanitary conditions were a consequence of poverty which meant expectations should be lower. In both scenarios, these views were operating at the common-sense level and in the students' blind spots. Through discussion in supervision we were able to unpick the common sense, but only by first bringing it into clear view looking through the Johari Window. This involved an uncomfortable collision between the students' views of themselves and what was happening in reality but ended up being a powerful learning experience.
So, why do I use the term collisions? You may not agree of course, but I think there is a necessity for a collision, for values to really butt up against each other, so that deep learning and a move away from common sense assumptions can take place. It is inevitable that social workers will encounter ethical dilemmas and conflicting values, often ending up wrestling with anguish, hence the idea of emotional labour (Hochschild, 1983). Students also therefore have to learn the hard reality that at times they will have to choose one value over another and develop strategies to deal with the residual feelings such decision-making leaves behind. As practice educators, we can sometimes look to protect students from too difficult decisions, but in the long run are we then storing up difficulties for them? I often hear quite blasé statements around ideas that we can park or conform our personal values to focus on 'the professional' almost as if it's just as simple as changing hats. Usually my initial response to anyone saying this a simple 'how?!'
In actuality, it's really hard work particularly when managing our personal triggers or core beliefs about the world and how people should behave. I therefore worry about the message this can send to developing practitioners who may very well struggle quietly with the change in head gear, keeping the tensions to themselves for fear they may be judged as a failure for not being perfectly aligned with professional social work values.
With that I mind, how can we as practice educators facilitate safe collisions and support students to navigate through them effectively?
People can have different beliefs
It may just be the cynic in me, but I do feel rather suspicions when anyone tells me their personal values are completely aligned with social work values. I think it is important instead to acknowledge we all hold personal views and beliefs which might be unhelpful when working with people to illicit change, should they come to dominate our actions. Sharing experiences of when we practice educators have had to work through our own collisions and the discomfort this causes with students can be reassuring. Using other mediums such as TV, novels, or films, as the basis for discussion of values can offer a safe route in as the issues can be discussed from multiple perspectives. Asking a student why each character might have a different perspective on a dilemma is a helpful way of showing the individual lenses people have for processing experiences. In a similar vein, discussing a social policy from a range of differing political perspectives, can whilst also enabling a deeper grasp of policy itself, help students understand that people can have different beliefs without either being necessarily wrong. This is a good step in terms of increasing the safety of collisions and can make students more open to grasping the mettle with their own conflicting views.
Exposure to professional conflict
One of the reasons social work students say they value their practice learning experiences so highly is the opportunity to apply their university learning to real world situations where they can start to make sense of their knowledge base. It seems to me this is as true for testing values and principles as it is to applying theory and therefore managed exposure to professional conflict can be a significant learning experience. What I mean by professional conflict here is generally related to group decision-making where different intervention thresholds, different professional cultures and perhaps different expectations for outcomes exist. This exposure also needs to be a safe collision though, and most importantly time needs to be specifically built in for students to think deeply about the origins of such conflict and how it can be resolved. Are there multi-agency decision-making meetings students can observe to see differing views expressed? In a criminal justice setting for example, it is usually a fruitful experience to have a student hear discussions between social workers and police and consider where these differing perspectives might come from. I do emphasis the managed exposure part here as I am also aware of students who have been left to sink or swim in professional's meetings before they had developed understanding of differences which probably is less than helpful!
Managing emotional response
A striking finding from my own research is how practitioners seem to engage in a process of creating personal allegories to support themselves to create a safe distance from their personal values. This is an active process involving emotional and cognitive labour, such as using the idea of building a bridge, which they cross over into their professional heads, leaving their acknowledged personal values at the other side. It is important to note that this allegorising was not intended to create physical or emotional distance between the workers and the service users, but instead was a means of managing their existing emotional responses to ensure ongoing work was safe. Giving some attention to this process and working with students to help them construct their own safety allegory seems a useful strategy that enables them to hold their personal views whilst they work through them in a way that avoids unsafe collisions.
Commitment to self-care
Probably most importantly of all, if we are going to ask students to 'wrestle with anguish' then we need to ensure that developing a commitment to self-care is a major part of the support we give them. An inability to manage the stresses linked to struggles with values has been shown as increasing risks of burnout, secondary trauma, and compassion fatigue (Newell and Nelson-Gardell, 2014). Whilst the biggest risk factor for developing these conditions is the nature of the work itself, there are actions practice educators can and should take to support inexperienced students in maintaining their own emotional needs whilst simultaneously engaging in meeting the needs of service users. Some seem fairly obvious such as highlighting the importance of a good diet, sleep and exercise. Yes, I know social workers up and down the land are now groaning at me whilst reaching for the biscuit tin, but we know it to be true even if we are not quite so brilliant at taking our own advice. Areas where practice educators can help include workload management (including the development of skills to speak out before it becomes unmanageable), modelling the taking of appropriate breaks, as well as teaching students to recognise the major indicators of burnout and fatigue. One thing I have found is those students who have had a creative outlet (music/cooking/ art/window shopping) have been able to use this to good effect in simply creating space away from the anguish in which to breathe, which ultimately has helped them make peace with their decision making which surely is the best form of self-care?
Ferguson, H. (2016) 'What social workers do in performing child protection work: Evidence from research into face-to-face practice'. Child and Family Social Work, 21(3) pp283-94
Hochschild, A.R. (1983) The managed heart. Berkeley, California: University of California Press
Newell, J.M, & Nelson-Gardell, D. (2014) 'A competency-based approach to teaching self-care: An ethical consideration for social work educators'. Journal of Social Work Education, 50 pp427-439