‘It’s many years since I’ve done direct work and I’m nervous’: returning to practice from academia

On returning to the front line, a social worker reflects on her surprise at seeing relationship-based practice in action, the benefits of a less pressured email culture and preparing for her first piece of direct work

Photo: designer491/fotolia


It’s my third week back in a practice job after six years away as a social work lecturer. My new role is in mental health but I’m working alongside a lot of local authority social workers. I’m shadowing a meeting about a young person in care. The social worker has been working with this young person for over four years and you can see the commitment and care that she feels for the child. This is a local authority which has really good staff retention and, every time I go into a meeting, I’m blown away by the longevity of the social work relationships and what a difference this makes to the children. I’m sure it’s not perfect but it feels in this authority that relationship-based practice isn’t just a buzz word; it’s a reality.

I’m aware it’s worrying I’m so surprised by this. I think in academia it’s easy to get caught up in the critiques of bureaucracy and social work systems, which are valid and important, but also mean you can forget that, on a micro-level, social workers are out there doing everything they can for children and families, often in very difficult circumstances. Academia doesn’t have a language for talking about love either, and that’s actually what I’m seeing in lots of these relationships.  This is not the first meeting I’ve come away from in the last few weeks with a tear in my eye. Thank goodness it’s all on Microsoft Teams and I can quickly absent myself.


I’ve been watching the emerging response on Twitter to Josh MacAlister’s appointment to lead the children’s social care review.  The review is very confusing to me.  I understand they are planning for it to primarily take place over the space of a year. How can they think that they can even get a handle on the issues in this kind of timescale, let alone address the terms of reference that are specified? The issue with Josh MacAlister’s appointment is complicated too. On the one hand, I know that occasionally you can have people with such exceptional skills and preternatural wisdom that they can lead effectively despite not having the expected experience. If I’m honest with myself, if this was Barack Obama at 33 years old, I would be asking fewer questions.

However, I was reflecting on when I was appointed as a lead reviewer for a serious case review. Despite having 25 years’ experience as a social worker, manager and academic I felt tremendous fear and unease in thinking about whether I had enough experience to take on this huge responsibility. Whilst I don’t always get the balance right between humility and confidence, it has made me wonder about Mr MacAlister. When working in the university I used to think there was a worrying amount of imposter syndrome. Even the people who looked to me as if they were completely at home in academia told me they still felt like imposters. This appointment has made me think that, on occasions, a bit more imposter syndrome might not be a bad thing.


I’ve gone from having a minimum of 100 emails a day in my last job, to currently having about 10-20. This is likely to change as my caseload increases but I can already tell the email culture is very different here. There’s not a culture of copying everyone into every situation, or the need to ‘perform’ a certain kind of team engagement.

Not being bombarded with emails throughout the working day means you can relate very differently to them. My previous approach was to reply to everything as quickly as I could, as it seemed to be the only way to stay on top of things and avoid being completely overwhelmed. Now I don’t have so many, I’ve stopped immediately rushing to an answer. I’m seeing lots of benefits to this. My responses are more measured, and I’ll often think of a new idea in the period before I reply.

It’s the difference between being reactive and being responsive; the pause which allows us to reflect on what we might be feeling and thinking. It’s ironic that we often see this as important for service users but can be less aware of our own habits of reactivity.  It seems that ‘The Pause’ (a practice in healthcare in which a patient’s death is honoured by a moment’s silence) may be an important practice for us all.


I’ve been doing a lot of shadowing, but it’s finally time for me to see a young person by myself. It’s many years since I’ve done this kind of direct work and I feel nervous. I’m hoping it’s like riding a bike and it will all come back to me.  I do what I always do when I’m anxious about something, I overr-prepare. I search for questionnaires on the internet and make a specific list of issues I am going to discuss. I head over to the online platform and wait for my young person to join. I wait and wait but no-one comes. I phone his carer. He doesn’t want to meet today. I make another appointment. I’d forgotten this half-frustrated/ half-relieved feeling of when someone doesn’t turn up. Now I’m experiencing what it’s like to be back in practice.

More from Community Care

3 Responses to ‘It’s many years since I’ve done direct work and I’m nervous’: returning to practice from academia

  1. Amy March 5, 2021 at 6:46 pm #

    Interesting perspective to read as I have recently joined academia from practice. I would say the opposite about the emails though. In practice getting loads of emails per day and the pressure to reply almost immediately! However in academia, the pace is slower and you dont have to reply straight away! I initially found it strange as I’m used to the fast pace of practice but it’s nice to be able to think about something before replying.

  2. Mark March 8, 2021 at 8:47 am #

    I’d give anything to move out of practice and into academia. Why on earth would anyone go back. I can tell you in childrens social work your emails would be moving up again as every discussion is via email, times that by 20 cases (average) and it’s a lot.

    We all have our reasons for coming in (or back) or leaving, but when I eventually go I’ll never be sat behind a social work desk again unless I have to.

    Best of luck, you will need it!

  3. Alec Fraher March 8, 2021 at 7:04 pm #

    I am neither in direct practice or academia but rather live in amongst drug dealing, organised deception and amongst people forced outside what one could describe as normal. It’s called being poor and disaffected.

    Strange thing is it works. Never before had my social work background been more important. From instilling and instituting a voluntary commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child among drug dealers to making punishing challenges to patriarchy and misogyny.

    Sure, I still miss getting away from it all and having down time isn’t a consideration. But now I face other ethical dilemma’s like knowing who amongst the professional services is buying their own drugs or renting a property from the very people who create their clients or provide fostering and other contract care.

    As a business model it is genius. So much so that the recent Covid 19 hand outs are being described as GOV Backed Smack Schemes.

    And, as ever the diligent learner I hung on to the need for a theory practice connection. But not from any involvement with services formally but rather by a direct appeal to the lived experience or socially occurring proprioception of those around me.

    In layman’s terms working with often unspoken but felt emotional content that’s available in such abundance if you’re an insider makes tackling the gritty stuff, no less easier, but acceptable and is often welcomed. Simple modelling is recursive and very readily sets new norms.

    In today’s terms the theory practice is called mesoscopic inquiry. It’s not for the faint hearted. It’s not new either it’s how if truth be known how homecare was developed in the 70s.

    So while I admire the fact that, at long last, the switching between practice and academia is becoming popular being in it still carries more weight than anyone ever really gave credit to.