Over a short period of time, a couple of days, I had become aware of what I think is a bit of a connundrum. I hadn’t ever realised the extent of the community work that people who work in vulnerable communities do. And I’ve heard myself called a community worker so I guess that fits. I’ve never called myself a social worker, I don’t ever really know what to call myself to be honest. If asked, I’ll just say I’m Aunty In Charge (of The Aunties, not anyone else). I was shocked these people weren’t social workers, and because I have an outsider’s knowledge of what social workers actually do, though I work with many social workers, it forced a bit of reflection on what I do. I used to feel a lot of “impostor syndrome” and I haven’t lost that totally. I’m still sitting meeting with people, and questioning myself if it’s okay that I’m doing that.
So I wrote a blog and called it Social Work – it’s here. The name of it played on the word social, but I never have believed that what I do is social work. And I never ever tell the women that’s what I am. So I ruminated. And wrote.
I was delighted to recieve feedback – as I had asked at the end of that blog to do so – from some social workers. I’ve put that here so you can see it too. Having been a kindergarten teacher, and being called a daycare worker, I completely relate to what they said. I have a degree, I have a teaching qualification. I know the importance of those “pieces of paper”, which aren’t just that, but instead represent years of hard work, and more importantly, hard thinking. Critical thinking. Critical analysis of what we do, and how we are, in our chosen professions.
I apologise to all social workers for giving the impression that I ever thought it was just a piece of paper, and I also thank the social workers who responded and clarified what it is that they do.
“The value of my ‘piece of paper’ – knowing enough to know what I don’t know.
I found this particularly hard to read – and from the comments of other social workers (yes, the ones with pieces of paper) around me, I wasn’t alone in that. So, since being reflective and trying to separate our own feelings from actual events is a core part of what we’re educated to do in our (four-year, intense) degrees, we had a few chats about why. This is what we concluded.
Your degree of empathy is awesome. It’s beautiful, it’s inspiring, it shows genuine and admirable compassion for the women you support. It’s equally awesome that you are willing and able to listen to women’s stories – that’s not inherently a social work skill, but it’s an incredibly important one for anyone supporting women after experiences of violence or trauma. The fact that you have supervision is excellent – it’s reassuring, and arguably essential for anyone working with women who’ve been hurt. Your role in their life is important. Your work is important. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call it ‘social work’ without acknowledging the pitfalls of claiming an identity you haven’t studied for.
I’m a registered social worker, with a four-year Bachelors and a two-year Masters. So are the majority of my peers. We work in similar fields. And in most of our organisations, we do have qualified social workers, and unqualified or less qualified support workers. For some of the basic tasks we do, there is little difference. We are able to sit with women who’ve experienced trauma. We are able to advocate for them. We share those skills and that commitment.
Equally, there are points of difference – skills we’ve gained, knowledge we’ve gathered, and ways of thinking that have become automatically ingrained throughout the four to six years we’ve spent being educated to think and act in a particular way. In our degrees, we learn to deconstruct all of our beliefs, and the practices of systems we’re embedded in. We learn that listening and responding genuinely, empathically, and authentically to women’s stories is vital – but so, too, is knowing how our genuine, empathic, and authentic responses might reinforce negative cycles of behaviour; might unwittingly blame, judge, or shame women for their experiences; might not pick up on what’s being said that might indicate the need for further support in particular areas, etc, etc.
The words “you don’t actually need a social work qualification if you’re not working for a government department” are grossly misleading. There is a reason many (arguably most) organisations prefer to hire social workers who are fully qualified and eligible for registration. That’s not just about a minimum standard of competency (though that’s just as important – we wouldn’t allow a nurse to undertake surgery just because she feels confident to do so), it’s about a guarantee of basic learning and unlearning.
We have spent years learning where our limitations lie – when we should be the ones hearing disclosures and taking up the mantle of key support person, and when we should refer to specialists. We know enough to know that when we qualify, we are, at best, consciously incompetent – new graduates should have been educated enough to remove their accidental, well-intended mistakes with clients, and to know they need a hell of a lot more support to become consciously competent.
So, when you say, “if it’s good enough for them, then it has to be good enough for me” – that worries me, too. Because a lot of the role of a social worker is invisible. Clients are not necessarily going to know if you unintentionally cause harm. If you enable, or justify, or minimise, or shame, or suppress resistance, you might not know. Neither will they. Just as when I go to a doctor, I can’t adequately evaluate quality – I’m going to assume that they are qualified enough to interact with me in the way that I need. I assume this, because they have qualifications, registration, and regular requirements regarding professional development and competency.
So if you say you’re a social worker, they’re going to expect that you’re acting from a position of knowledge and expertise. And, if you claim that those things aren’t important, you’re delegitimising the entire basis of our professional identity as social workers, and minimising the value of our hard-earned education – the education that makes us deconstructed, accountable, and conscious of our skills and limitations. “Good enough for our clients” isn’t our end goal. Being good enough to reach a high standard of externally measured professional conduct and skill, in a way that our clients may not be able to see but with certainly benefit from, is the baseline.
I’m glad you do what you do. I think you should keep doing it. But I don’t think you should assume that there’s no difference between your work and the role, education, and scope of practice of ‘social work’. ”
Thank you for your honesty.
Thank you for your feedback.
But mostly, thank you for what you do.
Respect and admiration, always.