Field education in social work has reached a new level of importance, says Jo Ann McFall, associate director of Field Education and Community Programs at Michigan State University School of Social Work.
Social work field education helps lay the groundwork for students to create their professional identities, experts say. Field education was elevated in significance after the Council on Social Work Education named it the signature pedagogy of social work education.
“Field education is in the most exciting place it has been in the 35 years that I have been involved since I was a student,” said McFall, who also is chairwoman of the Council on Social Work Education’s Council on Field Education.
“One significant change is that field education was named the signature pedagogy of social work education as part of the CSWE 2008 Education Policy and Accreditation Standards,” she said.
CSWE uses the Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards to accredit baccalaureate- and master’s-level social work programs. These standards support academic excellence by establishing thresholds for professional competence.
Field education integrates the theoretical and conceptual contributions of the classroom with the practical world of the practice setting. As the signature pedagogy, field education is the way in which students are educated for and socialized to the profession, McFall explained.
The two interrelated aspects of the curriculum, field and classroom, stand on equal ground. And because field education is the signature pedagogy, competence is measured, she said.
“This transformation has elevated the value of field education in the minds of not only social work educators, but also for the organizations and agencies that are responsible for student’s field experience,” she added.
Accredited schools of social work have been determining their curricula based on the new standards since 2009.
As of this year, all accredited social work schools are using the competency-based education standards, which ensures consistency in the social work curriculum regardless of the size or location of the school.
“In my day, the field education component was more an apprenticeship model,” McFall said. “You learned as you went and did whatever your field instructor assigned. Now, we have a defined curriculum with consistent professional competencies.”
This change has helped standardize education and in turn helped the social work profession by making sure the students are exposed to a more well-rounded experience in their field placement and a more fair evaluation of their performance, McFall said.
“The standards help students know what is expected of them,” she said. “There are 10 defined competencies and then there are identified practice behaviors that the students use to demonstrate their competence.
The standards help add mobility within the profession as well, McFall noted. “It means everyone is talking the same language, which is a huge step forward for students and institutions.”
To build on this effort, the CSWE Council on Field Education hosted a summit at last year’s CSWE annual program meeting.
Joan Levy Zlotnik, director of the NASW Social Work Policy Institute, represented NASW at the meeting where 100 field educators and social work leaders met as a first step in a multifaceted initiative to improve the quality of field education, and to enhance training and resources for field educators.
Suggestions from that meeting will be a catalyst for change in the coming decade.
“Since we’re going to measure competency in the field, we need to discuss what field programs need to stand up to the challenge of the standards,” said McFall, who has been a field educator and director for 23 years.
McFall has these suggestions to help students make their field placement experience the most rewarding it can be:
- Keep an open mind about the field placement to which you are assigned. Learning is generalized from one setting or specialty to another.
- Be assertive in getting your needs met and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- Resolve difficulties with your field instructor first. If more resolution is needed, go to your school-assigned field liaison.
- Learn to take responsibility for your part in whatever problems arise.
Where the rubber hits the road
Lisa Richardson is the director of MSW field education and an assistant professor at St. Catherine University-University of St. Thomas School of Social Work in Saint Paul, Minn.
She agreed that making field education the signature pedagogy of social work education — and part of the CSWE 2008 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards — signaled a major advancement for the profession.
“Field is really where the rubber hits the road,” Richardson said. “It’s the heart and soul of social work education. It’s the learning that stays with you forever and it’s often the most memorable part of your education.”
In fact, the field experience lasts a lifetime, Richardson believes.
“I got my master’s degree over 20 years ago and I still remember the clients I had and the places we were and the conversations we had,” she said of her field placement. “It has a powerful and lasting impact as we create our own professional identity.”
“The standards help to demystify what social workers do, which is really valuable,” she added. “Sometimes as social workers we struggle saying who we are, what we do. (The standards have) helped everybody get on the same page, which strengthens our identity and role and helps our ability to collaborate across professions.”
The significance of field education as social work’s signature pedagogy has helped launched new resources for field educators, including an online journal called The Field Educator, which is dedicated to social work field education.
Produced by the Simmons School of Social Work, the journal promotes a knowledge exchange among the social work field education community. It offers formal research, “practice wisdom,” and personal accounts from students, agency-based field placement supervisors and campus-based field educators — as well as a list of valuable resources.
Get more information about field education and links for field educators.
Richardson is also the president and treasurer of the North American Network of Field Educators and Directors, or NANFED, covering the United States and Canada. It was founded in 1987 to promote the interests of field education within the CSWE and its Annual Program Meeting.
NANFED helps strengthen social work field education by assisting and improving collaborations among key players. The organization fosters best practices in field education as well as helps mentor new field directors and address issues related to standards.
NANFED also recognizes excellence in field instruction by annually bestowing the Heart of Social Work Award to an agency-based field instructor.
While field education has grown to be become a respected and equal member of social work education policy, leaders in the field know they must keep up to date on workforce challenges to make sure students are prepared.
Major changes to health care delivery through health care reform combined with the advancing age of the baby boom population will mean even greater opportunities for workforce development, Richardson said.
Social workers will need to be innovative as their roles within inter-professional health care teams grow. This means field educators will need to be responsive as new and emerging fields of practice emerge, Richardson noted.
“It is an exciting time and it’s critical as field directors we stay cognizant of these changes and nimble in how we create opportunities for students,” Richardson said.
She also encouraged upcoming field students to put their field placements in perspective.
“Field placement is a beginning of the journey,” Richardson said. “Nothing is ever wasted – all of it becomes part of your development, your professional identity, and your sense of what works and what doesn’t work. That is the tool box you take forward in your career. There are lots of layers of learning in the field.”
