An open letter to senior managers, line managers and practice educators
Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 4 October, 2023
I am writing openly and honestly to share my experiences in hope that this will resonate with some practitioners.
I hope that this will prompt senior practitioners, managers, and practice educators to truly reflect if inclusivity and fairness are consistently promoted throughout their practice. Are social work values upheld constantly in our daily interactions and choice of words towards staff/individuals?
I feel I need to highlight the need to embrace and celebrate differences. We all come from different backgrounds and have different experiences. I encourage all practitioners to take time, slow down, listen, and learn to recognise these differences and cultivate a safe and supportive work environment for all. Being a social worker is challenging as it is. The last thing we should worry about is feeling ‘different’ because of our personality and approach.
I have been a social worker for five years. I love this profession and love being a social worker. I feel privileged to support children and families and view myself as an advocate for social justice. However, my experiences have tarnished my love for social work and made me question if social work values are in the forefront for some practitioners.
During my 100-day placement I was navigating complex systems, academic work and team dynamics as well as being a mature student from the Philippines, doing a Master’s degree and having recently being diagnosed with Dyslexia. I was, like everybody else who was completing their placement, anxious but somewhat excited.
The excitement I felt soon disappeared, however, when I was made to feel lacking, because my practice educator had certain expectations of me. I was expected to hit the ground running and be more ‘assertive’.
When I opened up about my Dyslexia, I felt my practice educator magnified my deficits rather than being supportive. This put me in defence mode and I felt the need to pretend around my practice educator.
I was, however, supported by a number of different practitioners in different teams. They made time to fully understand the barriers to my learning and how Dyslexia affects me. With the appropriate support and understanding, I was able to thrive.
Some may argue that I should have spoken about my feelings about my practice educator. However, as a student, and due to the power imbalance, I felt unsafe. Additionally, in order to feel safe to have difficult conversations, a safe and supportive environment/relationship must be fostered.
Since qualifying, I have worked as a children's social worker in a variety of settings. I've worked with managers who embraced my quieter approach. I have never felt the need to ‘stand out’ in a group environment, and I only contribute to discussions when I feel I have something of value to say.
Recently, after five years of front line practice, I moved into a coordinating role within a social work department.
It was evident from the start that the contrasting approaches between myself and my manager was a problem. My reservedness was viewed as my shortfall. Old feelings came flooding back, my anxieties increased, which made me more reserved.
My manager made comments such as, “I didn’t think it was your bag,” and “You are not dynamic enough” and “I did not feel this role was suited for you” because of my quiet personality.
My reserved approach was mistaken as reflection of my capability. This has made me reflect as to why some social workers/managers/practice educators do not embrace differences in personalities and approaches and offer support to ensure everyone flourishes.
My experience had reduced me to doubting my own capabilities. It has had a massive impact on my confidence. It drove me away from the role that I worked so hard for. I felt staying would harm what’s left of my confidence. And so I am leaving.
Social work is a value-based profession. We support diversity, challenge injustice and advocate for vulnerable groups. As social workers, we work within standards that embody social justice, diversity, and equality. Why can’t these values extend to colleagues and other professionals?
There is a current emphasis on inclusivity and diversity, but I feel that there is a discord between inclusivity for people we provide care and support for and our own social workers. Are social work models such as relationship-based practice only limited to the people we support?
I plead to all social workers, from practitioners to managers and senior leaders, to be more open-minded, and foster an understanding and supportive culture, a culture where staff feel comfortable, able to be themselves and free to ask for guidance. By doing this, we uphold our social work values and enrich the working experiences and learning of all social workers.