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.

Tecle, A., Mehrotra, G., & Gringeri, C. (2020). Managing diversity: Analyzing individualism, awareness, and difference in field instructors’ discourse. Journal of Social Work Education, 56, 683–695.Tecle, A., Mehrotra, G., & Gringeri, C. (2020). Managing diversity: Analyzing individualism, awareness, and difference in field instructors’ discourse. Journal of Social Work Education, 56, 683–695.

The commitment to enforcing and understanding diversity and social justice is an essential component of a social worker’s code of ethics, and is an important element in social work classroom curriculum. However, over the past few decades, field education has emerged as the signature pedagogy of a new social worker’s learning. Due to the strong influence a student’s field education has on their development and identify as a social worker, Tecle, Mehrotra, and Gringeri (2020) set out to answer the following question: How do social work field instructors understand and talk about diversity, specifically when they reflect on how they teach and integrate these issues in students’ field education?

To answer this question, researchers conducted a qualitative study involving 38 field instructors. They arranged the participants into focus groups to explore and foster conversations on how they individually integrate their perceptions and experiences of diversity issues into their field supervision with students. By using thematic analysis, three themes emerged: individualism as diversity; “just be aware,” or the limits of awareness; and color blind/power blind. The researchers do not view these themes as discrete, siloed themes, but rather as overlapping and mutually reinforcing.

In regard to the first theme, individualism as diversity, the authors found that field instructors viewed diversity as the difference in individual characteristics that exists between the client and the social worker. For example, a client having a different language other than English, or legal status other than United States citizen, was considered an example of diversity in the eyes of the participant. The authors explain that this view is problematic since it reinforces the idea that social workers are part of a dominant group, while the client is categorized as “other,” or as an individual who deviates from the norm. As a result, diversity is viewed as an individual issue that needs to be “fixed,” and is separate from social, economic, and political structures.

The second theme, “just be aware,” focuses on the potential limits on the awareness of diversity issues. In discussions, participants reported that they attempt to increase their students’ awareness of diversity issues, but in further discussion it was revealed that to them “awareness” meant being sure that students were conscious of the individual differences that exist between student and client. By focusing only of this aspect of diversity, professionals are not addressing individual and institutional oppression, inequality, and discrimination. Moreover, it assumes that a social worker can simply “become aware” of differences instead of addressing power, privilege, and inequity. Additionally, the theme and concept of “just be aware” leads to a model that focuses on cultural differences. As a result, diversity issues are masked under the term “culture.” The authors discuss that masking diversity as culture prevents the larger discussion regarding differences between oneself and the client from happening, which only perpetuates power and privilege.

This leads to the third theme, color blind and power blind. Within this theme are two subgroups that researchers label as “Diversity as a cultural issue, or power neutral,” and “Silencing discourses of difference.” Essentially, the authors report that color blindness and power blindness occur when social workers view diversity as culture in order to prevent having a discussion with clients about the differences between them, which further avoids the discomfort that may occur when discussing differences. The authors conclude that this perpetuates white, heteronormative Western culture. 

While this study was limited due to the lack of racial and ethnic diversity of the sample and the racially homogenous geographic region in which it was conducted, the themes revealed demonstrate the importance that a field instructor’s personal discourse can have on a student’s exposure to learning about diversity and systems of oppression. The authors provide recommendations on how to assist field instructors in learning about diversity and in teaching diversity in field placement. Recommendations include exposing field instructors to paradigms that utilize intersectional, antioppressive, and antidiscriminatory frameworks rather than cultural competency frameworks; providing field instructors with training opportunities that focus on conversations about diversity and social justice; and providing skill-building exercises so that field instructors can develop skills on how to integrate discussions of power, privilege, oppression, etc. into their supervision with students.

Messinger, L., Natale, A. P., Dentato, M. P., & Craig, S. L. (2020). Conflict in field: LGBTQ social work students’ stories of identity management, discrimination, and practice. Journal of Social Work Education, 56, 708–720.

It is well known in the social work field that a student’s field placement is at the heart of their social work education. It is where classroom learning meets direct application. Given the strong influence it has on a student’s education, Messinger, Natale, Dentato, and Craig (2020) argue that it is crucial to understand the personal experiences that occur for students in field placements. In particular, authors argue the importance of understanding the experiences LGBTQ students may have while in field placement. Previous studies indicate that students with culturally oppressed identities may encounter unique challenges in field placements. Therefore, it is important for the field to understand the particular challenges LGBTQ students may face as they prepare for their professional careers.

Through a large research project that used an online survey, researchers were able to analyze students’ responses to the following qualitative request: “Please give examples of conflict during field practicum regarding sexual orientation or gender identity.”

