It’s My Party
Rethinking the Limitations of a ‘Host’ Setting: Embracing School Leadership
As social workers, both in our training and embedded throughout the vernacular of the field is the concept of working in a host setting – a setting in which social work is not the dominant profession within the organization. School social work is no exception to this rule.
Early in my career, it suited me to be a guest at the party hosted by a school. Being a guest provided me ample time to understand this new place of practice, its culture, politics, and intricate systems. I needed time to observe the impact and influence of this system on the students I served. It was exciting to be at the party! Working to identify the strengths of the school by finding out who shared my interest in promoting social-emotional learning or used proactive behavior management strategies within their classroom. Additionally, it gave me an opportunity to predict how the party might be crashed. Would it be a lack of mental health support, unaddressed trauma, equity, tier 1 interventions, a lack of teacher support in addressing these topics?
It was easy to be a guest. As a guest, I wasn’t responsible for the cleaning before the party (planning for school-wide initiatives, proactively differentiating activities and curriculum to meet the social and emotional needs of our students), the guest list (who to include on tiered teams), or how to manage other unruly invitees (overall behavior management and school culture, toxic staff members and teams).
However, over time a shift happened – I started to party plan. I unknowingly stepped into leadership through facilitating teams and leading initiatives within my school. It was not an intentional shift. In fact, when approached about considering more formal leadership positions and roles within the schools, my immediate response was consistent “no way!” I wanted to support the students and not deal with all the adult drama. And yet, I found myself in professional development courses and training centered around leadership.
This series of events offered a change in how I understood the concept of leadership. They required me to pause and reflect on the system I was supporting. Isn’t that precisely what social work is – an exploration and promotion of systems to better serve the individuals and communities we work with? I came to realize that to embrace all that a school social worker can be, is to be a leader in education. To be a school social worker is to embrace the entire system, working towards healthier functioning and equilibrium.
I hadn’t given this much thought or purposefully moved the process forward, it all just seemed to happen. I soon found myself in conversation with another school social worker and we were discussing the school climate as it related to mental health. As I processed how to best describe the culture in my school, she shrugged and abruptly stated, “Well, we’ll always be in a host setting,” and turned our conversation to another topic. This stuck with me.
Isn’t that precisely what social work is – an exploration and promotion of systems to better serve the individuals and communities we work with? I came to realize that to embrace all that a school social worker can be, is to be a leader in education.
In my 14th year of practice as a school social worker, I had begun to really claim the leadership that came along with it. This work is connected to the school and I take pride in my role. Might there be a risk in associating our practice as being in a host setting? Does being hosted offer impermanence or challenge the accountability we have in the host setting? My answer is YES. To continue my work as a school social worker and leader, I am learning to fully embrace the schools as my home.
As we consider the role of school social workers as leaders within education, I couldn’t help but wonder:
How do we lead with intention and accountability?
What does research tell us about productive and positive leadership?
How do we influence a culture where we, social workers, might be few in number?
These are just a few of the questions we’ll be exploring as we delve deeper into social work and school leadership. Be on the lookout for future columns addressing these topics and much more!