What I have learned from shadowing a social worker
First thing is, I didn’t see a single cardigan in the office during the whole week I was there.
But I digress. Let me go back a month or two … I have just heard that I had a place at university to study social work in September 2010. Once the paperwork turns up with the unconditional offer, it’s suddenly real enough to make me nervous. I know from past experience that this is a good sign – I love a good challenge and I know I will enjoy this course, it’s another stage on a long journey from a very unrelated profession but I know that I am happy with the direction it is going. I’m still nervous though.
The university send me a friendly email about pre-course requirements, one of which is that I need to shadow an experienced social worker for a few days. It is clear that it’s up to me to make this happen.
Finding a place to shadow
I consider my options. I do know a few social workers and I could ask around for any shadowing opportunities in their workplaces. But they mostly live in London and really if it’s my choice, I’m curious to find out more about the community/ies and local authority where I’ve lived for the last 10 years. After all, I may want to work there when I’m qualified. I realise when I think of it that this is probably cheeky – will they want to do a favour for a random person they don’t know? But it doesn’t hurt to ask, right?
Since I have approximately zero contacts within the local council, I started with the website. It has a page on health and social care which sounds like a good start. I decide to read through all of it in the hopes of finding a name somewhere who I could contact. I pause when I read the articles on social care training. What I am asking seems connected with that. So I drop a polite email to one of the people who is named at the bottom of the page, explaining what I would like to do and asking if it might be possible. I explain that I’m asking because I’ve lived in the borough for over 10 years so I feel attached to the community and it was my first natural choice.
After that, everything happens very quickly. She emails me back that day to say that she has passed on my request and to wish me luck with my studies. And very soon after that, I am in contact with an actual social worker who has agreed to let me shadow her for a week. She says, “How about next week?” I think – crikey, this is all so quick. I say – that would be great, I’ll see you on Monday morning.
Things I have learned about social work and social workers
- Social work is fuelled by tea and biscuits.
- A lot of useful work also goes on in the canteen at lunchtime, as people discuss aspects of their cases informally over food.
- When procedures talk about putting service users at the heart of the work, they don’t tell you that clients can change their mind a lot about what they want. Sometimes twice a day!
- The rest of the council (e.g. care procurement) seems very phlegmatic and good natured about the above fact. I figure they’re used to it.
- People in general really care about their work (this is rather different from private industry). This is very obvious when you sit down to talk to them about it.
- Many people in the public sector have not worked in industry and may have unrealistic assumptions about it. (I laughed aloud when someone told me that they thought that no one had any issues with IT “in the real world”. Sorry, but that’s a constant and local authorities are also the real world ;) )
Yes but what did you really learn?
The shadowing week has been a very positive experience for me. I’ve been able to really shadow a social worker through her week. I’ve seen how she handles her caseload by updating records, arranging service provision, getting agreement from appropriate groups for any extra spend, and by going out and visiting with the client/s. I see how the work expands to fill the available time. I see how many other people she has to liase with.
I’ve seen how a group composed of OTs, community nurses, case co-ordinators and social workers get along and work together.
I’ve been able to sit down and talk to people in different teams about what they do and how they do it. I’ve also been able to read through the procedural handbook used by a live team, which really shows how the social work principles are applied in practice (by that team, and via the procedures.)
I’ve been able to reflect on what I’ve seen. I wrote a short essay about one of the interviews I observed with the person I was shadowing, and discussed it with her afterwards.
And most importantly for me, I can imagine myself doing this job and doing it well. Not yet though. I need that training, and I will need support while learning the ropes, and it will take time for me to become as competent as the people I have been shadowing this week. But I didn’t come away thinking, “Oh no, this is all a terrible mistake.”
The other side to my week is that I think it was also a positive experience for the team. People seemed to really respond to my showing interest in their work – and it was genuine interest.
The woman I was shadowing also mentioned (when we were saying goodbye) that when her manager had first told her that she would have a student following her around, her first reaction was to think, “Oh no, why me?” But she’d enjoyed the week a lot also, and was now planning to take up a training opportunity she had been offered to train as a practice teacher so that she could have a student to supervise herself. I think she’ll be great! (And I told her so.)