Getting Started: The Clinical Practicum Experience

masters-in-social-workAnother year has begun and first year social work students will be starting their field placements all over NYC and beyond.
I met with 15 new first-year students yesterday, Friday, September 9 in order to start preparing them for this exciting and sometimes anxiety-provoking first year internship experience. We gathered in a brightly light and freshly scrubbed classroom in the Silberman School of Social Work. Everyone pushed their chair up to a large table and waited, the room filled with kinetic energy. I looked up from my attendance sheet, smiled and said, “Welcome to Social Work 101!” Of course that was met with nervous laughter. I then said, “Welcome to your first year field learning experience.”
I was curious about how the students felt and wanted to take the temperature of where they were mentally and emotionally about going into field for the first time So when I asked the students what they were most anxious about, there were — of course — a myriad concerns, but the main themes seem to be: what is clinical supervision and what should be expected of me? I think this anxiety is explained quite thoroughly and honestly in the blog post entitled, “First 2 weeks induction“, where a new MSW student decides to blog/journal her feelings and experience in the field.  I thought that it was really helpful to read what she was still anxious about:

  1. Prospect of taking on cases is scary
  2. Asking field instructor too many questions
  3. Fear of having field instructor/supervisor be present when  working with a client/family/group

I think it is important to remember that we all went through the same process — perhaps experienced some of the same feelings. It’s therefore helpful to try to view the experience from the student’s perspective. The article in The New Social Worker, “ Field Placement: What Students Need From Their Field Supervisors: A Student’s Perspective by Kaila Williams” speaks about the difference that it made to the author when she was able to have a real conversation with her field instructor about what advocating for herself meant instead of being silent and just doing what she was told.

“As a new student to social work, I needed a spoken conversation about my supervisor’s expectations of me—not the everyday case management expectations, which I thought this concept implied, but my supervisor’s expectations from me as a student intern. In addition, a supervised session or two in conflict resolution in an internship setting and how/when to advocate for yourself at your field placement would have been helpful in making the transition to a social work student. Regardless of who your students are or their personalities, this conversation needs to be made formal.”

She makes a good point about having the courage to speak up and tell the field instructor when you feel you can or cannot do a task that is requested of you. I have found in my own work with my student this year that she has been very verbal about how much she can and cannot take on as a student; and she has been all the better for it. She is also an older student who works full time and has learned to navigate various professional and personal roles in her life. A younger student may not have the same experience, but one can never assume! I have noticed that since she is able to advocate for herself, it has also helped me to gauge where she is with her work and her school assignments. I have found that it is also very important for the field instructor to take the time to get to know the students and their abilities. In order for field learning to be successful, both the student and the field instructor need to be open to the learning process. This is a mutual experience and it is a process that needs time and nurturing from both parties to be successful. In Social Work Today, in her article “Becoming a Successful Field Instructor ” Cristina Reardon discusses various concerns that field instructors should be aware of — the ones that have stood out the most for me as an educator myself are the following:

  • Be clear about expectations
  • Be willing to teach and learn
  • Be honest about the challenges and rewards of the profession in general

It is clear that as field instructors we are so much more than “just” a supervisor for a student — we are a teacher, mentor and champion for the social work professional as a whole


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