What teachers can learn from social workers.

This is probably a slightly misleading title. There’s no way I could cover everything teachers could learn from social workers in just one sitting. But there are a few fundamental things. I’m going to make a few generalisations in the course of this post. Please rest assured I do not believe all social workers are like x and all teachers are like y. I do think as professions they can have different approaches to what they do, and one can learn more from the other.

So another disclaimer. I come from a family of teachers. I am studying for a PGCE in Postcompulsory Teaching. I teach on a daily basis in a university library service. All I do at work is teach. I wouldn’t describe myself as a teacher (for, well, reasons) but what I do is definitely teaching. To borrow from the US, I might risk a description of teacher-librarian, but that’s the limit. I didn’t start off working in education however. I started out in social care and social work, before moving into equalities work and somehow landing up in college and university libraries.

For many folk not overly familiar with either profession, it probably seems like splitting hairs to suggest there is any great difference between the two professions. Both attract predominantly Guardian reading, lefty liberal, Vegetarian do-gooders, don’t they? Joking side, these are badged as the “caring professions” yet some of my recent experiences of the education system have made me question how “caring” teaching actually is.

I’ve never really done personal on this blog but even my tightly regimented separation of bits of my life, is starting to collapse under the weight of interconnections. So, a bit of bio. I have two kids, a boy and a girl. My son is the eldest and was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome about a year ago. It wasn’t particularly traumatic and it certainly wasn’t a surprise. I had been pushing for a diagnosis for three years. No, I didn’t want a poxy label. I did want support and understanding. You can’t get support or understanding in the education system without a paediatrician officially pointing out the bleeding obvious.

My son has had some struggles with school. Like a lot of children with Asperger’s Syndrome, he finds relating to peers difficult. He often broadcasts rather than communicates. And he doesn’t understand appeals to authority. Every teacher’s dream right? The school he attends isn’t by any means a bad school. I just think they don’t deal with difference very easily. And the teachers are definitely working what I call the “Roseanne” effect.

Each time they call me in to discuss an “issue” I get sat on the tiny little infant school plastic chair and lectured by the morally and intellectually superior smug teacher. I’m not allowed to talk until the teacher eventually finishes her monologue. At that point, she stares at me, expectantly, with a look that says “and what do you have to say to that?” I’m not often in the mood for playing this game and usually ask her a constructive question back. She doesn’t like that. Which obviously encourages me to do it more… And we end up in some kind of warped blame game where everything I say is twisted beyond all recognition to support her hypothesis that I must be a lousy parent.

At this point, I’m never sure what she wants me to say. What response is she looking for? In desperation I have previously tried out all the things I think she might want me to say. I have tried saying I will punish him. No need apparently. SO WHY AM I HERE? Root of the problem. Ah, right I see. Now, we’re getting to it: blame. I repeat myself for what feels like the fifty millionth time: he does not behave like that at home. Again, the cool hard and-I’m-supposed-to-believe-that stare. I got nothing at this point. So I go with suggestions: have you spoken to the SENCO to see if she has any suggested strategies? Why would I speak to the SENCO? Because this is a manifestation of his autism. No, it isn’t. How isn’t it? I taught an autistic child once before and he didn’t act like that. Right… He’s bad at group work. Is he? What a shocker!

I could rant about this all day long, and trust me, I have. I only share the details because otherwise people don’t believe my son and I have been treated in this way by someone who is supposed to be both knowledgeable and professional and caring. So how does this differ from social work? There are almost certainly inconsiderate and condescending social workers out there too. But I think this comes down to a question of philosophy.

Social work has baggage, more baggage perhaps than teaching. Historically social work practices were at best well-meant but misguided and at worst oppressive, racist, sexist and almost definitely classist. The thing about social work though, is that it confronts that past. It lays it bare. They have picked it over. On social work courses students pick it over. They learn about anti-oppressive practice precisely because social work practice was oppressive. And it was (largely) social workers who called the system out.

Social work education acknowledges that it takes many people to make a world. It meets the client where they are, not where the social worker expects them to be. Social work is about identifying allies, partners and experts. They don’t deny people’s lived reality but try to operate within it, not superimposing solutions from above. One of the things I loved about working in social care with disabled adults was that we valued our clients for who they were, not what they could or couldn’t do. We didn’t see them as projects or broken things you need to fix. Just people who needed a bit of support and help to live a happier life.

I think teachers could learn a lot from this, especially in schools. Don’t shut out the parent who knows their child best and make them an enemy. Leave blame and shame at the door. It doesn’t have a place in constructive dialogue. Scrap the myth of the superhero teacher who acts alone and recognise what other people can bring to the table. Stop seeing children who are different as a problem. See them as human beings. Have a conversation with them, ask them what’s wrong. Children are not all that different from adults in so many ways. Value them, not their grades.




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