Grads share experiences
Brady Voigt credits his clinical year internship in the area of inpatient oncology and hematology with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for helping shape his career today as a stem cell transplant social worker at Mayo. He works in an area that provides transplant intervention to patients with blood cancers.
“After interning in medical social work, I knew that my personality type was more geared towards the fast-paced environment of medical settings,” said the St. Catherine University-University of St. Thomas School of Social Work graduate. “I also felt that working with cancer patients was incredibly rewarding and something I wanted to do after I completed my MSW.”
Voigt enjoys his job and said he would not be doing this kind of work had it not been for his internship experience and the “excellent supervision” he received as an MSW intern.
He suggested upcoming field placement students request to interview the person who will actually be supervising them.
“Interview your potential supervisor as much as they are interviewing you,” Voigt said. “Be grateful for the internship experience and receptive to feedback from supervisors. I think some students see field education as a means to an end, with the end being their MSW. However, such students then miss out on rich experiences, especially in the supervisory relationship. Field education is a time in which you can take risks and begin to identify as a social work professional.”
Jordan Wildermuth performed his social work field placement at the NASW Iowa Chapter and worked alongside the executive director on legislative issues.
“My placement was a great match as I was able to have a myriad of job responsibilities to choose from because of the many offerings NASW provides,” said Wildermuth, who today is the manager of Health Policy & Advocacy at Association Management Center. “I was able to come in and say that I wanted to focus my placement on public policy and was given the freedom to make connections and pursue avenues that I thought would benefit me.”
One of my Wildermuth’s first postgraduate jobs was executive director of the NASW Kentucky Chapter.
“I kind of liken my (field) placement to growing up in NASW and learning where I wanted to go with my career,” he explained.
He credits his professors at Wartburg College with helping him identify possible placements, as they noticed his interest and passion for macro level social work.
Wildermuth said upcoming students shouldn’t write off an opportunity because they think it won’t work or fit with the curriculum.
“During graduate school I was able to complete a practicum with an elected official in St. Louis,” he said. “I had to find someone with an MSW to supervise me, but going through that hurdle wasn’t that big of a deal and I walked away with valuable experience and connections.”
Recent graduate Serena Vruno is another example of social work students transitioning their field experiences into job opportunities.
Vruno performed her field placement at Family Adolescents and Children Therapy Services Inc., in Mendota Heights, Minn.
She currently works at FACTS as a mental health practitioner in their early childhood day-treatment program while also providing in-home therapy services to its day-treatment clients.
“Because of the trainings and learning opportunities provided throughout my internship, I was able to confidently and skillfully practice clinical work upon graduating,” she said.
“FACTS was able to expose me to working collaboratively with a variety of professional teams and clients by training me in using a systemic approach,” she said. “They were always mindful of my education goals and objectives and integrated trainings and learning opportunities throughout my placement to ensure I was receiving the skills necessary as I transitioned into my professional career.”
Vruno said students need to take the time to observe and learn, and take advantage of the trainings and skills being taught during field placements.
“Allow yourself to be reflective in supervision and in your field seminar class,” she said. “My field experience was successful and rewarding because I had the support of my supervisors and my field seminar professor and peers.”
Listen to Jo Ann McFall, chairwoman of the CSWE Council on Field Education, discuss how field educators need to meet the needs of nontraditional social work students.
Schools and hospitals work together to guide student internships
Field educators and hospital social workers in the Boston area united last year to help guide students who were about to begin their internships as health care/hospital social workers.
Several schools of social work in the Boston area and the Council on Boston Teaching Hospitals hosted “Healthcare Orientation for Social Work Students” at Simmons College.
The daylong gathering for MSW students offered insight about ways to be an effective member of a multidisciplinary health care team as well as devising effective and culturally sensitive strategies and interventions for patients and how to promote a professional presence.
Students also learned about social work’s role in health care, the importance of empathy, the basics of psychosocial assessment, supervision and self-care.
Sue Goldman, director of Field Education at the Salem State School of Social Work, was part of the team that worked on the orientation.
“Health care is changing rapidly right now and social workers need to be a part of that change,” Goldman said. “We wanted to be able to have a voice in how those changes were occurring.”
The effort also benefitted the organizers by reinforcing and enhancing the camaraderie between the schools of social work and the hospitals.
The two organizations are evaluating the results of the pre- and post-tests from the students who attended the pilot orientation day in 2014. The information will be used to adjust the next orientation taking place this summer, Goldman said.
Patricia Robinson is the social work executive with the Veterans Affairs Boston Health Care System, which participated in developing the orientation.
She said the event helped fill a void for the challenges that hospital/health care social work students face.
“It’ not a social work agency that you are working for – it’s a medical setting,” Robinson explained. “It’s a unique setting that requires a lot of preparation and skills to work well with the team.”
The orientation helped MSW interns better understand their roles and helped reinforce the value and skills they bring to health care teams, she said.
“From my own participation, I felt the program covered from A to Z what (interns) need to know about before they come into a hospital setting,” Robinson said.
The collaboration was an outreach of an initiative by the NASW Massachusetts Chapter, said chapter Executive Director Carol Trust.
Six years ago, the chapter brought together the directors of social work and the Boston-area teaching hospitals as a way to link health care social work to NASW, Trust said.
“The chapter is thrilled to have been a major contributor to the bringing together of these two essential social work movers — social work educators and social work leaders in health care,” she said.
The Healthcare Orientation for Social Work Students collaboration included: Boston College Graduate School of Social Work, Boston University School of Social Work, Bridgewater State University, Simmons College, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital, Dana Farber Institute, Faulkner Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and both VA Boston and VA Bedford Healthcare systems.