Train(ing) wreck ahead

18 01 2013

When I started as an intern with Anonymous Agency, my mother was shocked to hear that I immediately started counseling families. “Do you really know how to do that?” It was kind of like seeing a chicken who can play tic-tac-toe.

The truth is, no, I didn’t. I had some basic knowledge from a year of social work school, I got something that might pass as support in supervision, and I was still learning. But I didn’t get a ton of guidance. A whole lot of it was learn as you go. We didn’t have one way of practicing. You just did what worked, within the context of our guidelines and values.

Sometimes, things change. Agencies decide to focus on new methods, or take on a new model. This particularly happens when auditors run through the office two to three times per year, aflame, throwing files at all of us while screaming “EVIDENCE BASED!!!” That, combined with the need to see more families in less time to ensure we keep getting contracts, meant that it was time to “tighten up our process.” With a new structure for engagement and practice.

There are some growing pains with doing things differently. For one thing, we need to be trained. And trainings are kind of hit or miss.

In these situations, where you’re not going to learn a new skill, or information about a specific population, but to revamp your entire way of practicing, it’s especially difficult. No one likes being told that they’ve been doing a bad job. For some reason, in order to embrace something new, we have to talk about what an awful job we were doing before. “You’re not going to go in there and tell the family what to do. You’re going to engage them in creating their own plan. Join with them!”

Wait, what? I’ve been wearing a tiara, sitting on a high stool so that I can look down on my participants, and telling them that they are stupid and I am smart. Was this incorrect? No wonder everyone has gotten worse while working with me!

The worst part, though, is having someone tell you how to change when they don’t know how you do things. The people training us are whatever the social work version of ivory tower is. (Tin foil? Papier mache?) They’re not currently practicing. They’ve never practiced in an urban area, or in a community based organization. When we say we have families in shelters, they think that we have mothers with toddlers sleeping on cots a la the Louisiana Superdome in 2005. They know nothing of undocumented people. They forget that a lot of our families are incredibly isolated. They tell us to ignore the fact that their housing may be insecure, or their food stamps being shut off, and focus on the reasons they were referred.

People in power making assumptions about you, ignoring your reality, being patronizing…what does this remind me of?

As workers, we resist, because it’s natural to resist change. But sometimes it sounds good. The examples they give always work, flawlessly! The little role play exercises, too. They tell you about all of their successes. But there’s something missing when they tell us we just need to stick to the model.

 Recently, I had a day that went like this:

  • Called a school to schedule a visit with a teen, because mom and the target child are unavailable due to a medical emergency. They told me to come on over.
  • Get to the school. Kid is at lunch. They tell me to come back in 45 minutes.
  • Go do an unannounced home visit to a family whose phone is cut off. Mom tells me they’re out of food.
  • Go back to do the school visit.
  • Stop in at my office to explain the food situation to my supervisor and get approval to buy emergency groceries.
  • Grocery shopping trip in which I debate baloney brands, and if Oscar Meyer is worth the money.
  • Drop off groceries.
  • Head back to the office where I document all of this while shoveling butternut squash bisque (way to go, Campbell’s) into my face.
  • Call two families repeatedly to find out they aren’t coming in.
  • Leave to stalk.

None of these things happen in their examples. No one is hospitalized or arrested, they’re never tracking down clients wherever they can be found, neighbors never stop by half way through a home visit, the worker isn’t distractedly trying to get out of a dangerous building before dark, things never have to stop because a two year old pissed on the floor. Everything works out. The worker always finds the right words to get the participant to do things according to plan.

So if things are going poorly for you, it’s not the model.  You’re not buying into it enough. Or maybe you’re just not very good. If you really wanted to do this, and commited yourself to it, you’d be doing it. And you would regard the extra paperwork as the gift that it is.

Again, what is this reminding me of? Oh right, people trying to get out of the shelter system, single mothers trying to get off public assistance, parents struggling to get their teenagers to school, young people doing poorly in school. We recognize that it’s difficult, but really, if they wanted it, they would make it happen.

