In UK social work education, practice educators supervise and assess students while they are on placement. Practice placements are the most important element of social work degree courses, accounting for half of the overall programme for undergraduates. So the role of the practice educator is vital, particularly if a student is struggling or at risk of failing.
In a new guide for Community Care Inform, Jo Finch provides practical advice and information for practice educations working with struggling and failing students. Here, we present a few top tips from the guide. Inform subscribers can read the full, in-depth guide on Inform Adults and Inform Children.
Concerns when interviewing a student
Sometimes, those interviewing students for placements can have initial misgivings, or a gut feeling, that the student might not be “right” for the placement. My 2010 doctoral research focused on the challenges faced by practice educators when working with students who were struggling or failing the placement. Some practice educators noted that they had concerns at the initial interview, but had squashed these feelings, as they were concerned they were being too judgmental and wanted to give the students a chance.
There is a balance between recognising that some students will have had limited experience of working in organisations or with the particular service user group, so will be nervous and anxious, and assessing whether a student might not be appropriate for the team or agency. Universities spend significant time preparing students for placement and the initial interview, so it is a reasonable expectation that students should present as enthusiastic and keen, have a clear view of their learning and developmental needs, ask questions and communicate professionally.
Blocks to learning
Learning is not a straightforward, linear process and all students experience short-term, temporary blocks to learning. Students also need to be able to make mistakes but crucially reflect and learn from them, and not make similar mistakes in future. Likewise, practice educators may make mistakes in how they manage the student, and need to recognise that they will also learn from each student placed with them, whether the experience is positive or negative. Learning in a practice placement is a complex phenomenon, not least in that social work looks different in different agencies, and all social workers practice in different ways.
How the experience will make you feel
Placements, even when things are largely going well, will always provoke a range of feelings and anxieties in both practice educators and students. Practice educators may be apprehensive about whether they are experienced enough or have the time to offer a student a good learning experience. Perhaps there may be a concern that the student won’t like them. Students will also fret about whether they will be good enough and can manage the demands. They are also likely to be concerned about whether they will get on with the person who has considerable power over them. And it is important to acknowledge the significant financial and emotional investment the student has made in pursuing their social work training.
The practice educator role is very multifaceted and within it, there are some contradictory tasks. Practice educators are nurturers and enablers of learning, but also have to be assessors and gatekeepers to the profession. This can be a challenge for practice educators to manage and make sense of (Finch, 2010) and it is perhaps even harder for students to make sense of this role. These incongruities and perplexities will of course provoke an array of feelings; and these feelings will intensify when placement difficulties arise.