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Teaching Social Work to Mature Students



The new semester for my social work class started in the final week of January. I am now into the fourth week of my second year teaching at the university. I enjoyed teaching very much. In fact, if not for a life-changing experience that turned me towards social work, I would have taken up teaching as my profession.


Many of my students are older adults. Some pursuing their first degree after a meandering academic journey. Some are contemplating a mid-career switch into social work, jaded by the purposeless capitalist life. And then, there are those who come into the programme wanting to give back to society for the blessings they have received in their lives. And, as clichè, as it may seem, there is still a handful who wants to change the world - albeit, one client at a time.


These students depend on the experience and wisdom of their teachers to prepare them for what is to come when they go into the field. However, it feels like my 30 years of experience, with a spectrum of roles: from social work clinician to CEO, is still insufficient for me to draw wisdom in my attempts to answer all their curiosities and concerns about the social work field.


At the same time, I cannot discount their own wisdom from the life lessons they have picked up along the way. The expertise and networks they have developed in their current field of practice are also additional resources they can still bring with them into this work.



Keeping them Inspired

Most of the students are aware that they might have to forego the higher salaries ( and status ) they have earned in their current jobs when they become junior social workers. It is a sacrifice they are willing to make. Hence, we need to keep them engaged and inspired, to get them to graduate and get into the field as quickly as possible.


While many will face challenges due to their age ( Yes, ageism still exists, even in the social work profession ). I hope there will be organisations out there that see the value of having mature workers who are new in the field.



Teachers Lay the Foundations

Just like any undergraduate of social work, there is so much for these mature students to pick up in terms of practice knowledge and skills. There is also plenty for them to contemplate: to reconcile their personal values with professional social work values. With mature learners, this can be more challenging when their worldviews are already set and influenced by their own life experiences, their previous careers, and their life transitions.


As teachers, we lay the foundations for which they build their competence. However, the theoretical frameworks, models, and intervention approaches remain alien if they are not translated into practice on a daily basis. We can teach them how an assessment is carried out but it is the true-life experience that will show them the impact of good or poor assessment on the individuals they are trying to help. We can teach them how to plan and execute an intervention programme, but it is the immersion into the whole process, from planning to organising, executing, and evaluating that one will be able to better appreciate the challenges and rewards of helping the community.



Employers Strengthen Their Competence

We hold social service organisations responsible to nurture these newly minted social workers into confident and competent professionals. They may appear unmalleable at first, as they adjust to the new role and recalibrate their values and worldviews. However, with the right engagement, induction, training, and supervision, they will prove to be an asset to the organisation.


They will need the steady hands of the supervisors to guide them through the most difficult of cases. They will need direction and monitoring. Above all, they will need gentle strokes of empathy which social workers are known for to ensure that they feel supported to remain in their second career and leave their own legacies as social work professionals.



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