I will never forget the day I had a client tell me, “I could do your job, and I didn’t even go to school for it.”
I have probably mentioned before that I work (well, worked, as of today) as the case manager at a homeless shelter. Three or so years ago, one of my clients decided that I was being useless, and that she could do my job better than me.
Now, this is not going to become a blog post on who has a harder job, the social worker, the teacher or the garbage man. Every job is hard in it’s own way, and I readily acknowledge that. I’m married to a teacher, have a lot of friends that are teachers, and many other friends in various other fields and careers.
What this is going to be is a blog post about what I wish people understood about what it takes to be a social worker.
To start, you HAVE to be compassionate. You have to REALLY like people, and you have to like to help people. No education in the world can teach you those things.
Great. So, what is social work? According to the International Association of Social Workers,
The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.
A lot of times, we’ll hear people say “I don’t know how you do what you do,” or the occasional “I could never do your job.” But often, people only see one facet of our profession. Medical professionals have some idea what social workers do—enough of an idea to know it is difficult, mysterious, taxing and sometimes risky work. Some have no concept of what it is we do and are only further mystified when we try explaining.
We, oddly, have felt the same about other professions: I actually tried nursing school, and it was not a pretty result. I wound up in my clinical with a patient in the advanced stages of AIDS, coughing (stop reading here if you’re eating. Consider yourself warned!) phlegm out of a tracheotomy tube. I quit the following week. I could never do what they do.
A social workers greatest skills, our greatest assets, are unseen. The ability to occupy a room with grieving or enraged clients and remain clear-minded and helpful, strategic, and professional—this is a lifelong skill developed over years of training and experience. I haven’t learned it all, not by a long shot. The management of complex family, community, and professional systems is an acquired expertise. The management and counseling of difficult emotions, mental health crises, and social catastrophe is a fine art, honed in the heat of countless client encounters. Skilled listening, systems thinking, advocacy, alignment, and decisive interventions are all designed to unlock obstacles and resolve difficulties. We are therapists, diplomats, advocates, bearers of news both good and bad, investigators, mediators, emergency escorts, advisers, and impromptu good Samaritans. We can only start to learn these things by the dedicated social workers that spend their lives teaching others how to start learning these things.
Of course, we also can’t forget the countless hours we spend using the math we never thought we’d need in high school and during our stats classes, the paper work, the emails, the phone calls… but I digress.
I have often said that my job has such a big learning curve that I would learn something new every day. I worked at the shelter for four and a half years, and I am sure that not a week passed where I encountered a new situation. Just a week ago, I had to deal with a family having their entire savings, $600, taken from them due to owed back child support. Well, that was something new and different for me. The truth is, my career has a big learning curve. We can’t become complaisant in our learning, lest we become ineffective in our duties and responsibilities.
I am closing a chapter in the book of my social work journey today – I have left a good job as the case manager at the homeless shelter, only to start the next chapter in my social work journey as a program facilitator for a workforce development program. I cannot allow myself to become stagnant in my work. I will become ineffective, and I will not accept that in my clients lives, and I will not accept it in my own. I need to push myself to continue learning and growing. We all do.
So, the next time someone tells me that they could do my job, and not even have to go to school for it, I’ll just smile, and nod, and tell them I’m sure they think that’s true.