Now more than ever, schools need social workers.
As a 27-year teaching veteran, I can attest to how important the role of a school social worker is to a student's success. There are many obstacles that can stand in the way of a student's achievement, and teachers are equipped (and licensed) to handle only some of them.
Teachers must not confuse their role with the role of a social worker; they should reach out for help from those who are licensed, specially trained, and skilled to handle the most difficult of challenges.
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My best friend, Kathleen Liakos, LICSW, was a school social worker for over 15 years. Her work and the work of her school social worker colleagues is essential in my school district. Kathy and I frequently discuss what teachers need to know about the role of a school social worker in order to help counselors do their job. Here’s what she believes teachers should keep in mind when collaborating with social workers.
Keep in Mind: Teachers Aren't Social Workers
A school social worker's job is multi-faceted. They connect a student's school and home life, and they assist in the social and personal development of students. School social workers see students individually and in groups, and they often handle emergency situations.
Teachers must always remember they are not trained or licensed as social workers, and therefore should not attempt to counsel students. A teacher could lose their own license if they attempt to take on student issues they aren't qualified to handle. Classroom conversations should always remain appropriate, and teachers should never ask students questions about serious personal or social problems.
If a teacher thinks a student has a critical problem, they should follow school protocol to report it immediately to school administrators and social workers.
Report Any Issues or Findings
Even though a teacher may not ask, children frequently disclose things to teachers verbally or in their written work or artwork. Because of this, teachers shouldn't question or second guess themselves about whether a problem really exists. As an English Language Arts teacher, I've had students write vivid or disturbing poetry that raises red flags. In some cases, the student may have simply been using their imaginations. But for others, the student may be in dire need of help.
A social worker is equipped to make that determination; therefore, I always report any of my findings. It's best to play it safe and communicate with school administrators and counselors immediately.
Understand the Implications of Certain Writing Prompts
Providing writing prompts for an assignment can often help students connect to new learnings. But if asking kids to write journals, offering a clear directive is critical. A teacher in my school once asked students to “write about the worst thing that ever happened to you." The challenge with a prompt like this is that teachers aren't prepared to triage the responses they might get.
Additionally, if you tell students that you will read their journals, make sure you do. A student could, for example, threaten suicide or disclose abuse, and those problems need immediate attention. Teachers need to realize that they are responsible for what is written on their time.
Be wary of social media. Having separate Twitter accounts for school and personal use, for example, is a good idea. Don't permit students to follow or friend you until after they graduate. Students should not contact teachers outside of school time regarding anything other than schoolwork.
It's important for teachers to protect themselves and the perceptions of themselves within the school. A teacher should be aware of how much time is spent with a child and be sure to keep time equally distributed among all students. Students can misinterpret extra attention. While your heart may be in the right place, don't give gifts to students—even the poorest or most disadvantaged. If a teacher sees a need with a particular child, contact the school's social worker. There are ways to help these students that they can better manage.
Be Mindful of Book Recommendations
Take particular care when building classroom libraries or suggesting books to students to read. There are certain genres of books that should be off-limits such as books about self-harm like cutting, substance abuse, or anorexia. Subjects are often romanticized, and in other cases, students may learn to emulate dangerous behaviors. In addition, these books can trigger children to act in ways that are harmful.
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Understanding and differentiating between the role of a school social worker and the role of a teacher is an important facet of a teacher's job. Social workers are necessary and powerful parts of safe and effective schools. Together, teachers and social workers can work to ensure the social and emotional well-being and success of students.