Staying current with scholarship enriches the work of field educators: it teaches us innovative ways to solve perennial field problems, suggests new readings for field seminars, keeps us abreast of current debates in social work education, and even inspires us in our own writing on theory and research. “What We’re Reading” presents our brief summaries of the findings of recent publications in field education. Our emphasis is on implications for practice. Readers are encouraged to suggest articles or books for future review.

Gushwa, M., & Harriman, K. (2019). Paddling against the tide: Contemporary challenges in field education. Clinical Social Work Journal, 47(1), 17–22. doi:10.1007/s10615-018-0668-3

The challenges associated with the field of social work appears to be a common topic between social work educators. Through an analysis of articles in the Field Educator and a conversation between a field director and program director, the authors shed light on what they call these “water cooler” conversations. After reviewing all articles from 2011 to 2017 that were published in the Field Scholar and Practice Digest sections of the Field Educator, six themes or categories emerged. These categories were: field pedagogy/field instructors, student preparedness, innovative approaches to finding/expanding field placements, issues in field/gatekeeping, evaluation and assessment of field, and culture and diversity in field.

The authors then held a dialogue between a program director and field director to discuss some of the themes or categories that emerged in the analysis of Field Educator articles. For instance, when discussing the drastic growth in the number of social work students in the field, the field director discussed how these changes can be either reactive or proactive. The field director continued by explaining that, due to the saturation of students, field departments are “scrambling” to find new partnerships with agencies all while potentially neglecting to determine the viability of the agency. Additionally, the field director comments on strategies that could be used to address student issues in the field. Two strategies discussed are adjustments within the admissions process and, what the director describes as, a “taking back of the learning,” which involves providing more concrete learning about the social work field in the classroom rather than strictly relying on the field to deliver that learning.

The authors concluded by acknowledging how field departments often feel stretched to capacity due to various factors, such as increased enrollment, increased competition, and scarce resources. However, they also highlight the high-level importance of a field experience. For this reason, the authors emphasize the importance of continuing a dialogue about challenges that infringe upon a positive field experience as well as contributing to the literature on the matter.

Kiesel, L. R., DeZelar, S., & Lightfoot, E. (2018). Challenges, barriers, and opportunities: Social workers with disabilities and experiences in field education. Journal of Social Work Education, 54(4), 696–708. doi:10.1080/10437797.2018.1507365

Inclusion is a core feature to the social work field, yet there are still some populations neglected even by the field itself. Kiesel, DeZelar, and Lightfoot (2018) argue that the disabled population is one such group that is often excluded from the social work field, particularly in field education. In fact, the authors offer a brief literature review that highlight different instances of the field excluding students with disabilities, including gatekeeping from certain placements. The purpose of their study was to provide BSW and MSW social work students with disabilities an opportunity to voice their experiences in field education, including the challenges, barriers, and opportunities they encountered. Additionally, throughout the article, the authors aimed to emphasize “how disability may be embraced in the tapestry of valued diversity in our profession” (p. 696).

Utilizing a disability interpretive lens (described on p. 698) and semi-structured interview style, researchers interviewed 15 participants who have a BSW and/or MSW, and who identify as and have a record of having a disability (e.g., mental health diagnosis, physical limitations, sensory limitations, and neurological or behavioral disorder). After transcribing and coding the interviews, four themes were revealed. The first theme noted was the difference in experiences between a visible versus invisible disability. A major difference was when the discussion of accommodation occurred, in which those with a visible disability had a conversation about accommodations early, while those with an invisible disability had an accommodation conversation further along in their field placement experience, if the conversation occurred at all. Interestingly, it was revealed that students with an invisible disability experienced a sense of privilege, but also a burden over the decision of whether or not they would disclose that they had a disability.

The second theme that emerged was confusion about accommodations. The authors explain that this includes experiences of misunderstanding whether it is the student, the field placement, or the school whom bears the responsibility for initiating the accommodation process. Additionally, some students reported that accommodations in the classroom were not carried over into their placement. The third theme revealed was acknowledging “field as a learning opportunity regarding being a social worker with a disability” (p. 702). This theme encompassed the students’ personal development in which they discovered their own potential limitations within the profession as a social worker with a disability as well as learning which accommodations are most important to them. This theme also acknowledges the strong impact a field supervisor, liaison, and faculty member can have on the field experience for a student with a disability. The final theme that emerged was “a sense of isolation being a social worker with a disability” (p. 696). Within this theme, students described having to be “self-accommodating” and “self-advocating for alternatives to be allowed or accepted” (p. 704), all of which created a sense of loneliness or isolation.

With these results, the authors offered recommendations to schools of social work on how to best support and work with students with disabilities, such as training field faculty about the needs of students with disabilities and possibilities for different accommodations. The authors also cited limitations to this study, including the fact that all 15 participants were Caucasian females, therefore lacking the perspective of people of color and those who identify as male. As a result, the findings are not representative.

Pritzker, S., & Lane, L.B. (2018). Supporting field-based education in political settings. Journal of Social Work Education, 54(4), 668–678. doi:10.1080/10437797.2018.1486254

Whether you identify as a micro or macro-level social worker, understanding policy and the policy-making process is an important component to the social work field. Policy impacts clients and populations that we as social workers directly support. In order to develop a better understanding of the policy-making process, 8 MSW students had the opportunity to participate in a fully immersive, legislative internship program in the form of a block placement for five months. Students were either placed in the House caucus or in a legislator’s office or committee. They worked far beyond the traditional time requirements a field placement demands by working late nights and during the weekends. Pritzker and Lane (2018) utilized this unique field placement opportunity to conduct a qualitative study in order to understand “how social work students experience practice in political settings” (p. 668). The authors conducted individual interviews with each student within one month of the completion of their field placement. After the interview, transcripts were coded and analyzed and three overarching themes emerged.

The first overarching theme is students’ learning outcomes. In addition to learning about the complexity of the policy process, students identified additional learning outcomes. For instance, students learned strategies for influencing policy. One strategy was relationship building, which is a great skill to practice as it is a key feature to the traditional therapeutic process. Additional outcomes included strengthening personal skills, such as self-confidence, and integrating policy into future career plans and practice.

The second overarching theme is challenges students faced while in a political field placement. These challenges included adapting to the political culture, personal challenges, and navigating one’s role as a social worker, which students found to conflict with their role as a political staffer. In fact, some students found that their commitment to the NASW Code of Ethics was often challenged, and at times students found it difficult to connect the work they were completing to social work.

The third overarching theme identified was strategies students used to navigate challenges. These strategies included reaching out to professional networks, such as other social workers working in the legislature, developing and acknowledging one’s personal strengths, and committing oneself to the NASW Code of Ethics.

Considering the important findings revealed through this study, the authors conclude by providing information to field instructors on how to best prepare students for a field placement in a political setting and how to best support them throughout their time in such a unique placement. Additionally, the authors report limitations to their study, including a lack of generalizability and transferability of the findings due to the small sample size and the particularity of the setting (i.e., the legislative session and location).