I am a very, very passionate learner. I believe in education, and anyone who reads my writing understands my love of learning. Partially due to a trauma suffered in my experience in higher education as an undergraduate, I learned to love the pursuit of higher learning, again, and again. My story is the narrative of a young lover of language starved and blocked off, forcibly, and by his own doing, of education and learning more.
When I entered graduate school finally, it was in social work and not English. While I firmly believe that language scholars in academe also have a moral imperative to be ethical in their use of words and rhetoric in the classroom, the same carries true for social workers, and social work professors doubly so. Social work students are directly impacting the world.
They work directly with clients, even in macro-based settings, they are influencing the community with their actions, behaviours, choices, and views of how the work should be carried out in practice.
This is why I truly was a passionate social work student. I believed in learning as much as I could, in the most prudent, and pragmatic approach to blending theory in the classroom with practice in my field placements and internships. I knew that one day I would be off on my own, without the guidance of paid facility and the oversight of a school programme.
I knew I needed to process as much content from my education, books, and readings as possible, and apply it to my practicum and clinical placement to test my knowledge and see where theory and practice collide. In doing so, I could troubleshoot the issues of transposing classroom learning and practice as a student learning how to make it all fit together into one cohesive and workable plan for embarking on a career.
This philosophy of learning and practice followed me into my career. I knew I was young, untried and untested. I had to learn quickly again if I was to help my clients succeed, practice without incident, and do no harm to the people I served due to lack of experience and being a new therapist. I also knew enough where I didn’t want to move about learning so quickly, that I was practising clumsily and without regard for the well-being of my clients.
This is and was, and continues to be, a giant balancing act. I once had a professor who explained it to me: ‘that I was caught between knowing, and learning more’. This still applies today to my status as a practitioner, professor, and mental health professional.
We are always poised between knowing and learning more. The minute we stop learning, and yearning for more, our careers rot, become dated, and irrelevant in the wake of new and emerging data, trends, and research in the field.
I am not suggesting we throw our hands in the air and give up when we don’t have all the answers for our clients, because we will never have all the answers, and that isn’t our job per se, as therapists.
I am suggesting that we be authentic about what we do know, and what we can continue to learn more about, modelling the same approach to practise to our clients about their behaviours, maladaptive patterns and cognitive distortions which don’t serve them anymore in their interactions and interpersonal landscape.
This passion I talk about so much needed a plan to be effective in the classroom. My pedagogy is based on a eclectic approach which blends the traditional and non-traditional classroom learning styles with an emphasis on the luminal spaces and areas of grey in between theory and practice. Since social work education already blends the two (theory and practice)in the course of higher learning, my point of departure began at the point of praxis.
Sure, all students need to discern when theory and practice collide, how they intersect, and what happens when theory and practice do not play out as planned. My emphasis is a true archeological dig into the grey area of praxis and cultivating an epistemological understanding of what’s happening, or not happening, to praxis as it functions in the careers and work of social workers and therapists when they embark on their careers.
Max E. Guttman, LCSW is a psychotherapist and owner of Recovery Now, a mental health private practice in New York City.
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