8p Sausages

Abbie Stebbing is a full-time MA Social Work student at the University of Sussex. She blogs about her becoming a social worker and what means both personally and professionally. In this second of Abbie’s reflective posts she writes about leaving full-time work behind to become a student again.

While I was romantically swept of my feet by the potential career I was about to embark on, my loved ones were slightly more aware of the practical aspects and potential issues of no longer working. 8p sausages would be my mealtime fate, new clothes would be on a strategically planned Christmas wish list. I was committed to the material sacrifices it would entail!

In the summer prior to the course starting, I worked with them to change my habits, no longer “seeing and buying” those commodities. A major case of reeling in. I also prepared an office space, reminding myself of academic life. Collected books from the local library and attempting to read them.

The Induction Week came and I had just finished my last day of full time work (for now). I thought I would suddenly feel like a social work student. But it was not yet here. So raring to go, to validate my plans, so very impatient. In the end, I did enjoy the week of just being- not an employee, not a social work student, yet. And when I was, I felt it!

Indeed, week one did come, and so did the work, but so did the friendly tutors and peers. There was a shared enthusiasm. We all had a shared goal. As the work built up swiftly I got to know my peers. We shared the stresses and insecurities. I was so eager to validate being on the course.

Throughout the weeks there were small pauses, a time to slow my brain down.  I was absorbing information at the speed of light and hoping that I retained it. The reading week and first assignment instilled some confidence again. I was able to go over theories we had covered, but also notice areas that I found interesting. It was different to my undergraduate course. The areas of learning in this course felt useful, I would one day (soon on placement even) be able to apply them.

The term acted like a “general service”. Acknowledging my strengths, identifying areas of improvement, noticing what I find difficult to deal with. In the end, I need to be ready to work with people and the issues that bring them to my intervention.

Now I’ve upgraded to frozen sausages…

December 6, 2016. Social work education, Social work practice. Leave a comment.

This Strange Year

When someone says they are a ‘social worker’, we all have an image that comes to mind, whether positive or negative. Abbie Stebbing is a 27-year-old full-time Social Work Master’s student at the University of Sussex, just starting out in her first year, first term, first modules.  She wanted to take a snapshot of her journey, focusing on life outside of the course as well as the piecing together of her social work identity.  Over the next two weeks Abbie writes about the strangeness of going back to university full-time, and how these moments feel like learning experiences in themselves.

This year, I took a personal leap. 

In the early winter, I was becoming accustomed to a new role in my job. Through staff changes I had been moved into a role I was unfamiliar with. The fire in my belly that my previous role had given felt extinguished. I had been previously working as a support worker, and with industry budget cuts, the role could not be extended. The job I ended up in was gratefully received by me. A saving grace from potential redundancy. It was stable, well managed and a good period of calm, whilst I looked at my options. 

I am not generally someone who easily adapts to major changes, but I was searching for something more than what that job offered. I realised the difference was that in that role I signposted and directed “customers”. I was missing holding a case load, managing risk and coordinating, promoting and making change happen- hopefully.

Being an indecisive creature, there was a substantial amount of bouncing ideas off those close to me. Second to that, being an impatient creature, I wanted to make things happen instantly. Thank goodness for rational people.  

I reflected on my prospects and decided a further education in Social Work was my way forward. I discussed the potential future with my loved ones and the potential impact it would have on our lives. It would mean two full time years, where working outside of university commitments would be stretched. To avoid haste I decided to defer. In the January I made an application, a determination to “ace it” grew. I attended interviews and got accepted. In a flurry of enthusiasm as well as a grounding awareness of the time it would take to become qualified, I weighed up my options and requested to start the same year. I had chosen my path now, why wait? Within a short email exchange I had now enrolled for the immediate September. Leading up to the start of the course, I went to work and returned, I knew I felt I could be somewhere else making a difference and I was getting closer to the gateway towards that career. I felt the assured that it was the right choice. Excitement and passion outweighed the apprehension of leaving a full time job. 

Before I started the course, they asked me to complete shadowing with social workers, which further affirmed my passion. I leaped at the chance and savoured the opportunity. In shadowing, I went through a flurry of feelings. Getting to the required goal of “qualified” felt like a distant dream, I was so in awe of the social workers’ knowledge and skill, but also how welcoming they were of me. They encouraged me to join the field, and I made the most of the opportunity, determined to soak up the insight they shared with me like a sponge.

The journey had started, now I just had to count down to day one.

November 29, 2016. Social work education, Social work practice. Leave a comment.

