Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

May/June 2012 Issue

Becoming a Successful Field Instructor
By Christina Reardon, MSW, LSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 12 No. 3 P. 6

After working with more than 100 students over the past 15 years, you might think Roberta Thomas, LCSW, would be a bit tired of being a field instructor.

Not a chance.

“Even after 15 years, I find that [field instruction] is my passion,” says Thomas, supervising children’s social worker at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. “The students help me excel in areas I never thought I’d excel in. You get reenergized about being a social worker by seeing the world through their eyes.”

The potential for a similar experience draws many social workers to field instruction; there’s the chance to give back to the profession, shape the development of new social workers, and build supervisory skills. But field instruction is not for everyone, and a social worker’s failure to seriously self-assess his or her abilities and limitations as a field instructor can lead to bad experiences for students.

There are several keys to success for new or aspiring field instructors. The following tips were offered by field instructors and field educators who recently spoke with Social Work Today:

Know the requirements. Schools of social work have eligibility requirements for field instructors, and these requirements vary among institutions. For example, schools may require a certain number of years of post-MSW experience or accept only licensed social workers. New field instructors also may be required to attend field instruction workshops or classes.

Be realistic about expectations. Field instruction takes a serious investment in time, typically at least one or two hours per week in supervision with students plus additional time for providing feedback on student assignments, preparing evaluations, and attending meetings with field education staff. Successful field instruction also requires providing meaningful assignments and opportunities to students instead of seeing them simply as cheap or free labor, says Maribel Quiala, LCSW, director of clinical services at Fort Lauderdale Hospital in Florida. “The interns are not our indentured servants; they’re our colleagues,” she says.

Teach and be willing to learn. Field instructors are supervisors but equally, if not more, important is their role as teachers, says Kanako Okuda, MSW, LCSW, assistant director of field education at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in New York. This role as teacher includes helping students connect classroom knowledge with real-world experience and using student mistakes as learning opportunities.

Effective field instructors not only should be able to impart knowledge but be open to learning from students, says Heather Carroll, MSW, LICSW, clinical manager at Transitions, a substance abuse program for homeless adults operated by the Boston Public Health Commission. “The experience has really helped me to look at my social work identity and be able to improve my skills,” she says. “It helps me stay connected to social work. It’s rewarding to sit in supervision and talk about social work practice and be engaged in the learning process.”

Balance flexibility and structure. Social work students have different styles of learning, and field instructors unwilling to adapt to different learning styles will likely face resistance, Thomas says. In addition, field instructors must be willing to at least try to provide learning opportunities that match students’ interests. “Just as we, as social workers, start where our clients are, we need to do the same thing with students,” Thomas says. “Students have paid tuition to get internships, and if we are not addressing areas where they want to grow, they’re not getting their money’s worth.”

But students also can suffer if there is a lack of structure and clear communication about expectations and boundaries. Field instructors need to be careful to not let students get too dependent on them and find a happy medium between the extremes of being a student’s best friend and being a strict authoritarian figure, says Trudy Zimmerman, assistant dean for field education at the Boston University School of Social Work.

Seek out agency support. Time spent working with students not only requires a sacrifice on the part of field instructors but one from their agencies as well. Field instructors who work for agencies that won’t or can’t give them enough time or other resources for supervision run the risk of not being able to give students proper attention—and leaving the students disillusioned, Zimmerman says. Field instructors also need to be ready to step in to protect students from agency politics that detract from students’ learning experiences, says Joy Rubin, MSW, interim director of field education at California State University, Long Beach.

Stay connected. Field instructors are not alone in their work with students. Field education staff members are there to support instructors and serve as important resources who can be consulted if questions or problems arise during field placements. Field instructors should also take advantage of any training and opportunities to meet with other field instructors, Zimmerman says. “Sometimes [field instructors] don’t know if they’re doing OK because they don’t have a backdrop of experience to know what is normal and what is not normal,” she says. “Reaching out to other field instructors can be very beneficial.”

Be creative. Just because you work for a small agency or one that focuses on a single population doesn’t mean you can’t provide a rich variety of field instruction experiences to students, Quiala says. Think about new ways to give students real-world experience in a plethora of areas of social work practice and consider how you can weave into supervision sessions topics or concepts that aren’t in the agency’s scope of operations—policy advocacy, for example.

Be positive yet honest about social work. It’s common for people to complain about their jobs from time to time, but field instructors must understand how excessive negativity about their work or their colleagues affects students’ perceptions of the profession. Field instructors with positive attitudes and a passion for what they are doing can make students’ learning experiences fabulous, Thomas says.

Yet, she adds, field instructors must be honest about the harsh realities of the profession as well as truthful about their own limitations as professionals. “I am not perfect,” Thomas says. “I will process my work with clients with the students and am not afraid to admit when I could have done something better or just really messed up. I believe that being open and honest with the students and showing them that mistakes can happen is the greatest ‘teachable moment’ for them.”

Gatekeepers for the Profession
That need for honesty presents what field instructors and educators agree is one of the biggest challenges field instructors face: what to do when a student—for ethical, psychological, or other reasons—does not seem well suited for the social work profession.

The prospect of telling students who have their heart set on social work that it may not be for them can be frightening for new—and even veteran—field instructors. But it’s a field instructor’s responsibility to address the issue head-on, Quiala says. “If you don’t address it immediately, it’s a problem,” she says. “Some people really don’t belong in this field. You learn a lot about students when they’re in placement. Some students are going to rise right to the top, and the students who can’t handle it will become apparent early on.”

It’s important to establish a clear process to follow when a troublesome student situation arises, Thomas says. For example, a field instructor may start by addressing his or her concerns with the student and creating an action plan to address those concerns. If this doesn’t work, then field education staff can be brought into the discussion to take corrective action, find a more appropriate placement for the student, or help ease the student out of a social work program.

Asking a student to leave a program does not necessarily mean that the student could never be a good social worker. Instead, Rubin says, these students are often facing work, family, or other personal issues that impede their progress as professionals. “Many times, [their failure in a program] is an issue of bad timing,” she says. “We tell them to consider coming back when they are more ready.”

— Christina Reardon, MSW, LSW, is a freelance writer based in Harrisburg, PA, and a contributing editor at Social Work Today.