Industry Voices: Teaching During the Pandemic and Social Unrest
As licensed clinical social workers with more than 20 years of practice experience who now work in academia, the authors shared a common belief that students’ learning was enhanced when we connected the parallels and similarities between practicing clinical social work and teaching social work practice. Drawing these parallels provided students a context for the course material presented, and a vehicle with which to transition from the learning environment to the practice environment. The foundational practice philosophy of client-centered care (Rogers, 1946) that we applied in practice translated well to that of learner/student-centered teaching, whereby we tailor individual teaching to students’ needs and learning styles.
Prior to 2020, applying an approach to teaching that reflected the parallels between practice and teaching was more seamless. It seemed that, regardless of course topics or intensity of the work, students generally performed academically with some predictability as though grades, if plotted, would form a bell curve. This predictability helped us to identify strategies to meet the learning needs of those who typically performed or achieved grades in the high range, those in the average range, and those students who had difficulty. This pattern of student performance seemed akin to what we saw in our prior clinical practice, even given the broad array of clinical diagnoses and diagnostic presentations we encountered. That is, some clients walked in the door already having a good deal of insight, some managed the trajectory of therapeutic change reasonably well, and still other clients struggled throughout the therapeutic work.
When the global COVID-19 pandemic began, our once face-to-face Master of Social Work (MSW) program rapidly transitioned to an online virtual platform. We and the students were able to adjust, although students had a greater adjustment given that all their classes went from face-to-face to virtual. In addition, because ours is an accelerated MSW program, students were in virtual classes four days a week, six hours a day. Isolation associated with social distancing and limitations placed on access to social support compounded the situation. As a result, the students experienced lower participation and energy levels. They appeared emotionally and physically drained as we continually searched for new ways to keep them engaged.
We identified a shift in performance on assignments and exams. Rather than grades falling in high, average, and low ranges, they now seemed more like a scatter plot than a bell curve. This shifting and scattering of grades limited our ability to predict where and how we needed to shift or change our teaching to deliver curricula in a way that fit our student-centered approach.
As social unrest in the country escalated, students began to express increased levels of distress and despair, which negatively affected academic performance. We observed that the course material presented to previous student cohorts was somehow more challenging for the current cohort, both as a group and individually. Coinciding with their academic strain were serious concerns about the social unrest, which led to emotional strain and a decreased sense of safety.
We also encountered the unique factor that exists in social work curricula: the degree to which course content may prompt students to emote or reflect on their personal lives and experiences as well as on social injustices and inequalities. Additionally, the students faced their own personal life challenges, which they navigated as they maintained their academic studies.
Amidst all of this we as professors shared the students’ experiences of distress and uncertainty yet remained obligated to deliver quality curricula. Therefore, we modified all in-class material to fit the virtual platform, reflected on our own thoughts and experiences related to the pandemic and social unrest, and wondered how we would remain inspired and excited about the field of social work, much less consistently inspire this group of students.
Could we instill in them the honor and privilege of being present for others and in service to the community when it seemed the community was eroding? Furthermore, we questioned how we would continue to successfully deliver innovative social work courses for a group whose performance became more unpredictable as time wore on.
Again, we returned to our prior clinical experience to attempt to answer these questions. First, we identified and gained clarity about what we were seeing in terms of academic performance, just as in clinical practice we critically analyzed and deciphered diagnostic presentations.
Then, we recognized that what we were experiencing was a shared traumatic experience (Tosone, 2006). Not only were students living through a global pandemic and social unrest but we too were in this with them as members of society, as social workers, and as teachers who were responsible for cultivating a healthy and safe learning environment. Such a compromised and even absent sense of safety for all of us meant that simply delivering the same curricula used in the past would not be adequate or appropriate. Just as client safety is critical, so too is safety in the classroom as a microcosm of society.
To create safety in the face of all the unknowns, we offered the students additional mentorship, coaching, and a human-to-human touch of compassion, kindness, and support, and brainstormed strategies to help them cope. We embraced the multiple roles we now occupied in our students’ lives and applied an approach to teaching that not only was person-centered but also addressed the needs of the group. If not for our clinical experience, this rapid and necessary adjustment to addressing individual student needs may not have been as successful.
As leaders of social service and clinical programs, we encourage staff to engage in self-care as they face challenges of organizational stress and trauma (Bloom, 2010; Arnett & Baron, 2017). Comparatively, we paralleled the need for self-care in organizations to our need for self-care in the teaching environment as we strived to support students. As forms of self-care, we increased collaboration and communication with each other as coworkers and fellow professors. We spent countless hours discussing what was happening around us, and the effects on our personal lives, on our teaching, and on our students, just as colleagues would discuss client care in clinical practice.
We worked together to develop strategies and methods for adjusting our respective curricula to ensure the delivery was creative and engaging yet responsive to students’ individual needs. We coordinated the content of our lectures and the scheduling of due dates so that major assignments and exams did not overlap, which allowed students the opportunity to allocate study time efficiently. To reinforce a sense of purpose as social workers and the need for new social workers in the field, we used the gravity of the situation to illuminate the importance of remaining solution-focused, especially in the face of adversity.
Applying this approach reminded us of the critical role social work has played in the lives of those in need throughout history, therefore helping us remain grounded and certain of the value of our role.
Throughout the challenges of the pandemic and social unrest, we learned a great deal about ourselves as professors, colleagues, mentors, and coaches, just as we had in our many years of clinical practice in social service and health care settings. The master of social work teaching environment parallels the clinical practice environment in many ways, which became abundantly clear throughout this period. It meant that we would have to maintain a great degree of focus, flexibility, and collaboration to see our students through to a successful outcome, fully recognizing their needs as students, future social workers, and members of society.
Ultimately, we are now more keenly aware of the complexities and importance of applying a learner/student-centered approach infused with clinical knowledge and expertise, and how this combination impacts safety, learning, and successful outcomes.
— Kathryn D. Arnett, DSW, LCSW, CADC, is an assistant professor in a master of social work program and practiced social work with a sub-specialty in alcohol and drug addiction for over twenty years.
— Courtney J. Lynch, PhD, LCSW, is an assistant professor in a master of social work program and practiced social work with a specialty in child welfare and child and family mental health for over fifteen years.
Bloom, S. L. (2010). Organizational stress as a barrier to trauma-informed service delivery. In Becker, M., & Levin, B., A public health perspective of women’s mental health. (pp. 295-311). New York: Springer.
Rogers, C. R. (1946). Significant aspects of client-centered therapy. American Psychologist, 1(10), 415-422. doi:10.1037/h0060866
Tosone, C. (2006). Therapeutic intimacy: A post-9/11 perspective. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 76(4), 89-98. doi:10.1300/J497v76n04_12