Developing Your SSW Ethos
“More often there’s a compromise between ethics and expediency.” ~ Peter Singer
The utility of a school social worker in any district is founded in ethics; which is to facilitate school structures/personnel to prioritize dignity for all students. The mantle of ethical practice is often carried by school social workers whether we like it or not. The unspoken expectation that social workers lead buildings in ethical practices is carried by school society. Supervisors know all too well the community, building and district perceptions thrust upon our role. It is vitally important that interns understand what they represent when they put on the role of the school social worker intern. That being said, it is even more important that they embody the ethics of our profession from the day they start engaging students.
Our foundation and base of ethics are laid out in the NASW Code of Ethics for all types of social workers. A worthy read for newcomers and veterans of this profession. For veterans, the words take on new meaning as we gain more and more practice experience. For the intern, the words serve as a guide when faced with internal and external dilemmas. The concepts and spelled out definitions are tried and true. They give direction to the current practice of social workers and tether us together as we move forward. However, the interpretation of these ethics inside of a school structure requires nuance. These ethics are not mutually agreed upon by all educators and holding up these standards requires translation and while the NASW Code of Ethics is the perfect starting point to engage our ethics, for school social workers it’s not the end.
However, the interpretation of these ethics inside of a school structure requires nuance. These ethics are not mutually agreed upon by all educators and holding up these standards requires translation. And while the NASW Code of Ethics is the perfect starting point to engage our ethics, for school social workers it’s not the end.
Artwork Created by: Ali Hearn @heyalihearn
Service● Social Justice ● Dignity and Worth of a Person ● Importance of Human Relationships ● Integrity ● Competence
In the eighth edition of “School Social Work: Practice, Policy and Research”, James C. Raines’ chapter titled “The Process of Ethical Decision Making in School Social Work” breaks down seven different steps to help school social workers engage ethical decision making. Raines begins with self-awareness by calling on readers to identify the difference between their own values and the required professional values. As a school social worker supervisor, this can be the perfect place to begin with your intern. In my own experience, this can be a difficult launching point for some. They often express difficulty reconciling their religious or parental beliefs with the professional ethics required to be a school social worker; an honest answer that many school social workers can relate.
As Raines suggests, the first step in ethical decision making begins with self-awareness. We must first identify our own values and reconcile those with the professional values required to work with all students. Not all of our personal values line up with our professional values and it’s important to make that distinction. If left unchecked, some of our religious or parental values may influence our professional decision making.
Personal Belief: People don’t change. They are who they are.
Professional Value: Students can change. They can find replacement behaviors to meet their needs.
NASW Code of Ethics Principle: Dignity and worth of a person.
Personal Belief: Teachers/Administration need to know as much about the student as I do. How can they be expected to work with the student if they don’t?
Professional Value: Students have the right to confidentiality.
NASW Code of Ethics Principle: Integrity.
Personal Belief: My religious beliefs do not support the lifestyle of my client.
Professional Value: Self-determination.
NASW Code of Ethics Principle: Importance of Human Relationships.
In this activity, both interns and supervisors can dialogue about the ongoing challenge of checking our personal bias against our professional standards. Additionally, both supervisors and interns will create three scenarios in which a personal belief stands in contradiction to professional standards.
Step 1: Create three comparisons between personal beliefs and professional standards.
Step 2: Dialogue about ongoing strategies a professional can use to identify when personal belief is impacting professional practice.
Step 3: Review of Ethical Decision-Making Steps
- 1. Know Yourself
- 2. Analyze the Dilemma
- 3. Seek Consultation
- 4. Identify the Courses of Action
- 5. Manage the Clinical Concerns
- 6. Enact the Decision
- 7. Reflect on the Process (Raines, 2015, p. 93)
The balance of removing self and holding on to an objective ethical standard is easier said than done; the ideal of objective ethical standards bends when faced with context. Community dynamic factors like rural, suburban, urban, impoverished, wealthy, religious/political influences, parental engagement, and others create norms that school social workers must identify. It’s essential to name those dynamics and the influence they have on school culture in a building.
Culture dictates norms; norms set protocol.
School culture is not inherently ethical or inclusive of all students, therefore a school social worker may be at odds with building norms, culture, and protocol that miss our professional standards. The ‘ethos’ that exists inside of schools is a fusion between several domains: Community, School Board, Teacher, District Administration, District Lawyers, Community Police, Affluent Parents, and State are just some of the domains that create district/school culture. These are the factors that poke and prod the ethical direction of a school district. School social workers and interns must have an awareness of the external factors that influence the ethics of their building. Social workers have a professional obligation to measure school protocol/culture against our Code of Ethics for the protection of marginalized students.
For example, a school board may pressure district administration to increase the punitive consequences across the district for various infractions. The school board president may have even run on that platform with support from some community members. The influence of those domains could change the protocol of a district and cause the unintended consequence of targeting minority students with increased suspensions. It wouldn’t be the first time. Social work ethos call us to stand against practices that cause injustice.
School social workers (as a profession) serve as a boundary that loudly expresses when the marginalized are being targeted.
In this last activity, the supervisor and intern will dialogue about the dynamics of a school district that create the culture/protocol/ethics. Supervisors and interns can finish the activity by listing or creating an ethical macro issue that would require school social work advocacy.
Step 1: Supervisor describe the culture of your school building and district. Detail the influence of community, administration, teachers and all other relevant domains that impact district norms.
Step 2: Supervisor and intern identify a macro ethics issue that would call for school social worker advocacy; if applicable, one that currently exists in the current school district. Using the NASW Code of Ethics, justify why this issue involves the role of a school social worker.
Example: New school district protocol for lockdowns requires schools to simulate gunfire noises during the lockdown drill.
Join us next month for a Super Vision column that describes the principles and structures of the role of a school social worker (RTI, 504, IEP). In the following months, we will delve into foundational topics that are relevant for both supervisor and intern. Feedback and suggestions are welcome on our https://schoolsocialworkers.mn.co/ SSWNetwork social media platform. SSWNetwork is always free to join, and there’s over 2,200 of us there already!