Learn How To See Behind The Mask: Letter To A New Practitioner by Kate Silverio
To my dearest new colleague,
Welcome to the challenge! Some social workers choose to work with families, some with individuals, or the cross-collaborate with a variety of professionals, others work in community need programs, in mental health agencies, policy writing, etc. Then there are those that say “I want to do it all” and those become school social workers. Congratulations to being a jack of all trades. You will never be so busy and yet at the same time be unable to answer the question: so what does a school social worker do? I’m still working that one out. Though I may be confused myself, there are some things that I have learned over the last five years that I want to share with you:
Supervision and Self-Care: One thing I have learned while in graduate school is that for every question there are two, always correct, answers: seek supervision and practice self-care. Find a mentor, ask questions and lots of them. For the latter, self-care, I often turn to poetry. I would like to share with you part of a poem by the 19th-century Black American poet Paul Dunbar.
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile:
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Dunbar was writing about the psychological state of African Americans, who can not express the pain caused by the subtle, and not so subtle, racism that they experience on a daily basis. The poem may also speak to the psychological turmoil experienced by the most vulnerable in society, many of whom are our clients.
Do the Unmasking: We are in the business of unmasking. Look beyond the surface. Unmask the discriminatory policies that prevent our clients from getting the assistance they need, unmask their learning difficulties that prevent their functioning in school, unmask their symptoms to tailor appropriate interventions to their needs.
We must allow our clients, whether they be our students, parents, families, communities, or schools, to unmask themselves to us. To do this we must be aware of the masks we wear ourselves. For as Nelson Mandela tells us
“as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”
Never schedule anything on a Friday: Seriously, this is important. Walk into the door on Friday with an open mind and no expectations. The student who has been silently suffering all week with a crisis will get the courage to walk in Friday morning to talk to you. The conflict that was brewing between a group of friends will explode in the lunchline on Friday. Any teacher that has been mulling over their concerns about a student, will surely tell you at 3 pm on Friday. Get some frozen pizza and store it for a Friday, cause you are not getting home early.
We are in the business of unmasking. Look beyond the surface. Unmask the discriminatory policies that prevent our clients from getting the assistance they need, unmask their learning difficulties that prevent their functioning in school, unmask their symptoms to tailor appropriate interventions to their needs.
Beware of Mission Creep: Yes, you do a lot. You are a mental health practitioner moonlighting as a casemanager and family support person. You will become so good at handling crisis, people will naturally go to you for everything. Know your purpose and stick to that. Draw those ethical and empathetic boundaries. Remember, there is a whole system of support behind you. Worried about that suicidal student, get that release signed and talk to their therapist. Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of needs of your newest homeless family, refer them to a great case manager that can walk them through the process of applying for assistance.
Be the Simon, not the Savior: As the story goes, Jesus was carrying his cross and a man standing in the crowd, Simon, was ordered to assist him in carrying his cross for a time. Often times, we find ourselves wanting to do the saving. Yet we are meant to do the assisting. Our clients do their own saving and they are amazing for it. Walk that long and difficult journey with them, but let them bear it.
I am sure that there is more. To be a social worker is to to commit to life-long growth and learning… our own and our clients. You will surely pick up some tips and tricks along the way. I only hope you share those with others.
Your fellow colleague,
Kate Silverio, LCSW