A different view

We’re back after a bit of break following the summer and the always hectic autumn term, with a wonderful post from our postgrad public engagement ambassador Rachel Larkin, on the unexpected and insightful moments of social work practice. Dust off your trainers and practice your hook shots, you never know when they will come in handy.

A few weeks ago I went to visit a young person in their residential placement. I was expecting a chat over a fruit juice, but found myself out in the garden playing basketball. Now, when I say playing, I should say failing. At one point there were people lined up watching me miss. The young person was remarkably patient and even tried to give me lessons but I still missed every time. I started to worry he might make himself sick laughing.

It was one of the best afternoons I’ve had at work in a long while, but I was aware of a nagging anxiety on the way back. It wasn’t my hopeless aim that unsettled me (no surprise there) but my reaction to seeing how differently the young person behaved in that environment. I’ve been reading a lot of theories about situated identity lately, which consider how differently we can act, and feel, in different times and spaces. I’d gone to the placement hoping to see another side to this young man, very aware that I’d only met him in offices and interview rooms. So why, armed with all that theory and practice experience, was I surprised by what I saw?

What made me uncomfortable was realising how solid my picture of the young man had become, but how limited it was. The expectation that I should fully understand every young person’s views had created a sort of false confidence. When you are making significant decisions about someone’s life, as you often are in social work, it’s far more comfortable to allow yourself to think that you have a clear sense of who they are and what they need. The alternative is rarely available within the processes we follow – the option of saying “I don’t think we know enough about this young person, let’s delay this decision” is difficult to achieve, even for someone in a position of relative authority in the organisation. The pressure to act can propel us forward, even when our instincts might tell us to slow down and think it through.

If I was kind to myself, I might say that I had gone to see him precisely because of those instincts – a sense that I was missing something. Changing the setting, and changing the activity, allowed us both to reveal a different aspect of ourselves. I got to know more about what he wants in life and he got to witness the World’s Worst Basketball Player in action. I would say it was a win-win but the score was more like 99-0. We both agreed that I should definitely stick to social work.

December 9, 2014. Children & Young People, Social work practice. Leave a comment.

“I throw my hands up in the air sometimes saying AYO gotta let go”

This lunchtime’s blog post comes from Gema Hadridge, our MA Social Work Student Public Engagement Ambassador. Gema reflects on her first year of learning at Sussex with a special emphasis on ‘use of self’ in social work, and the challenges that boundaries between public, private and professional lives online and in practice present when, as well as a social worker, you are also a seasoned musician.

Earlier this year we began the Social Work MA with the task of writing our own biography. The terror in our eyes as we all wondered whether we had to read it aloud and how many words and pages to write about (would it be immodest to write pages or seen as lacking insight if only a paragraph) was one of the first experiences this course would bring us.

Now, first year down I can see how that piece of biographical writing kickstarted an ongoing process of reflection: why I was drawn to social work, why I had  interest in specific areas, and what influence my values, ethics and personal attributes have on my practice. There have been many things learnt this year, both personally and professionally. For this blog post, my first ever, I want to explore (briefly) two lessons. First, what I learnt on my first placement. Secondly, one of the significant thoughts I’ve had of what personal Vs professional means to me. The two are related.

Interest and conviction about the relevance of a theory come alive when a connection is made with a lived experience.” (Morrison 2007, p247).

The above quote could not have been more true as I began my first placement. It was a setting I had not worked in before: a secure unit for women   . The women had histories, ‘behaviours’ and the ‘potential’ to be very challenging and unpredictable. Incident forms were handed over in the dozen. My first official day on the ward someone tied a ligature, and that was not an abnormal occurrence for the staff.

The experience reiterated to me the importance of seeing the individual as a person. To remain curious throughout practice and allow for the social worker to be authentic and transparent. To understand experiences, not just read case notes on hospital headed letters. To view the world they view, not just be-little them. To see their life, it’s not just about getting better. Not a team discussing their life walls between them, but a team to build their life together. A patient’s team to hold hope, support and work collaboratively, not a power imbalanced tight-rope. But the most significant aspect for me with regards to my practice? How my ‘use of self’ impacted my relationships with the women.

One of my main means of building rapport with the women was through music: whether it was discussing a patient’s favourite band or singing together. One of my most significant moments on placement, that  moved me so much it bought a tear to my eye, was when I sat on the floor in the communal area playing Dynamite by Taio Cruz and I Want You Back by Jackson 5. The patients sang, the staff sang and I played guitar. The woman who had just been telling me to “fuck off” led the harmonies. The woman who had previously not engaged with any conversations with me sat throughout the whole music session. This was a brief moment where the power, oppression and control appeared to melt away. Everyone was empowered. We were just people, singing together, clapping along and laughing.

