Social Work often receives a bad press but it is an intellectually, emotionally and practically challenging profession which, in order to help people effectively, needs to attract the best candidates. This book takes a personal and human approach and presents a Newly Qualified Social Worker’s experience, reflections and gentle advice on the training process and early years of a Social Work career.
Written in an accessible and honest style, it gives a fresh perspective at a time when there is a national turning-point in Social Service reform. It highlights the positive and negative aspects of becoming a Social Worker and is grounded in real service user cases. For those embarking on or thinking about a career in social work, this book will be an invaluable read.
"It is so refreshing to see a newly qualified social worker producing a book about their experience of challenges and joys of social work education and their first steps as a social worker. A valuable contribution."
Professor Harry Ferguson, Nottingham University
"...What was apparent was how Rebecca reminds the reader why they entered the profession and the importance of not becoming jaded so that social workers continue to offer the support and resources that young people need to make positive changes in their lives, in short at times the book was inspiring."
Matthew Smith, University of Cumbria
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About the Author
Rebecca Joy Novell is a Newly Qualified Social Worker working for a charity in Sheffield which works with homeless young people. She graduated from The University of Sheffield in 2012 with a Masters in Social Work. Rebecca has been involved with Youth Justice for five years in a variety of voluntary and paid roles and is currently undertaking a PHD in Youth Justice. She was recently elected to the Professional Assembly for The College of Social Work and regularly blogs for The Guardian’s Social Care Network.
Read an Excerpt
Starting Social Work
Reflections of a Newly Qualified Social Worker
By Rebecca Joy Novell
Critical Publishing LtdCopyright © 2014 Rebecca Joy Novell
All rights reserved.
Do you want a hot pot? asked Betty.
Ooh, that'd be lovely, Betty. Thank you, replied Deirdre. I wonder if Peter will want some.
Ooh, I wonder? responded Betty.
How Coronation Street is prime-time television, I will never know. It was another evening spent staring at the screen with my Nanna, watching the drudgery that is life in the Rovers Return, when my Nanna asked me: What do you want to do when you're older?
In a desperate attempt to cling on to the little life that I could feel ebbing away to the dulcet tones of Deirdre Barlow, I responded with enthusiasm:
Well, Nanna. I just want to help people. Fight for good, you know? Make this world a fairer and happier place. There is so much injustice in this world and I want to make a difference. I believe that all men and women are born equal and should be treated as such. I believe in equality of opportunity. I believe that under no circumstances should money take precedence over human rights. We should value others not because we can gain from them, but because they too are human. Our value comes not in doing, achieving or creating, but simply in being. As Ruskin states, 'There is no wealth but life', and I want to help people lead the best life they possibly can.
Without a hint of sarcasm my Nanna replied, And how much does that pay?
I suppose that'll teach me to be less pretentious.
THE CURRENT STATE OF SOCIAL WORK
There is a dark cloud hanging over social work at the moment. I worry for those who have just started their journey into the field, or those who are considering it as a career, because much of the conversation around this profession is very off-putting. If you relied solely on mainstream media for information you would believe that social workers spend most of their time failing to protect children at risk while simultaneously putting happy and healthy children into care. Mind you, if you relied on mainstream media for all your information, I suspect negligent social workers may be the least of your problems, what with the imminent threat of world annihilation from swine flu, SARS and terrorism. The social work I see on the front pages is not the social work I know.
Social work is about so much more than Child Protection. Social workers specialise in mental health, disabilities, older people's care, sexual exploitation, domestic violence, fostering, adoption, homelessness, gangs and youth offending, to name but a few areas. We are a wide and varied bunch. And contrary to popular belief, social work is a good thing. Some people may find that statement uncomfortable, or even debatable but, at its core, social work is about making things better for people. And I believe that is a good thing. Of course, the process of helping people can become convoluted, warped and occasionally broken, but it is our job to ensure that doesn't happen.
We live in a time where being optimistic about change is made almost impossible. The economic situation is having a dramatic effect not only on the public sector but on the majority of British people. Increasing levels of poverty are creating more and more social problems. Again, if you relied on mainstream media, you'd be sure that it was people on benefits who caused the recession. We are living in desperate times. And while the Government points the finger of blame at everyone who has ever used the Welfare State, social workers are left to fix the ever-increasing number of problems. But of course social problems have been re-branded as individual problems, and social work is being forced to focus more on working with individuals than on looking at communities and the wider picture, thus making the task of creating social change an even harder one. We are literally expected to solve problems such as homelessness and youth crime one person at a time.
Have I sold social work to you yet?
Social work is complex and the more I know, the more I realise the depths of those complexities. I knew when I chose to be a social worker that there were things that would need improving. I liked the idea of being part of those changes. And while there has been, of late, a dark cloud hanging over us, I can see the sun beginning to break through. I believe it is a very exciting time to be a social worker as the discourse is always around change and improvement. There is a clear sense of always needing to better ourselves and put our arrogance aside in the name of good practice. There is definitely an air of hope around.
