Leading with Intent
School Social Workers as Building Leaders
Has it ever been more important for school social workers to step into leadership roles? In the current climate of an ongoing pandemic and our country’s streets being filled with Americans demanding the dismantling of structural racism in everything from policing to schools, school social workers must be prepared to step into our work as educational leaders. That leadership might be within the school we are housed, within the district we serve, at the state level, or beyond. No matter the scope of our work as school social workers, we must lead with intention through these times of challenge and change.
As a school social worker, I have served on, facilitated, and led a variety of leadership teams, programs, and initiatives. Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports teams, Child Study teams, Tiered Intervention Teams, Equity initiatives, Social-Emotional Curriculum Committees, and Crisis Response Teams are just a few examples. As a school social worker, you might get automatically linked to teams by default of your role – leading your school or district’s social and emotional health initiatives, serving as a liaison between the school and community resources, supporting students and community through a mental health crisis. Perhaps your leadership is linked to an initiative that sparks your professional interest or you’ve identified a need that has not been met and are trying to start that initiative yourself. As we think ahead to schools reopening, you might lead discussion and programming on how to best prepare our schools to support the mental health and social well being of students that are experiencing the ongoing impact of COVID-19.
No matter how we get involved, it is without a doubt, school social workers are in a place of leadership. While leading with good intention is a start, is it enough? When considering our role in pushing the lead to more equitable school systems and work of the like, the harsh reality is – probably not.
Without intentional leadership, initiatives fall apart, staff lose interest, and morale can plummet.
Reflecting on my initial piece on SSWN, which focused on rethinking the limitations of a “host setting,” as school social workers we need to shift our perspective and embrace the benefit and power of influence that comes with being a school/district leader. We come into school leadership with professional values that include service, the importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. For some of us, our area of expertise may not be in the field of education.
I forgot the importance of a cooperative system. As social workers, we are experts in supporting healthy and functioning systems. School social workers leading with intention, might just ask themselves “How can I lead this team toward a common goal, functioning as a healthy system?” As leaders, how can we be courageous and seen?
For some of us, our area of expertise may not be in the field of education but we are experts in supporting healthy and functioning systems.
What if we begin our work of intentional leadership by being intentional with the goal we are setting to accomplish? All too often teams gather weekly in meetings with no clear direction or goal in mind. Teams meet because it is what is expected or what is routine. We forget to clarify the purpose or goal of working together. Without purpose, we cannot measure our progress, recalibrate when we’re missing the mark, or celebrate success. There is no clear finish line. Momentum wanes, attitudes sour. Be intentional, name your goal.
As social workers, we know about setting achievable, measurable, and timely goals. We are experienced at breaking goals down into smaller, practical objectives to build momentum towards the path to success. This know-how and expertise can lead our teams towards attainable progress and move our work forward.
“Courage starts with showing up and being seen.” Brene Brown
Shared Group Norms
All too often, we set to work within our various teams and forget to set clear expectations around group behavior. Each member of each team and initiative comes with their unique perspective, experience, and vision. Sometimes conflicts emerge before the work begins. It might be as simple as some group members enjoying with soft start times to meetings and small talk, with others expecting to start on time and get to business. It also goes deeper, with unspoken cultural norms and experiences.
When we take the time to acknowledge the various working needs and cultural norms of group members, we are supporting a healthy system. A healthy system communicates, compromises, and holds itself accountable to the norms of the group. It can be clunky and clumsy. By creating a common language and understanding of group norms, all voices can feel heard. Group members can feel safe and confident in how they are expected to show up.
As social workers, we are the wearers of many hats. This can be especially true when our role is in the schools. We also see all that is on the plates of those around us, the teachers, specialists, support staff, and administrators. It can become all too easy to lessen someone else’s burden by adding to our own. I can recall early on in my role as school social worker getting wrapped up in my work. I thought that I, alone, could get the job of supporting students done. I recall my burnout. I recall the compassion fatigue. And I’ll let you in on a little secret I picked up along the way… we simply can’t do it all. We might want to or think we can. We can’t. We need to rely on our teams and systems to support us.
Time is such a precious resource for educators, that we can forget to slow down, communicate, and delegate. I can recall one too many meetings when I showed up late due to tackling a crisis. The team would be waiting for me to begin the work or planning interventions. It was time and resource lost. Once I relied on delegation, we would communicate roles and responsibilities. Team members felt mutual buy-in and investment in our work together. If a team member was absent or postponed, we knew their role and could easily fill in the gap.
And I’ll let you in on a little secret I picked up along the way… we simply can’t do it all. We might want to or think we can. We can’t. We need to rely on our teams and systems to support us.
Depend on your team and work together to identify “essential” roles. These roles might include a recorder, facilitator, timekeeper, scheduler. Delegation not only supports your workload, but it also creates a bond among team members. It gives them a purpose for their attendance and can boost trust in your leadership.
Checks and balances
Dignity and worth of the individual. It is one of our core social work values. In systems as tangled as schools, there are times that we can feel like more of a cog in the machine than a professional with a voice that matters. This is true for school social workers, school counselors, teachers, paraprofessionals, and so on.
When we lead with intention, we are taking the time to see our colleagues. We are aware of our privilege and bias and take the time to recognize the perspective, knowledge, and experience of those we work alongside. We create a space for the influence of our colleagues and recognize their leadership potential, sharing the torch. This provides checks and balances for the leadership work we do. We lead through collaborating and delegating. We are recognizing the worth and wisdom of those we are surrounded by. When we lead with intention, we are maintaining the dignity of our colleagues by setting clear goals, committing to norms, and delegating tasks. We lean on one another to provide checks and balances for the group.
So, school social workers, let’s show up. Let’s be purposeful, be courageous, and be seen! Let’s commit to taking the time to communicate, to delegate, to set a clear vision for the initiatives we lead, and to listen. During a time of unknowns, a time of social unrest, and pending changes we must lead on. To effect real change, and maintain progress within our schools we must be more intentional. Feel free to connect with me on the SSWNetwork site and share more about how you are leading with intent!