I wrote my ‘theories, methods, values in practice’ essay with music (and humour) taking up a large section. In the setting above, my use of self and personal skills (my vague ability to play guitar and willingness to risk being very embarrassed sitting in a communal space alone playing guitar) helped build rapport. Then I went to the Connected or Protected conference organised by tutors at the University of Sussex  #uscopro on 5th June..The conference was great. I got to sit on my first panel (felt like a real academic!) and I was intrigued to have discussions about the topic which also gave me the opportunity to reflect on my use of self, my music in particular, in a different way.

What stood out to me? Something that was said about ‘posting’ on social media sites: before you click ‘share’, question why you’re writing it. What is your motivation? This is the exact same conversation I had in a seminar just months before when discussing ‘use of self’. It is something I believe to be relevant and appropriate to consider when discussing use of social media and use of self. But my issue? I’m a musician too.

I have been playing music for ten years. It’s a part of my life – songwriting and listening to music is part of my reflection on both a personal and professional level. In the practice setting I consciously diffused conversations about my own music when I could and only briefly discussed my songwriting once when actually writing a song with some of the women. When asked to play my own songs, I declined. There’s nothing inappropriate with my songs, but I explained I felt it was too personal in the workplace. But even with a conscious effort to not discuss my own music is that allowing for an inadvertent cross of the personal/professional boundary?

If any of the women searched Google they would immediately find my songs, pictures and old (horrendously embarrassing at times) videos – there’s the bonus to having a unique last name. But more importantly regarding the issue of social media to either protect and/or connect, it is very easy to find out where I am at a set time every few weeks. In fact I actively advertise this information. The reason? Because musicians promote their gigs. There is nothing inappropriate about being a social worker and also being a musician, and as a musician I need an online presence. But what does that mean for me as a social worker?

I still haven’t worked out a solution. And I’m not sure I ever will. But it is something that I believe that tutors, universities and employers need to consider. There is the constant worry of people posting ‘inappropriate’ things online (and that is an area that needs to be discussed more), but what about people who use social media in public forums for other aspects of their life?

July 24, 2014. New media & new technology, Social work practice. Leave a comment.

Do I get a badge?

Following the appeal we made at Sussex World Social Work Day 2014  for more social workers to be involved in public conversations about what social work is and does, three students have volunteered to be involved with our public engagement activities.  A few weeks ago we heard from undergraduate social work student Maristelle Preece, today we hear from doctoral student and experienced social work practitioner Rachel Larkin.  Rachel’s research interests are on social work with asylum seeking and trafficked young women. Below she reflects on 20 years of being a social worker and the reasons she’s stuck with it. 

Looking through my diary this month, I suddenly realised that I’ve been working as a Social Worker for 20 years. I’d spent the last hour trying to reach an agreement with a very angry parent. My head hurt and I was frustrated and tired. Yet it didn’t cross my mind to ask why I was still doing this job and, driving back to the office, I started thinking about the reasons I was still here.

I graduated from the MSW at Sussex in 1994 and am back here part-time in 2014, studying for a Doctorate in Social Work. Since 1994 I have worked in many different teams, as a Manager and a Social Worker. So why, despite the long hours, the media criticism and the shifting resources, have I never really considered leaving the profession? The answer is very simple: it’s the people.

Here are just a few:

–    the parents with learning disabilities, who many people said would never be able to safely parent their baby girl. They went home with her and she starts school this year.

–    the girl who was sold by her mother to pay the rent at the end of each month, who starts University in September

–    the colleague who took two neglected children to an emergency placement late at night, and then went shopping to get them the fish fingers and spaghetti hoops they’d been asking for all the way there.

–    the little boy with cancer I said goodbye to in the hospice

–    the young man with autism, who told us jokes all the way through his review meeting and made his Headteacher laugh so much she spat her tea out

There are so many more. I’m not trying to be sentimental or pretend that they’re aren’t tough times. Not every story has a happy ending and sometimes we arrive too late or just don’t get it right. Social work is a job that demands personal strength that is sometimes difficult to find. I have seen and heard things I won’t easily forget. Coming back to University is making me think again about some of our practice and it’s not always a comfortable process.

The successes are hard won in Social Work but that just makes them all the sweeter. Of course most of them aren’t our successes at all, but belong with the families themselves. It’s such a good feeling to see a young person take a step forwards.Sometimes they surprise us all and take a giant leap.

I don’t think I had any idea what was in store for me when I graduated in 1994, and it’s been a bumpy ride, but I can honestly say I don’t regret it. If the next 20 years are half as interesting I will count myself lucky.

