One of the things I love about learning is the way it shifts over time. Thinking about my time in graduate school made me realize how much of that experience I’ve carried with me and applied to my career, often not even realizing it. Here are few lessons I’ve carried with me from my social work training that serve me well as an evaluator and may be useful others.
1.Consider the person-in-environment.
The National Association of Social Workers website states, “[t]he practice of social work requires knowledge of human development and behavior; of social and economic, and cultural institutions; and of the interaction of all these factors “. It was drilled in to me to always consider the person in the environment. Trying to understand one without the other would not do. I’ve come to understand this aspect of my social work training as being related to systems thinking and human system dynamics. The person-in-environment phrase reminds me to ask questions like: What else is influencing what we’re observing here? What will change and how if we alter this piece over here? This perspective involves inquiring into a situation through “zooming in” and “zooming out” and considering the interconnected nature of life. AEA has great minds thinking and writing about this, including current AEA president Beverly Parsons who is infusing this year’s conference with systems themes. Conveniently, Glenda Eoyang, President of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute is headlining this week’s Thought Leader discussion over at AEA. If you’re not an AEA member, you can watch Glenda’s recent webinar for the ALIA institute here. (The link goes to a list of recent ALIA webinars. The list includes one by Zaid Hasson based on his book The Social Lab Revolution discussed by Cameron Norman on his Censemaking blog.)
2. Honor beginnings, middles, and ends.
This one is directly from the Penn Approach to social work practice and comes from the work of Otto Rank, a member of Freud’s inner circle. Honoring beginnings, middles and ends acknowledges that time is an important aspect of professional practice and helps match expectations to a given situation. The three words also serve to remind me to stay present, pay attention, and notice when a beginning turns into a middle or a middle becomes and end. We move through life so fast we can forget to notice what’s happening. This mantra slows me down. We “honor the end” any time we take a break before starting the next adventure, meeting or book. It is so simple, but thinking this way can be profound. Employing this takeaway involves a shift of perspective more than anything else.
3. Practice reflective practice.
Social work has great tools for reflective practice. The one I dreaded in graduate school and have come to love is the “process recording”. Basically, after a meeting with a client, a social worker writes down as accurately as possible everything that was said and everything the social worker thought and felt. A complete example PDF is available here. Planning to write in this way makes one very present during an interaction- a good practice in itself. Writing the process recording gives space to reflect on observations, feelings, thoughts and applying theory in practice. Even done in isolation, it can be excellent exercise for improving one’s practice. Sharing a process recording with someone else welcomes feedback and provides a second opinion. If you’re planning to share your notes with someone, make sure it is a trusted colleague who is on board with learning together in this way. It’s evaluative, revealing, and personally and professionally challenging. Gentleness is key with this practice. It is about noticing, reflecting and learning, not judgment.
4. Be a voice for the silenced.
I almost wrote “be a voice for the voiceless”, and that is not at all correct. Everyone has a voice and a story, it’s just that some voices are more likely to have a seat at the table than others. How to act on this one varies depending on the situation. Raising the issue yourself can work, provided you’re prepared to do so and ready for what may happen as a result. Other times it is possible to include a champion on the team whose voice will be more influential or informed. A private conversation after a meeting can change the nature of the next interaction. A caution is to avoid tokenism or fall into the trap of thinking one person’s opinion or experience represents an entire group. This holds whether the group is microbiologists, military moms or multilingual merchants from Manitoba. Small gestures can be meaningful, too. I once wrote this quote on the board in a meeting where I wanted myself and the group to be especially conscious of the people who provided the data we were talking about.
The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought and attended to my answer. ~Henry David Thoreau
It’s not that we wouldn’t have paid attention naturally, but I wanted it to be explicit. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I’m fairly certain my social work roots were in action.
That’s another lesson from social work training. The small stuff matters. Sometimes we never know how much.
Happy Social Work Month to all the social workers out there! Here’s a little love (again) from Love Park in Philadelphia.
Image by kconnors via Morguefile http://mrg.bz/LnPKq1