NYU Silver Hosts Alumni Career Panel on School Social Work

On Wednesday, July 16, the NYU Silver School of Social Work hosted its latest alumni panel discussion, this one focused on careers in the rich field of school social work. Moderated by Andrea MacFarlane, MSW ’14, the panel consisted of alumnae Sara E. Every, MSW ’00, and Kelly Heller, MSW ’10 .

After positions in community mental health and hospital settings, Every is a chair at the Women’s Health and Wellness Department at the Kent Place School. She believes a school setting provides the best environment to work with children and their families. She explained, “It offers a holistic approach with a wide variety of professionals, and the opportunity to work with students in real time in the most natural environment, and to do a variety of things from crisis intervention to faculty consultation, working with families, making referrals. There’s also an aspect of preventative care that can be done in a school setting, so that’s really what I’ve come to enjoy.” Every also serves on the faculty at Rutgers University, teaching in the MSW program.

Social work is a second career for Heller, who worked as a fashion designer for 20 years before coming to NYU Silver with the specific intent of becoming a school social worker. But as she learned more about the field, she realized it was far more complex and wide-ranging than she had initially anticipated. Heller is the coordinator of special services at the Marion P. Thomas Charter School in Newark. She said that while the majority of her work relates to crisis intervention with families, she also works in the area of special education and serves as an Americans with Disabilities Act 504 compliance officer and faculty consultant.

Heller views schools as community centers, high-stress environments that serve as a hub for all sorts of populations with diverse and intense needs. School social workers should be prepared to address the needs of not only students and their families, but also faculty and administrators, all at a moment’s notice. Working in such a melting pot requires an added layer of empathic awareness about systemic impacts and interplays. It also provides the opportunity to “wear many different hats,” as Every shared: “We can do clinical work. We can teach. We can do preventative work. And then we will also be capable of doing things like anti-bullying, and special education IEPs [individualized education program] and everything in between. There’s constant variety… there’s nothing predictable about it! And that can be fun, and that can be stressful!” Heller laughed in agreement.

MacFarlane asked the panelists to share some challenging experiences from the beginning of their careers. Every volunteered first: “Sometimes we’re looking for our roles to be very clearly defined and articulated, and sometimes they’re not.” Every said to turn this obstacle into an opportunity to be creative, do a needs assessment, be hands-on, and collaborate with others with a different knowledge base and work experience.

Heller seconded Every’s description, and further stressed the need for flexibility and ingenuity in the varied and pedagogical environment of a school setting. Social workers are the few people working in schools who are not teachers by training. “Respect how hard it is [to be a teacher], and understand what they go through and what they’re trying to do,” she said. “If you don’t really understand teaching, you’re missing a huge part of what is going on in that classroom. Learning to think like a teacher has been the hardest part for me.”

For students interested in pursuing school social work, the panelists recommended seeking out professionals in the field, and taking advantage of the many expert professors within the school. Every stressed the need for direct experience in clinical settings before taking on a school position, especially as school social workers are often the only mental health professionals in their work settings.

“Really having that clinical background and honing that each and every day is the best therapy education I had,” said Every, who returned to NYU Silver for a post-master’s certificate in advanced clinical practice. “[The post-master’s certificate] really gave me the ability to more finely tune my lens and develop it toward faculty to teach them some skills to think like a social worker while they taught me skills to think like a teacher!”

The panelists stressed the importance of highlighting other social work skills (such bilingual language skills) and experiences on one’s resume, as these are often desirably applicable to school social work. Every urged students interested in school social work to adopt a more open-minded approach to job offers. “Being open to take a position that you’re not so sure about is how you grow and learn to build skills and see yourself in different styles of leadership,” she said.

Heller, reflecting on her time at NYU Silver, said, “The most important thing that I got from being here was an incredible sense of self-awareness, and the ability to leave myself at the door. When you’re working at a school, in a very high-needs environment, you have to be able to leave everything behind, and just walk in there clean.” Every agreed, and furthered: “Own it! You came from a top-rated social work program. And having been in this field and having done a lot of hiring over the years, I trust and know that NYU students are prepared. You’re one step ahead, so trust that you’ve had a very strong foundation, and go in and own that and be proud of that. It will all come together. That’s the beauty of social work.”