Is the badge in the post do you think?

May 16, 2014. Social work practice. Leave a comment.

Reflecting on multiple roles

Following the success of Sussex World Social Work Day 2014 and our appeal for more social workers to be involved in public conversations about what social work is and does, a small number of our students came forward to be involved with our public engagement activities, including Maristelle Preece who contributes her first post below. Maristelle is a second year undergraduate student who wanted to write about student experiences on placement as a way of creating a community of practice for placement students that might be supportive of learning and reflection away from the university.

Up at 6.30am, it’s time to start my day as a professional, when only last night I had been socialising with fellow students.

Placement requires us to identify and behave as professionals, and to adjust from the role of student to practitioner every day.

My weeks consist of constant adaption of roles and responsibilities – University essays and CAF assessments, wanting to stay up with friends but having to wake early, friendships and professional relationships, and university days and training days.

At first, I found it difficult adjusting and making the transition between these roles daily, but this was made easier through my hour long journey to and from placement every day.

My drive to work has become my way of preparing myself for the responsibility and anxiety surrounding new tasks and new things to learn. Whilst my drive home has become my way of making the transition from professional back to student, and gives me time to de-stress and reflect.

This reflection is an integral part of developing personally and professionally, which was learnt in one of our first year modules, IPLD. Admittedly, I was apprehensive about the use of this skill when in practice, but I have found it an essential thing to undertake to organise my thoughts and reactions to my experiences on placement.

Now, in week 11 of second year at university, making the transitions between the student and professional roles isn’t so daunting, as I am now noticing my growth as a professional.

But soon, this juggling of roles will not be necessary, as in just over a year, I will be leaving this student role behind as I embark on my career in Social Work!

May 7, 2014. Social work education, Social work practice. Leave a comment.

Dr Michelle Lefevre, Head of Department at Social Work @ Sussex speaks to the Guardian newspaper

In today’s edition of the Guardian, our Head of Department Dr Michelle Lefevre, talks about the need for high quality social work placements in social work education, and good support in practice once qualified. The article also features one of our graduates (MASW Class of 2013), Lucy Wilkinson, talking about her experience of social work education at Sussex and those first steps into the world of child protection.

You can read the full piece here.

March 19, 2014. Social work education, Social work practice, World Social Work Day. Leave a comment.

Hash Tag(#): ‘Humble Pie’

Our guest blogger this week is Denise Turner, a Social Work doctoral candidate in the School of Education and Social work at Sussex. Denise shares with us her journey in the world of social media and highlights some of the rewards reaped so far.

I have always considered myself to be part of the ‘lost generation’ technologically – those of us who left school and indeed University, long before computer use and IT became widespread. This has left me with a lingering mistrust of technology and an irrational fear that by pressing the wrong key I will somehow cause irretrievable global damage.

It was with some consternation then, that I greeted a recent suggestion from Andy Cheng, a fellow doctoral candidate, to try and establish a weekly ‘live- chat’ on Twitter. I had met with Andy as part of my remit to support part-time and distance PhD students in Social Work. For those who are working, have other responsibilities or are geographically distant it is much harder to establish links with colleagues and to attend the regular opportunities to build networks. Andy’s idea was to use Twitter as a way of ameliorating this, by allowing students to ‘meet’ regularly in a space where they could discuss topics relevant to their research. He told me there was a weekly Twitter resource similar to this called #phdchat which had proved highly successful, but suggested that ours be specific to education and social work.

Even as an age-old Luddite, this idea did seem sensible – I just wasn’t convinced I was the person to carry it out. Andy may as well have suggested I try open-heart surgery or join the Space programme – I had no idea how to use Twitter and my teenager’s constant fascination with it had led to several arguments. However, I duly set up an account and gingerly interfaced with a few others. We held our first ‘chat’ which helped me at least to understand how the process works. After a couple of weekly sessions, Brian Hudson, our newly appointed Head of School, generously agreed to be a ‘Guest Tweeter.’ Brian was already receptive to the benefits of Twitter and had used it to form contacts within the School prior to his appointment.

Gradually news of our regular #eswphd chats has begun to grow and although participation from our own students is still limited, there is a small but regular group of these. The resource is also being used by students, academics and practitioners elsewhere, with some very positive feedback.

