Last week, I had the pleasure of having a second year social work student shadow me as I worked. She was a student in a voluntary agency that I had come across because she had been doing some work with one of the service users I work with. I asked her if she wanted to come and join me to see ‘the statutory side of things’. Bless her, but she almost bit my hand off.
We usually have students in our team but we don’t at the moment. I have had students shadowing me from time to time and I try to give people the opportunity when I am asked and am happy to offer the opportunity to students I come across if they are interested in seeing how we work.
I miss having students. I really enjoy the teaching element of the practice teaching but, as I explained to the student herself, the reas0n I didn’t take a student in this ‘round’ of placements was because I was not convinced I would be able to protect them from the pressure of work in the office at the moment and I was concerned that they might be used as an ‘extra pair of hands’ in an extremely sparse office. It might not have been the best learning environment, although, come to think of it, it would have likely been a realistic one.
I am toying with the idea of being an off-site practice teacher next time round. I enjoy talking students through linking theory with practice. I enjoy discussing recent policy and research and the implications for practice. I enjoy teaching all in all, actually. I enjoy the enthusiasm and the realisation what they learn at university can be used to practical effect.
There is something wonderfully invigorating about showing an enthusiastic student the work that makes up practice. We visited a couple of people and she watched as I completed some paperwork – ok, that bit might not have been so thrilling – but it allowed me to talk through the process of writing and the reasons that the forms are compiled in the way that they are. It allowed me to reflect on some of the tasks I might ordinarily take for granted or complain about and step back with a realisation of what a well-completed and well undertaken assessment can mean.
We had lots of conversations about law. I think there was a law exam coming up. My particular joy was looking at the case study they had been given for their law test and being able to talk my way through it without barely catching a breath. I clearly haven’t forgotten as much as I thought I had about Community Care Law (I’m fairly hot on Mental Health Law if I do say so myself – simply because I use the Acts (Mental Health and Mental Capacity) literally on a day by day basis in my job).
We also had a Mental Health Act Assessment come up while the student was around and I left her behind to read up on the codes of practice. I won’t take students to shadow Mental Health Act Assessments. I remember being pulled up on this while doing my Practice Assessor Course but I stand by my principle.
Firstly, Mental Health Act Assessments take place by their nature at a time when the person being assessed is in a high state of distress or illness and whether they would be able to give their consent to someone ‘observing’ is questionable. Personally, I believe strongly that the Assessment is about the person being assessed and not for me as a professional to control any more than I do through legal measures. So much control is taken from the individual that having students around reinforces the already massive power imbalance.
Finally, there’s no need for a student to attend. Of course AMHP trainees have to attend. They need to carry out observed assessments of Mental Health Act Assessments in order to complete the qualification but general social work students do not. Just as general medical students do not.
I explained to the student that I did not want her to come with me. She showed some disappointment but this is an area I feel very strongly about on an ethical basis and I promised when I returned that we would have a long discussion about the use of the Mental Health Act. Which we did.
I thought about how often the student/practice teacher relationship emphasises the student as the recipient of ‘knowledge’ but in practice, the teaching is a two-way process. I learn a lot from every student that comes. I learn about the impact of different lived experiences and different viewpoints. I learn about how my work is perceived by different cultures and communities. Things that I might take for granted, I learn to challenge.
The teaching and learning relationship allows more considered reflection and while the nature of the role is that the experienced practitioner is placed in the position of ‘expert’, we can look at the same theoretical bases that we use in relation to students as the experts of their own learning and experiences.
As for the student, she seemed bright and enthusiastic. She wanted to do well and I have no doubt she will. She had a background in a completely different area but she showed an empathy and understanding that will serve her well in the future. When she thanked me at the end of the day, I think I might have well forgotten to thank her.
I am sure I got as much, if not more, from the day as she did. She probably didn’t realise that.