THE AIM OF THIS BOOK
This book has a very simple aim. I want to show you my journey into the profession and what social work has been like for me. I'm not trying to sell the profession to anyone. In fact, I think it takes a unique sort of person to want to do (and be good at) social work. Nor am I trying to put anyone off the profession. This book is simply my honest reflections of my experience (although the names and ages of people I work with have been changed for confidentiality reasons). So, if you are thinking about becoming a social worker; if you have just started the course; if you are newly qualified; or even if you have been in the profession for 20 years and are losing your passion for it, I hope that this book will help you have a clearer picture (or a reminder) of what social work is really like for those just starting out, and why some people still choose to do it.
What this book won't be is a guide to the best theory or practice examples. There are hundreds of people out there who can do that a lot better than me. Nor will it show you how I have integrated the Professional Capabilities Framework into my practice. If you are a student social worker you can figure it out for yourself, and if you're not a social worker at all, you won't thank me for introducing you to our assessment system. I wanted to strip away the jargon and focus on the emotional and human impact of the profession. I have included excerpts from my online blog, which was written at the time I was studying, to give you a sense of how I was really feeling at the time. On reviewing my blog, I realised that I relate most of my life experiences to some aspect of The Lord of The Rings. I'm not sure what that says about me but I have tried to keep my Frodo and Gollum references to a minimum in this book. Also, a few lovely and inspiring social workers I have met along the way have added their contributions about how the journey has been for them.
THE STRUCTURE OF THIS BOOK
This most sensible way to structure this book was chronologically. It begins with me choosing which course to take, progresses through two years of university, and ends with me qualifying. As a result, the reader will get a clear sense of what a roller-coaster of a journey I have been on and the rainbow of emotions I have experienced. I apologise in advance to you, the reader, if I give you a false sense of security that everything is positive, and then on the next page drag you into a pit of despair. I originally thought about warning you in advance if a depressing bit was coming up; but then I thought, sod it, life doesn't work like that. You don't get warned about the crisis phone calls you receive telling you one of your service users has been arrested, so if I have to go on the roller-coaster, you do too.
I'm sure you will have heard social work being described as a 'thankless task'; a description which could not be further from the truth. Yes, it is exhausting and repetitive and frustrating, and sometimes you feel like you are making no progress. But, once you sit back and reflect on what would happen if you were not there to offer the support you did, you begin to realise just how fantastic this job is. Even allowing someone to offload their anger or hurt for an hour is a great reward, knowing that they felt able to tell you about their problems. Simply having people know that you're there if they need you to be is a great feeling and an honour. And, very occasionally, you may end up saving someone's life.CHAPTER 2
Discovering you can get paid to help people
DECIDING AT SIXTEEN WHAT I WAS GOING TO DO FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE
I am very lucky, in the sense that I am one of those annoying people who knew from an early age what it was I was meant to do in life. I knew at five years old that I was going to be president of the United States of America. I was quite sure of it. Either that or a police officer. Unfortunately, my dream was shattered at the age of 11 when an insufferable know-it-all at school told me that you had to be American to be the president of America. I was devastated. I spent several years in a Bukowksi-esque state of turmoil, trying to decide who I was and what I was meant to be. Then someone from Barnardos gave a talk at our school about neglected and abused children and something clicked for me. From that point on I knew that I wanted a job which helped young, vulnerable children in need. I had no idea, however, that I wanted to be a social worker.
At age 16 a careers adviser came to school and informed us all that we needed to start deciding what job we wanted to progress towards. At that age we were convinced that we were essentially making a decision about what we would be doing for eternity, and so I knew I had to think this through carefully. I had never heard of social work; it was never mentioned at school and I was never aware of any classmates having or needing the help of a social worker. The only way I could think of helping people was through charity work. I researched the career paths charity workers had taken and the overwhelming majority seemed to have done a humanities degree at university. This suited me perfectly as history lessons were the main thing getting me to school at 16. I chose my A-levels (history, English literature, general studies and religious studies), managed to pass them, and applied for university to study history and politics.
Like most freshers, my first year at the University of Sheffield was a blur. I remember there being lectures, but mainly I remember behaving as if sleep, food and my liver were not important. While my freshers' year was amazingly fun, I had an overwhelming sense of guilt when July came round and I had failed all of my exams and spent all of my money. There are few talks in life which will re-motivate you more than explaining to your parents that for the whole of the past year, when you said you were 'working', you actually meant 'going to a party'. Luckily for me, my parents signed up for the whole 'unconditional love' thing.
I spent the summer of 2008 re-sitting nine exams and trying to give my life some sort of purpose again. I began researching online for volunteering opportunities which would enable me to work with vulnerable people. I was so desperate to restore my parents' faith in me that I applied for absolutely anything and everything. The first place to respond to my desperate emails was a Youth Justice Service. I had no experience of working with offenders and, in all honesty, I was nervous at the prospect of it.
MY FIRST EXPERIENCE OF VULNERABLE AND DANGEROUS CHILDREN
One of my first roles with the Youth Justice Service was as a support volunteer for a Summer Arts Programme. The aim was to help ten young boys, all on intensive criminal orders, achieve an arts award over a six-week period. Before I met the boys a planning meeting was held, and I learned about the seriousness of some of their crimes and the risks involved. Details were reeled off about thefts, burglaries, stabbings and drug dealing. At 19 years old I thought I knew a lot about the world and the city where I lived, but in that meeting I realised just how much I still had to learn.
