Growing up in The 70s, I idolized my big brother, Greg… Much to his chagrin. Although only 2 years older, to me he was the coolest. I wanted to go where he went, be friends with his friends and basically be as cool as he was. We lived in a rural bayou town across the lake from New Orleans during that period of time. Greg could drive but I could not. So when He drove to town to see his friends, I would beg mom to make him take me too. I was 15 after all (I would argue) and should be able to go as well. He hated when my mom would give in and tell him “take your sister”. He was always going to the lakefront where all the kids hung out and dragging me along was not his idea of a good time. I didn’t care because he always gave in to mom and took me with him and I got to hang out with the big kids at the lakefront.
Looking back, as we have the luxury to do when we are older, I could tell how much my brother loved me despite his protestations to the contrary. He was fiercely protective of me when I was with him. And I gotta tell you, I didn’t make it easy for him. I was outgoing and fearless as a teen. Translation: I did stupid things and got myself into precarious and a couple of times dangerous situations down at the lakefront. But he always showed up in the nick of time, saving me from myself. And he NEVER told mom, which would have resulted in me losing future privileges of accompanying him on these outings. It’s funny how things become clear when we look backwards.
One activity my brother and his friends loved to do was to pile up in our den every Saturday to watch Kung Fu theatre. Greg tried to make it a boys only tradition. But, I got to participate because of my assurances to my parents that I, too, loved Chinese martial arts and should not be remanded to the living room just because I was a girl. Truth be told, I really wanted to hang out with the boys and didnt care about the movies. At first.
After the first movie, I had to admit it was pretty good. I liked the good versus evil storylines and noticed that the movies all had a recurring theme. The plot of each movie was different but a common thread ran through them. The hero starts as a “nobody” with fairly limited abilities. Some terrible event occurs, highlighting his helplessness. As the unlikely hero vows to avenge his family or to rescue the love of his life, it soon becomes apparent that he lacks the skills to challenge the villain. There is a scene in almost every kung fu film where the weak, but kindhearted hero seeks the sage. Usually the sage is very eccentric and lived remotely. He instructs the hero to perform menial chores, which inevitably turn out to be lessons in character and skills in kung fu. The movie ends with the hero using these skills to defeat the villain.
Why not just teach the young hero fighting skills and then set him free? The master or sage knew, in his wisdom, that strength and skill building took time, committment and dedication. Quick training would not equip the young hero for all the hurdles he would face on his own road to becoming a master.
While not quite as dramatic as fighting for the lives of your loved ones, social work is also a belief system, requiring highly tuned skills. An unprepared, unskilled social worker can actually have a devastating impact on families. The responsibility is great. This might explain, in part, why social work has a high turn over rate across the nation. Our state is no exception.
I periodically look at the data of turnover in my county to see what trends are evident and to strategize on how to inprove retention. In reviewing exit conference notes of social workers who have quit this year, I noticed several workers who have given up early in their career (some after only a few months in the field). Not surprising, a common thread in their reasoning surrounds their feelings of unpreparedness for the major decisions they are expected to make.
Its not that they are not trained. Most agencies have training programs for new social workers, focused on how to follow the particular agency’s procedures and guidelines. After a short few weeks of training, workers are sent into the field to make difficult decisions that effect the lives of others.
Good agencies realize that there is more involved in preparing social workers for the field by adding an OJT program to the training component to allow for practice in a sheltered setting.
But great agencies, like the sage, invest a lot of time and attention to their new employees. Not only do they create training curriculums that include OJT, but the supervisors over new employees take an extra interest in the building of skill and competencies, validating good decisions and non judgementally challenging ones that need more substance. Here is where most supervisors would argue that they do not have the time. I counter with the notion that making time up front to mold a budding social work master would save time in the back, where they are frantically reassigning cases (aka peoples lives) when a social worker gives up and leaves.
Developing your workforce requires not only committment, time and dedication of the student but also of the teacher.
One simple but highly effective strategy for supervisors involves having meaningful dialogue with your new workers, asking the important questions each week. Some questions could be:
“We have been talking about ways to assess underlying needs. Give me an example of a skill you tried this week around engaging.”
“Tell me something that happened this week that you were unsure of or that you wondered if you handled right”.
Consistent dialogue around questions like these accomplish 3 things.
1. It builds engagement between you and your staff and gives staff the understanding that you want to develop them.
2. It gives your staff permission to ask questions and make mistakes without fear of judgement.
3. It builds up the competency and skills of your staff.
So, in essence, dont just be the task master, doling out cases and expectations that are difficult to achieve.
Be the sage. Take the time to challenge, stretch and build up the competency of your staff. The reward in the end benefits your worker, your families, you and the agency. Your commitment to their development can help the new social worker to stay on the path and to become a skilled, competent leader. Be the sage.