A qualitative thematic analysis resulted in 207 qualitative descriptions of students’ conflicts in the field as they pertain to sexual orientation and/or gender identity. After an axial coding process was completed, six conflict themes emerged:

  1. Managing Disclosure: LGBTQ students entered their field placement trying to decide whether and how to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to field instructors, agency staff, and clients. Additionally, students were left to manage any effects of disclosure in the agency. Some students were directly advised not to disclose, while others felt pressure to disclose.
  1. Unsupportive Agency Atmosphere: Students reported a lack of knowledge of LGBTQ issues within their agency and/or a hostile environment, as well as an absence of discrimination policies. Some students identified their field setting as homophobic and transphobic. 
  1. Handling Others’ Discomfort: Students experienced pressure to handle discomfort from their field supervisors, coworkers, and clients. Participants shared that discomfort arose verbally, such as by disregarding the students’ identified pronouns, and nonverbally, such as clients refusing to work with a student intern who was suspected or identified to be a part of the LGBTQ community. 
  1. Dealing with Discriminatory Attitudes and Behaviors: Students reported experiencing homophobic, transphobic, heterosexist, and gender-normative attitudes and behaviors, such as being harassed and being given offensive literature.
  1. Bad Practice with LGBTQ Clients: Participants reported witnessing colleagues using nonaffirmative practice, including making fun of LGBTQ clients, not respecting clients’ identified pronouns, and referring to LGBTQ clients’ sexual orientation and gender identity as “disordered behavior.”
  1. Challenges Within an LGBTQ-Serving Agency: While LGBTQ students acknowledged benefits related to being placed within an LGBTQ agency, they still faced unique conflicts, including outside hostility directed at the agency via hate mail, and unexpected challenges with managing their own sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

After these conflict themes were identified, researchers analyzed them for qualitative emotional themes. The qualitative emotional analysis revealed common feelings that LGBTQ students experienced within their field placement, including fear-related emotions, sadness-related emotions, discomfort-related emotions, and shame-related emotions. Examining these conflict and emotional themes, researchers were able to highlight the unique challenges LGBTQ students may face within a field placement.

The authors offer recommendations on how to enhance and improve the field education experience for LGBTQ students. These recommendations include enhancing social work education in preparation for field placement by helping students address discrimination issues; preparing field placement sites by implementing nondiscriminatory policies or updating current policies; and preparing LGBTQ students for field placement by providing them with extra support, such as pairing LGBTQ alumni of the social work program with new LGBTQ students to help provide guidance and support.

McMahon, A. (2020). Five reflective touchstones to foster supervisor humility. The Clinical Supervisor, 39, 178–197.

Humility has been defined as “the ability to assess accurately and acknowledge one’s own strengths and weaknesses” (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, 2018, p. 11). It is a human characteristic that researchers have associated with many positive outcomes, such as commitment to social justice, generosity, and positive mental health. While humility is a positive trait that many possess, studies have revealed that humility is also a foundational quality of good supervision practice. Based on theoretical and research literature, McMahon offers five reflective touchstones to help foster the commitment to developing humility in one’s supervision practice.

The first touchstone the author identifies is attending to oneself, meaning, “What do I personally bring to my supervisory work?” McMahon describes the importance of a positive supervision relationship given the outcomes it can have on a supervisee, including greater self-efficacy and development of skills and knowledge. High levels of self-awareness and interpersonal skills are key components to creating a positive supervision relationship. McMahon describes that self-awareness and interpersonal skills are characteristics that are brought into supervision. The author further describes that previous studies confirm the benefits of supervisors’ engaging in their own personal work and in therapeutic services.

Branching from self-awareness comes the second touchstone, attending to unconscious interpersonal dynamics. While interpersonal dynamics may be unconscious, McMahon further describes two phenomena that are likely to occur during supervision: parallel processing and relational negotiations. Maintaining a humble appreciation of these unconscious dynamics is essential, since they can negatively influence good supervision.

The third touchstone is attending to developmental dynamics. With the help of the Integrative Developmental Model, supervisors can learn how best to support their supervisee based on the level of development the supervisee exhibits within the supervisory relationship. Additionally, McMahon encourages a developmentally sensitive approach to supervision, which includes discussing a supervisee’s developmental needs within their career, as well as remaining mindful of attachment dynamics that may occur within a supervisory relationship.

The fourth touchstone McMahon explores is attending to power dynamics. Power imbalances are immediately present due to the hierarchical nature of the supervisory relationship, and attending to these imbalances is essential to a positive relationship. Additionally, attending to power dynamics is important in keeping two areas of concern in check: supervisors abusing their power, and supervisees withholding disclosures during supervision. By humbly acknowledging the hierarchical nature of a supervisory relationship, balanced power and agency within supervision can be fostered. 

The final touchstone is attending to one’s limits. McMahon provides supervisors with a sense of comfort in the fact that they do not need to be “all knowing,” but rather be comfortable with humility in their ambiguity. Additionally, it is important for supervisors to remain open to experiencing and engaging in uncertainty, especially as it relates to cultural humility.

To help implement the five touchstones in practice, McMahon offers reflective questions to guide the development of humility in the supervisory relationship. McMahon concludes that the intention of the five touchstones is to improve and strengthen the supervisory relationship.

Reference British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. (2018). Ethical framework for the counselling professions.