One of the most inspiring outcomes has been in the way other Twitter users have offered to help. For example Steve Moss (@gawbul) archives all our posts from the ‘live chat’ for those who missed it, whilst Paul Brownbill (@paully232000) has just set up a voting system for deciding each week’s topic. Amanda Taylor (@AMLTaylor66) and Joanne Westwood (@JLWestwood) Senior Social Work lecturers from Uclan have also agreed to ‘Guest’ on their highly innovative ‘Book Club,’ which recently appeared in Community Care. Harry Ferguson, Professor of Social Work at Nottingham and a keen Twitter user has also offered to ‘Guest.’

These offers of help, for no financial gain have convinced me of the value of Twitter in building community and thereby demonstrating the values which underpin both social work and education. Choking on a large piece of humble pie, I am now a complete convert to Twitter and aside from its efficacy at building community, I have learned about research; teaching and networking opportunities which would not have been available to me otherwise.

As academics engaged in research, within a competitive environment, we want our work to reach a wide audience and our University Departments to be recognised – Twitter offers a highly time and cost-effective means of achieving this.

Additional information:

Anyone interested in helping us develop the School of Education and Social Work social media strategy we are setting up a small Working Party, please contact Denise at D.M.Turner[at]sussex[dot]ac[dot]uk.

#eswphd chats take place every Wednesday evening 8 –9 p.m and the archive can be found currently at https://www.freeside.co.uk/~gawbul/eswphd/eswphd_tweets_090113.html (cc @gawbul) #eswphd. We are aiming to set up an accessible ‘Wiki page for the chats before too long.

To vote on each weeks topic visit: #socialwork #phd #highered http://twtpoll.com/ie6uka @DeniseT01

The Community Care piece on Uclan’s Book Club can be found at http://www.communitycare.co.uk/blogs/social-work-blog/2013/01/how-were-using-j-k-rowlings-no.html

January 14, 2013. New media & new technology, Social work education, Social work practice, Social work research. 1 comment.

Addressing Anti Social Behaviour in Emergency and Supported Housing in Brighton and Hove

Rachel Fitzpatrick is an MA Social Work student in the Department of Social Work at Sussex University. Prior to joining us on the programme Rachel worked as Caseworker for the Community Safety Case Work Team (CSCT) at Brighton and Hove City Council (BHCC). Recently Rachel was nominated, and won, the Council’s Big Difference Award. Below she writes about the work that led to the award and what she’s learnt from both the project and the award.

Within my role as Caseworker for the CSCT I led on a project that worked with providers of Emergency and Supported Housing in the city to improve the management of Anti Social Behaviour (ASB) and reduce the harm it causes to local residents and the wider community.

The project began following a referral from a supported housing project where some of the tenants were causing ASB that had impacted on the local community. I worked closely with the project staff, delivered group sessions to the residents, worked with individuals identified as causing ASB and attended multi agency community meetings with affected local residents.

The success of this work, in reducing reports of ASB, led to a consideration of how it could function in other housing environments. The resources were collated and developed into training templates to be offered to staff and residents in a range of emergency and supported housing teams. Each time the package was delivered there were new challenges and intricacies that enabled the project to be developed further.

An important part of this project’s success was in building positive relationships with partner agencies such as, Sussex Police, Sussex Central YMCA, and the Emergency Placement Team (BHCC). The challenge here was to balance the needs and priorities of different agencies with that of community members and individual perpetrators whilst keeping in mind the overall aim of reducing ASB.

The project has been recognised by the Housing Commissioning services at BHCC as improving communication between local residents, the housing providers and BHCC and following the project a reduction of complaints about ASB from local residents have been noted. The CSCT has gone on to contribute to local policy on the prevention of eviction and the project has continued following my departure from the team.

Following this project I was nominated by my colleagues for the Council’s Big Difference Award. This award aims to recognise teams and individuals that have made a difference to the local community through innovative projects. Following a meeting with the Chief Exec of Brighton and Hove City Council this month, it was announced my team had won the award.

When I met the Chief Exec she asked ‘What motivates you?’ I found that my answer was surprisingly similar to that of other employees around the table who were from a range of disciplines and had varying levels of experience.

Common to the responses was autonomy: people valued good leadership and guidance but this had to be balanced with professional creativity and a feeling of agency in negotiating day-to-day decision making.

As a future Social Worker I feel there are some lessons to be learnt from this project and the subsequent award, which I would summarise as follows:
1. Effective partnership working can lead to better outcomes for services, individual service users and the wider community.
2. A holistic and creative approach is crucial to tackling and reducing the harm caused by ASB.
3. Practitioners can contribute and influence local policy and practice through their own work.
4. Recognition can further motivate staff and make them feel valued.
5. Feeling ownership and agency over practice is valued by staff from a variety of disciplines.

November 5, 2012. Social work practice. Leave a comment.