When I was 25 years old, I took an adventurous trip to Australia. I went alone, stayed for five weeks with people I had never met before and had the time of my life. On the second day there, my new friends took me hiking up a small mountain.
At first glance, from the car, the climb did not seem daunting. The trail was clear and there were actually steps and guardrails at some points. However as the day progressed and the trail ascended higher and higher, I began to falter. My muscles felt weak, my breath became ragged and I wanted to give up. I sat on a bench and told my companions to go on without me. I would catch back up with them on the way down. But they didn’t go on. They didn’t make fun of my weakness. Instead they apologized. One girl explained to me that they had hiked this mountain trail at least once a month for years. She, too, struggled at first. She told me that I was struggling because I was expecting to keep their pace. In the moment, they had forgotten this was my first time. They all agreed to take the trail at a much slower place and to rest often. Supported by this new plan, I agreed to keep going and not to give up. It took an extra hour, but I finally reached the Summit and felt jubilant!! The view was fantastic, but more importantly, I felt empowered and accomplished.
When new workers enter the child welfare field, they do so with confidence and a mission to serve others. Often, they have interned in the field and want to make a difference in the lives of families. They look at the trail blazed by their more experienced coworkers and their supervisors and tell themselves, I can do that! They are often told by their supervisors that if they are organized, plan their day and work steadily, they will be successful. So, on they go!
But, all too often, they are not prepared for the pace or the demands that their career choice imposes. And they want to give up.
Did this happen to you? When you were a new worker were you truly prepared for what the job would ask of you?
Even working with one family, you had to be an engager, a broker, an advocate and a legal spokesperson. You dealt with the children, the parents, the relatives, the foster parents, the courts, the school’s and providers. Being organized helped, but you weren’t prepared for the emergencies that required you to stop the planned and organized day, adjust on a dime and race off in another direction. If this happened to you, you were not alone. I have seen workers in a complete tailspin trying to decide which fire to put out first.
The agency expected you to be able to get outcomes, document all efforts and actions and to update the myriad of tracking demands sent daily to you. After a short while, many, just like you, threw up their hands, plopped down at their desk, and tried to compose a resignation letter that didn’t portray the failure and resentment they felt in their heart.
What did you do to keep going? What could you have done? And, if you are at that point right now, how can we, in the child welfare leadership, help you to keep going?
First, I ask you to examine your heart and remember what led you to this thankless career? If you were misguided and led to believe it was an easy “state job”, then someone lied to you. You will give and give of yourself every day as a child protector , well being advocate and permanency investor. There is no easy job in child welfare. If that was your motivation, then I wish you many blessings on your future endeavors. Go ahead and hand in that letter.
However, I firmly believe that the overwhelming majority of those who come to child welfare do so out of a desire to help others and make a positive difference. If that is your motivation, then I encourage you to stay the course. As difficult as the job may be, you are making a difference. You could very well be the one person in a family’s life that can motivate them, supporting them towards better choices in safety and well being. Know your immeasurable value to these families. They may never thank you. But know your value.
And there are some assertive things you can do to improve your job experience. Talk to your supervisor about your struggles to keep up. Ask for help prioritizing during those multiple fire events. Don’t be afraid to ask your experienced peers for their secrets for lasting so long. You could learn some valuable self care tips. And most importantly, make a promise to yourself to keep going for the next month. And then, for the next one…and then…
For all of us who are supervisors or higher in child welfare leadership, we need to step up. It is so important that we recognize when someone on our team is new. We have to be aware that they cannot keep up the pace expected of our experienced workers. As we take ownership of the strengths and needs of our team, we need to pay attention to the stragglers. And while assessment of skill is important, we must not label them weak and utter those words ” they’re not going to make it.” Once we do that, we tend to only see their mistakes. See the struggling workers as a challenge instead. Remember how you struggled as a new worker and make a point to understand the difficulties experienced by this worker. Take the time to help them grow. Give them the motivation to keep going. This is how you make a difference.
Not everyone who attempted to climb the trails 30 years ago made it to the top. Many did give up. The secret to my success came from the understanding and patience of my companions and my own determination to reach the summit.