Letter To A New Practitioner: Kirsten Brown Starts Our Series
Editor’s Note: I asked the 5th cohort of our Loyola School Mental Health Advanced Practice Program (SMHAPP) to write a “letter to a new school social worker,” sharing some of the things they’ve learned along the way, as well as some of the things they wish they had known when they started. They came up with some great stuff, and we’re kicking off the series with a letter from Kirsten Brown, and we’ll share more of these letters through the semester. If you want to share your practice wisdom with new school social workers, send your letter to our editorial team at [email protected] and/or go to our SSWNetwork and post your letter there to the nearly 5,000 school clinicians who have joined our free site.
Dear New School Mental Health Practitioner,
Congratulations and welcome to one of the best jobs on the planet! You have the honor of working with some of the most amazing, hilarious, and resilient people – your students, their families, and your teacher colleagues and other school staff. There is nothing quite like the energy that school communities have, and the people you meet and work alongside will change your life. You will learn so much from them, you will be challenged by them, and they will motivate you to keep growing to do and be better both professionally and personally.
And one of the best things about this work is how much fun it can be! You will laugh with your students (some kids are incredible comedians) and learn so many cool things from them as they share their interests, thoughts, and ideas with you. You will also appreciate your colleagues’ specific brand of ‘teacher humor’ and enjoy getting to know them and their families too. And the A-HA moments when a new concept suddenly clicks for the whole class or when a student demonstrates a new skill on their own will amaze and blow you away.
Each day at work will be completely unique, which keeps things interesting! However, this will require you to be very flexible. You will start many mornings with a ‘To Do’ plan of what you want/need to accomplish for the day…but then students will be in distress and need your support; teachers will come to you with questions about a student’s behavior plan and ask you to observe in their classroom to give them feedback as they implement it; parents and caregivers will need assistance locating community-based supports or want more information on ways they can support their child’s learning and behavior at home; your principal will pull you into planning meetings or want your immediate input about a situation; there will be an assembly or school-wide event you forgot about – the list of possible interruptions to your morning’s ‘To Do’ list is endless!
While this will sometimes feel overwhelming, you will also discover how to better prioritize the tasks on your ‘To Do’ list and complete them more efficiently and effectively. And you will get the things done that you need to – the timeline just may look different from your original plan.
At some point, you will feel completely lost and like you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing – and that’s ok. There are SO MANY acronyms in education to learn and teachers often talk about curricula, instructional strategies, and learning standards as though those topics are common knowledge. So familiarize yourself with what curriculum programs your school uses, bookmark your state’s Department of Education webpage, and don’t be afraid to ask questions for clarification! If someone is talking about something and you don’t understand what they’re saying, ask them to explain it again – because chances are there’s a new staff member or parent or caregiver who may be wondering the exact same thing. In fact, always ask for folks to explain any acronyms or educational terminology they use so everyone can be on the same page. Remember, your colleagues are a wealth of knowledge and most of them will be happy to help support you in whatever ways they can.
At some point, you will feel completely lost and like you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing – and that’s ok.
Additionally, your school Secretaries/Office Managers likely know almost everyone at school – from staff to students and their families. Get to know them because they are the folks who keep the school moving, they typically know what community-based resources are available, and they can help you connect with whoever it is you need! Seriously, all of my school Secretaries/Office Managers have been awesome and so helpful!
And you will have some really hard days. Students’ needs will change and the interventions you’ve been providing won’t be what they need anymore, so you will have to readjust their services yet again and may feel unsure about what to do next. Students and their families will be vulnerable with you and share the most heartbreaking, difficult things they’ve experienced. You will encounter teachers that constantly put their students down, are condescending and judgmental towards families, and whose classrooms are unsafe for Black and Brown children, LGBTQ+ youth, children who are immigrants and refugees, and youth with disabilities.
Remember– Calm reflects Calm. If you are not feeling calm and grounded, the student, family, or teacher who is in distress won’t be able to get there either.
You will realize that your caseload is way too big and that your school needs 2-3 more positions like yours. You will witness firsthand again and again how broken our educational system is and that the community-based resources in your area barely scratch the surface of what is actually needed. All of these things and more will feel so overwhelming and imposter syndrome may kick in (at least it does for me).
This is why self-care is essential! Self-care is a real thing and is something you must practice and intentionally build into your daily routine. Your students and families need you to take care of yourself so that you 1) don’t burn out and 2) are be able to channel your feelings of upset into advocacy and action with them. So make time to do things that you love to do and make you feel good so you can relax, heal, and recharge.
A few more thoughts…
- Speak up during meetings and share your perspective as a School Mental Health Practitioner – your colleagues, Administrators, and families will benefit from what you have to say!
- Sit near to your school parents and caregivers during meetings and close your laptop. It is really intimidating to walk into a room full of people sitting around a conference table, so be a welcoming and calm presence with them.
- Remember– Calm reflects Calm. If you are not feeling calm and grounded, the student, family, or teacher who is in distress won’t be able to get there either.
- Learn how to prepare lesson plans/materials ahead of time like teachers do – this will help you when you have an individual or small group session coming up and your ‘To Do’ list for the day keeps being interrupted!
- Continue to build your professional skills by attending School Mental Health trainings and conferences. Schools aren’t great at offering relevant district-based trainings for our field, so talk with your administrators about the trainings you’re interested in going to and share why you think it will help your school. (School-based De-escalation training is also a MUST. Advocate till you get it).
- Connect with other School Mental Health folks to strengthen your professional network. This is key since we are often more isolated than other Mental Health practitioners and can’t as readily consult with someone operating from our same professional lens. Plus, folks in our field are usually very friendly and lots of fun J
- If you’re a white practitioner like me, you and I need to actively engage in anti-racism efforts and constantly work to dismantle white supremacy in ourselves, the Mental Health services we provide, and in our schools and communities. We are not doing enough – we need to de-center ourselves and listen more. We need to own and learn from the mistakes we will make. And we need to pay BIPOC folks for the wisdom they share.
- Always have unconditional positive regard for your students and their families. And your colleagues too! They are all amazing just by being themselves and it’s truly a gift to be able to work with people in the ways that we do. We are lucky!
As I said at the beginning of my letter, this profession is one of the best there is and I’m so excited that you’re joining us. Your school and we need you!