The most valuable professional mentoring I received came early in my career, but it remains as compelling today: To encourage families to “finish the sentences” on their story, because our role is to help them accomplish their tasks, not ours. We should be less concerned about what we are going to say and more attentive to being there — active listening is a skill of elegance, and it requires patience. My first mentor, who was part-time faculty at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, was a true believer in social work tradition and wanted me to understand the foundation of our work.
That is the kind of essential knowledge a new worker must hear. Our profession exercises a vast scope of authority and responsibility that requires us to be judicious about how and when to narrow a family’s choice.
For emerging child welfare professionals, knowledge comes through books and training, proficiency through years of experience, and wisdom through the success and failures that occur in their daily service to families. Essential to the entirety of this maturation process is the guidance and support of one or more mentors.
A mentor enhances the likelihood that a social worker will weather the emotional cyclone of child protection drama. In that sense, mentors embody the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” Without my two exceptional mentors, I would not have survived in our profession. I remain in close contact with one and still seek her advice — and sometimes affirmation.
I’m concerned that in the current employment environment, with child welfare agencies and providers struggling to even recruit enough workers, the ability to mentor the ones they do get is now considered a luxury, a privilege or just superfluous. That mentality has the potential to fuel a vicious cycle of bringing workers in the door only to watch them quickly head for the exits.
Mentoring should be viewed as a practical aspect of retaining team members, in part because it helps staff to clarify purpose and perspective when they feel beaten down by the demands of the agency and the difficult case decisions confronting them each day. Whenever possible, agencies should build in mentoring for their new staff.
The advice and mentoring I received has remained embedded in my daily routines. Though it has been some time since I interacted directly with families, my work in communities, nonprofits, government and philanthropy have been influenced heavily by the mentorship I’ve received. It’s been a silent voice of motivation and objectivity, as well as a reminder that our interactions with families can be complex.
Mentoring is a reciprocal relationship that requires “serve and return.” In this current atmosphere of discernment about our profession, it remains clear that even the most talented and faithful will eventually falter. Few can persevere without a partner who is there to offer affirmation or respectfully redirect them.
Child welfare professionals constantly hear two voices — the external voices that emerge from families and other professionals, as well as the internal voice that will influence how to respond. The latter is shaped by everything that led us to that moment when we are standing in front of a family. Commitment and confusion, passion and personal prejudice — and each has a distinct language that will influence how we relate to a family.
A mentor enhances the likelihood that a social worker will weather the emotional cyclone of child protection drama.
Mentorship serves to bring those voices together in some sort of alignment, reinforcing wisdom and clearheaded actions. “He who walks with the wise will become wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed.” (Proverbs 13:20)
I have a mental list of those most valuable mentoring sessions, including reminders about our role in addressing the body, mind and spirit of the families we serve: food, clothing and housing in the short term, but the overarching task is to help people to heal their hearts and souls. Without that, we create the fertile environment for generational trauma and pain. I learned how the great thinkers through the ages knew that all humans seek meaning, purpose and validation, but many of the families served by the child welfare system have not enjoyed that luxury because the decks have been stacked against them, often from birth.
Mentors helped me develop a skill set that distinguishes between socio-economic stress in a family and the personal responsibilities inherent in the parenting role. That led me to take a frank, personal inventory of my place in society and my values. It also led me to do more community-oriented work that was consumer-driven.
There is no room for illusion or hyperbole in a profession that has more than enough situations stretching the realm of imagination. Once, after participating in a particularly brutal child fatality review, a mentor clarified the obvious for me. She confirmed that cases of maltreatment or chronic neglect are part of a story and rarely isolated events. The test of our clinical skills and empathy is in our capacity to listen before a tragedy and help the family to avoid future incidents of harm to the children.
The Buddhist philosopher and educator Daisaku Ikeda wrote, “One who refuses to seek the advice of others will eventually go astray. A mentor helps you to perceive your own weaknesses and confront them with courage. The bond between mentor and protege enables us to stay true to our chosen path until the very end.” Mentors can prompt us to be as generous and forgiving with ourselves as we strive to be with families.
That could be the key to keeping one more social worker on the job.
We are desperately seeking to recruit and retain people in the helping professions, especially those individuals who are motivated by family peacemaking and social justice. But a helper can become discouraged, complacent, isolated. Mentoring is by no means the single answer to our workforce crisis. But it can support the young people who are striving to enhance their own potential and place in the world of child and family well-being.