On the first day, I walked into the classroom and my mind was screaming CRIMINALS! THEY'RE ALL CRIMINALS. GET OUT, YOU IDIOT. But before the voices in my head were able to convince me to leave, one of the boys came over and asked me who I was. Mikey was 17 years old and had a smile that stretched from one ear to the other. He was dressed in a bright green tracksuit and wore a cap so far down the back of his head that it made me doubt the laws of gravity. Within seconds of meeting me Mikey was passionately telling me about his love for Beyoncé: It's not just that she's fit, she's also got a really good voice, you know. Before I knew it, I was having a normal conversation with a funny and lovely young boy.
The first activity we took the boys on was a visit to a sculpture park to see a famous art exhibition. As soon as we arrived the curator of the park made a rather large point of telling the boys that they must not touch any of the exhibits. Within approximately 30 seconds of receiving this information I turned around to find 16-year-old Matthew, in tracksuit bottoms, balanced on top of a 20ft high stone rabbit. Initially, I was so in awe of his ability to climb such heights at such speed that it took me a few moments to realise that it was my job to get him down. I was reminded soon enough by the curator, who did not find Matthew's climbing skills as impressive as I did.
When we finally coaxed Matthew down, he was asked to wait in the car with me until the others had finished viewing the park. I was not expecting much conversation from someone with an inability to follow basic instructions, but again, I was very wrong.
After staring at a road sign for a few moments, Matthew asked me, Is that where Margaret Thatcher closed the mines?
Erm, I'm not sure, to be honest, I replied, clearly showing off all that I had learned from my politics degree so far.
Matthew then proceeded to tell me all about Thatcher's arguments with the miners and how he had read about it when he was in prison. Matthew also told me that he couldn't read before he went to prison, aged 14, and that being able to now was his proudest achievement.
After that first week my head was reeling with what an exciting, complex and fascinating group of young people I was working with. There was Paul, who had such a freakish ability to navigate his way round places he had never been to before that he nick-named himself 'Chav-Nav'. And 6ft 4in Carlton, who had committed a horrifically violent offence and yet was always the first to defend someone if he noticed they were being bullied.
I could not marry the boys' crimes with their personalities. Crime could not simply be a case of bad people doing bad things. As I began to learn more about the boys' upbringings, their stories gave me the facts I needed to back the feelings that I had been having for a long time; that crime has sociological reasons behind it. While they were all responsible for the crimes they committed, each one of them had experienced heartbreaking abuse or neglect as a child. It was part of my role to pick the boys up from home in the morning and drop them back at the end of the day. I remember picking Matthew up to find his Dad blind drunk by 8am, demanding Matthew return with food or money or not return at all. Of course these boys needed to learn that what they had done was wrong, but more than anything they needed the love and attention that all children deserve and they'd been denied. I was addicted from day one.
Saying that I was 'addicted from day one', is the best way I can think of to explain the feelings I was having. As most people who have ever worked with teenagers will know, the young person you are working with may look the same from day to day, but their personalities can change on an almost hourly basis; their dreams, goals, friends and plans change almost as frequently. Teenagers have the marmite effect on professionals. You either find their unpredictability incredibly exciting, or so frustrating that you want to cry.
The teenagers I was working with were like individual riddles. I wanted to know more about what caused them to commit crime; why they continued to commit crime despite not wanting to go to prison; why education wasn't working for them and what could be done to help them. I spent hours reading as much as I could about Youth Justice and based both my dissertations on youth crime. I continued to apply for volunteering roles to learn more about young people who offend and try to do something to help them. I volunteered in police stations, as a mentor in secure children's homes, and as an education support officer. I met hundreds of young people and returned home happy every day, knowing that I had found my calling. A flame was lit inside me, and when I have a bad day as a qualified social worker I remind myself of that feeling I had when I started.
THERE'S MORE TO HELPING PEOPLE THAN MEANING WELL
Firm in the knowledge that I wanted to help young people all day, every day, I asked the woman who initially employed me as a Youth Justice volunteer what else I needed to do in order to make this happen. She told me that if I wanted to work with young people, it was worth doing a social work degree. I had heard of social work by now but, in all honesty, knew next to nothing about it. I certainly didn't think of social work as a 'profession'. I didn't give social work much more thought at all until a rather controversial arts and crafts session with a seven-year-old boy, who I was supporting, made me realise that I might be out of my depth.
Excerpted from Starting Social Work by Rebecca Joy Novell. Copyright © 2014 Rebecca Joy Novell. Excerpted by permission of Critical Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Discovering you can get paid to help people.
- Starting the course and meeting Spider Man.
- Single-handedly saving the world.
- The Riots.
- The key to being a good Social Worker is good rum and a great friend.
- The Fear.
- So are you a Social Worker or not?
- The Assessed and Supported Year in Employment.
- Conclusion: Idealism Lost?