Field education is an integral aspect of every social work student’s training. Whether a student is obtaining a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) in the hope of pursuing a career in generalist practice or working toward a master’s degree in social work (MSW) to prepare for advanced or independent work, learning skills and practice techniques in community settings is essential. The work that is performed by students in the field is supervised by social workers in many different organizational and practice settings. The relationship between the field instructor and the social work student provides fertile ground for socialization as a member of a profession and the acquisition of practice skills. Whether we are working in health care, child protection, mental health services, corrections, education, gerontology, or another area of social work practice, we have much important knowledge to share with a student.
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Serving as a field instructor is usually a delightful and rewarding experience. Most of our students are bright, motivated, and eager to develop into skilled professionals. However, there are times when a practicum student may be ill-suited to the internship. Field supervision is both a process and a relationship. Several frameworks have been discussed in the social work literature about the nature of the field instructor-student relationship. These include the developmental model, attachment-based approaches to supervision, and the relational approach. Program faculty can also work with you to help in the process of integrating classroom knowledge and theory with interventions in the practicum setting. Some areas where students may particularly struggle are the following: emotional self-care, professionalism, setting appropriate professional boundaries, integrating classroom knowledge with fieldwork, professional writing skills, accepting constructive feedback, and asking for help.
One of the most important areas of practice that field instructors discuss with their students is teaching and reinforcing the ethics and values of the social work profession. Students are introduced to the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) early in their social work education, but it is up to academic faculty and also field instructors to ensure that social work students can make connections between the content of the ethical code and real-life practice situations. There are a number of topics that frequently arise as ethical challenges in the practicum. These include mandated reporter responsibilities, mental health treatment and involuntary commitment, worker-client boundaries, specific boundary concerns related to self-disclosure, and disclosure of student status. There are a number of other approaches to resolving ethical dilemmas. These include the use of principle-based ethics and virtue ethics.
When social work practitioners agree to take on interns from a social work degree program, they are agreeing to work hand in hand with the students to ensure that the students meet the learning requirements, often expressed as competencies, of the social work program. An important element of ensuring a good experience for the practicum student is to engage actively with the student’s social work school or department. Effective communication between the academic institution and the field instructor/agency setting is indispensable to the social work practicum process. One of the biggest responsibilities in the implementation of "signature pedagogy" is ensuring that practicum students can successfully integrate the knowledge they gain in the classroom with the real-world practice of social work. In some social work programs, faculty advisors conduct site visits for their students’ practicum placements.
Competency in social welfare policy analysis and competency in social work advocacy skills tend to be two areas where social work students, especially those wishing to pursue a clinical career, feel uncomfortable. Policy practice is a social work practice method, and successful acquisition of competence in policy practice involves a variety of skills and activities, not only in the classroom setting but in the social work practicum. A major integrative task of the student in social work practicum is to gain the ability to understand the impact of social welfare policy on clients and client systems, and the practicum supervision session is one setting in which students can discuss the application of their classroom learning in social policy to the work they are doing in the field. Teaching social work practice skills related to public policy is an important aspect of field education.