World Social Work Day: 'At its core social work is an act of love'
From front line practitioner to Pratice Educator, BASW member Michaela Horan has seen all sides of social work. Here, she pays tribute to a profession she describes as "curious, rich and frankly, remarkable".
This is not a post I ever thought I’d write. These are not words I ever expected to express with genuine conviction. These are not feelings I ever expected to feel. But by a long, circuitous route, I find myself having the best time I’ve ever had as a social worker, and ready to write about a part of my working life that until now, I’ve always kept under wraps.
Yes, I’m off the front line of statutory practice. I have been for a few years now. Some years back I realised that staying where I was, doing what I was doing was no longer serving me (or anyone else for that matter).
I realised that I had to make a change.
I wanted to feel differently about the work I was doing. I wanted to have fun again. I wanted to laugh easily, not darkly. I wanted to wake up in the morning and look forward to what I was about to do. I wanted to be free from the sense of dread that followed me everywhere I went.
And so, I made that change. I gradually, and sometimes fearfully moved away from social work as I knew it. I stepped away from the relentless assessments, the sad stories, the stretched-thin colleagues into a new, unfamiliar, unstructured world. The only aspects of social work that accompanied me into this new dimension were my professional title and some social work students. I was a qualified Practice Educator, which offered me a way of continuing to make a contribution to the profession that had shaped almost all my adult life, while I took some longed-for time tending to my family, and working out what on earth I was going to do with all this freedom.
Fast forward a few years, a complete shift to a self-directed, self-employed lifestyle and here I am in 2017, having found the freedom I craved, the self development that was so sorely needed, a blog and a coaching accreditation under my belt - still a social worker and still Practice Educating social work students every chance I get.
My perspectives have broadened. I am in the enviable position of moving from student to student, placement to placement. Seeing social work in its many different forms, with its many different service users. I get to witness the overwhelm and energy of the statutory environments. The freedoms and challenges of the voluntary sector.
I get reminded daily how various and multifaceted social workers are. How the role changes and adapts to its environment and the needs of its service users. How social workers undertake a complex dance between authority and compassion. The professional and the human. Between courtrooms and living rooms. Limiting freedoms and encouraging autonomy.
There are tensions and contradictions at every turn. Nothing is linear, little is simple. Social workers specialise in the ‘grey’, murky areas of the human experience. They hold perspectives that render the unacceptable simultaneously understandable. Social work seems to bring us closer to our fellow human beings, and isolate us from mainstream society all at once.
It is curious, rich and frankly, remarkable.
My heart is lifted time and time again, as I see commitment, creativity and reflection in action. As I see students, their supervisors and their colleagues empathise, puzzle, encourage and empower. As I see them want more for service users, find hope in dark places, discover strengths that appear hidden beneath layers of delusion, aggression and resistance. It’s a beautiful process I'm lucky to be a part of.
The mainstream narrative suggests that the heart has been squeezed out of social work. That the workforce is weary, depleted, defensive and overwhelmed. Ideals of creating a fairer, more equal society have been quashed by timescales, targets and budget cuts.
And there is absolutely truth in that story.
But it’s not everything.
I get to witness another reality that exists at the same time.
I get to encounter the fresh new recruits social work continues to attract. Each with their own story. Each with their own powerful reasons for choosing a much maligned profession. Each with a beautiful, emerging idea about the impact they want to make in the lives of others. Each with qualities that are as unique as they are important, and that will shape the practitioner they will eventually become.
And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is as true of the students as it is of those of us who have been qualified for much longer - who may have moved sideways, upwards or who remain resolutely on the front line, and who continue to keep showing up and wholeheartedly playing our part.
The heart is still beating in social work. My work these days allows me to witness this again and again in all its glory. I get to ask over and over - “what’s important about this to you?”.
The answers are inspiring, moving and bursting with compassionate conviction. They’ve led me to conclude that social work, while professional, skilled, boundaried and knowledgeable is also, at its core, an act of love.