Combining Practice and Classroom: Practicing What We Preach
BPD Update Online, Winter 2003
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Practicing What We Preach: Keeping Ourselves in the Know

by Marlene Huff

The professional life of an undergraduate program director is a busy one. How I can even suggest that we take on one more task is beyond me but I'm going to do it anyway. For me, maintaining a small, yet vital, private practice outside of the classroom is integral to my doing a good job as an academic.

At Eastern Kentucky University we have a thriving and growing program of over 250 students scattered around four extended campus sites with miles of travel between them. Eight full-time faculty and a strong cadre of adjunct faculty make the delivery of social work education fun and exciting for faculty and students alike. Our energies are spent vitalizing classroom exercises, fostering individual student growth and collaborating with Deans and Division Chairs in the midst of a serious budgetary deficit for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. As social work faculty, we have the charge to deliver high quality education. We also believe in meaningful service to our community. Yet, we must also publish all of the unique and critical thoughts that occupy our waking (and sometimes sleeping) awareness. In short, we want to "do it all". This is not unique to those of us that, if you tell the truth, are managing careers, families, leisure (though not as much as we need) time, and in the midst of all this we also try to ourselves physically and emotionally healthy.

What Else Is There That We Can Do?

In our dedication to social work education and "doing it all", we may lose touch with the only reason that many of us became social workers: the world is a tough place for all of us for different reasons at least some of the time. Social theories, models or linear equations cannot express the importance of our work for social justice as one individual client or their family can do.

So every Saturday (and on the occasional evening), I engage
in the creation of therapeutic relationships with individuals suffering from one type of mood disorder or another. I use the person-in-environment perspective, problem-solving process, cognitive-behavioral techniques and single subject designs to track the progress of clients as they struggle for emotional health. I listen to their life stories, sometimes laughing and other times crying, conduct psychosocial assessments, and illuminate life patterns that are both functional and dysfunctional for their stated goals. My clients don't realize it but they are giving me "gifts" of knowledge and understanding that I take into the classroom that are far more profound than anything that I offer to them. After all, the clients already have the answers to their life challenges. I am only the navigator into their personal strengths and environments that often minimize their abilities. Nearly every day in my private practice, I learn something about life that makes me a better faculty and, ultimately, a more effective program director.

Idealistically, becoming a more developed, introspective and grounded faculty is worth spending the extra hours in private practice. In the day-to-day world of program direction, however, we need a bit of pragmatism to spur us on to additional social work practice. Here are my thoughts on some of the ways that engaging in private practice and program direction simultaneously can enhance our work and life:

*Social Work knowledge and skills become antiquated quickly.

Have you noticed the speed at which textbooks and articles are being published? The production of knowledge is occurring at an alarming rate. Without a "life-line" to our clients who are our ultimate teachers of social work practice, we are professionally lost.

*Over time, the classroom can become insulated and non-representative of the issues that new BSW's will face upon entering the field.

Ask any student. Their worst fear is "getting that faculty whose practice knowledge is twenty years old!" (1)

*Private practice grounds us in the reality of the most current practice issues.

Have you heard of "sextacy"(2)? Did you know that pretty girls are now called "wicked"? Can you name the five most well-known high school cliques in your local community? Private practice will inform you of this type of information that can lead to a respected rapport among your social work students.

*Private practice lends perspective to your academic work.

By connecting with clients on a regular basis, we are not able to forget that bad things happen to good people (and vice versa). If we are to be effective educators, then social work education must address these very issues.

*Private practice provides us with needed variety.

This group of individuals that we call "clients" is a heterogeneous group that can be funny, sad, angry and introspective all within a few seconds. They are known as professionals, students, mothers, sons, workers, and friends-just like us. Most of all, clients are the most important part of social work both in and out of the classroom.


(1) This is a direct quote from a 2002 graduating BSW student.
(2) Often used at parties, "sextacy" refers to the combination of drugs, Viagra and Ecstasy.

There's more Combining Practice and Classroom on the next page...

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