Throughout my social work education, it was drummed into me the need to be a radical social worker. Fight for social justice they said, stand up to the establishment they said, this was the ONLY social worker to be. Now whilst I don’t mind challenging when necessary, here I was, a fresh faced, unqualified newbie who was now questioning how I was going to hold down a job, look after my family, attend rally’s and protests and generally cause a bit of trouble. Noooooo that couldn’t be right surely? I mean, I had sacrificed my entire social life, my sanity AND the pub to fulfil my career goals, surely there was a better way? .
They say social work is a calling and I believe it is. I have heard stories about social workers lying to people about their jobs, but not me. Wear my badge with pride I do. I can honestly say I love my job, I really do. I had found that work life balance that most people fantasised about. You see social work values really do fit in line with my own. However, eighteen months qualified and I was beginning to feel unsatisfied. I knew I was struggling to deal with a profession that was becoming besieged by targets and timescales. It has been feeling like social work was being defined by everyone except social workers and we were losing our voice.
Then I was given information about an event looking at social pedagogy in Europe. Having completed a module on it in university I was intrigued to find out more………and besides, who can refuse a free day out in Preston?
On the day of the event I spoke to many people from many countries, all talking about this value-based approach of relational working. This was it, this was the “radical” social work I had been looking for. A holistic way of working to support well-being, learning and growth. Putting relationships at the heart of social work! Before I knew it, I had signed up to the MA in Social Pedagogy Leadership, and that “free” day out in Preston would result in more student debt!
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One of the first things I was introduced to was the term ‘Haltung’. Roughly translated as ethos, mindset or attitude. I was taught how Haltung guides our actions by what we believe in, and is characterised by core conditions of congruence, empathic understanding, and unconditional positive regard. It was now that I realised why I had been struggling. Yes, I love my job, but at a time when social work and austerity go hand in hand, I was finding it increasingly difficult to build relationships with the children and families I work alongside, and I was realising why that was. Relationships are important to me both personal and professional – and these are naturally linked. It was obvious there was a “tug of loyalty” between my Haltung and the needs of my organisation.
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I was always told not to share any personal information when working with families. I found this difficult as I felt like I was doing “to” families rather than doing “with”. There I was with my laptop and ID badge oozing power, expecting families to divulge their deepest darkest secrets without sharing anything of myself. I mean, as far as I am aware I am human too? I have my own challenges and experiences, and by sharing I could help reduce the imbalance of power and connect on a human level. The relationship forms the foundation of my work and that could only succeed if I was authentic (3-ps).
Social work values and ethics tell us to be non-judgemental. We were taught to be aware of our own beliefs and prejudices and how these can affect working relationships, but never to consider what the people we work with bring with them. Very often we get “stuck” cases that become labelled as “troubled families”.
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Hermeneutics offered me an understanding of why people don’t come to any given conclusion without some form of pre-understanding, which is influenced by their own views and experiences. “Understanding is, essentially, a historically effected event” (Gadamer, 2004). Basically, the inappropriately labelled “troubled families” bring with them their own views and experiences, and by realising how their reality is constructed by these experiences, effects how they engage and could make a person feel misunderstood. Never had the saying “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” made more sense – change will not happen if it is imposed. Essentially, I needed to understand that we can all look at the same thing differently and arrive at different conclusions.
When I initially read a case, I make assumptions about a family, its natural, I am only human. However, hermeneutics explained how my prejudices can affect my interpretations of that family. It made me look at people’s behaviour and challenge my own thinking, beliefs and perceptions, and consciously try and not label families. It is important to me to understand the way of life of a person, therefore, I had to understand their thinking and behaviour. By utilising empathy and dialogue will only lead me towards a greater commitment from families and develop positive relationships.
I am used to the scrunched-up faces and look of confusion when I tell people what I am studying. I try and explain that social pedagogy is not a method or something we can adopt for a particular situation, it is about how we do what we do. As professionals I learn and act using my head (knowledge) heart (emotions) and hands (actions) – striving for the balance of all three.
*Gadamer, H, G. (2004) Truth and Method. London: Continuum.
Written by an anonymous NQSW Social Worker.
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