If I get nothing else out of this, I at least have a much better understanding of why some of my clients are so pissed all the time. It should make joining with them a little easier.





C’Mon N’ Ride It (The train)(ing)

8 05 2012

Anonymous Agency is great about sending their workers for trainings. Typically we get to pick what we’re interested and everything. Meaning most of our trainings are relevant and enjoyable.

I know, right?

Of course, there are the mandatory ones that are a bit of a waste of time. First aid/CPR? No. If anything happens, I know myself well enough to understand that I would scream “911! Stop drop and roll!” and then flee, leaving the distressed individual behind. The main thing we were trained in was doing nothing and calling for help, anyway, which I honestly think could have been handled in a half day.

There was also LGBT sensitivity training, another one of those requirements from on-high. If nothing else, it produced this conversation.

Sup: “Did you take lesbian training?”
SJ: “Is that like a how-to?”
Sup: “It’s for awareness.”
SJ: “So…like spotting lesbians?”

I went. I got in a fight with my least favorite coworker who admonished my friend for dressing her son in pink. But that’s another story.

It seems that the more widely mandated the training, the worse it’s going to be. The entire agency had to attend two days of a lecture by three people from Kansas (or Kentucky…maybe Indiana. Somewhere in the middle) that was supposed to completely change the way we practice, apparently by making our work totally robotic and ineffectual. I played six simultaneous games of Words with Friends and resorted to plucking my eyebrows to stay awake. The receptionist kept demanding to know why she had to be there and who the hell was answering the phones. My supervisor kept reminding me to take my turn, because she had an awesome “q” word to play. Triple word!

The trainings that are only mandated for a few sites, or just for the Bronx, are generally somewhat better. Not as good as the ones I get to pick myself (I do like having some agency) but they’re all right. They’re typically held at the office that my boss’ boss’ boss (life is great) works at, which has a fancy coffee machine. Occasionally they spring for bagels. The trainer almost always knows what agency he or she is at, and what we do.

See, I’m not asking for all that much.

At any training, big or small, whether you’re there voluntarily or chained to a chair like Bobby Seale to meet agency requirements, there are some things that don’t change.

First, be prepared to get involved. Or at least, be asked to get involved. Every training that has ever happened ever starts off with the training informing the room that they don’t like to lecture. Hey, I don’t like to be lectured to! Sweet! They go on to tell you that this training will be experiential! Ah, so you mean we have to do stuff…I was more excited a minute ago.

Note: though the trainer tells you they don’t like to talk, they’re lying.

The trainer will talk about the significance of the day of the week, and why that means there’s no “energy” in the room. “OK guys, I know it’s Monday, but…” “I know, I know, it’s Friday, everyone wants out…” “Yeah, no one wants to be in training on Wednesday…” When is the good training day? Is it Thursday? I don’t think it’s Thursday.

You will have to introduce yourself. It doesn’t matter if there are ten people in the room, or a hundred. Seriously, it doesn’t matter. I was at a training with eighty of my nearest and dearest colleagues. We had to go around the room and give our name, position, and site where we work. Some people didn’t make it that day.

You will, at some point, have to pair up with someone near you. If it is a particularly cruel trainer, you will be told that this can’t be someone you know, or work with. If the trainer is a real jerk, you’ll have already been forced to move your seat, as you, like a normal person, chose to sit with people you work with.

This gives everyone involved awkward flashbacks to elementary school. What if no one wants to work with me? What if there’s an odd number and I have to partner with the teacher? You’ll be given a task to do, and five minutes to complete it. Two minutes in, you’ll be told that you and your partner should “switch off.” If you’re me, you’ll already be done, and realize that you never took turns. You and your partner will be sitting silently, checking the phones that are supposed to be turned off, while everyone else continues to talk excitedly. Oh well.

There are certain types of trainers. Some people just seem to be born for it. It’s amazing to be in a room with them. They’re well-informed, clear, dynamic, entertaining, you want to ask if they’re free for dinner. Some people fall into it, and are less so. They have a script and are sticking to it. “There will be time for questions at the end.” Really? No.

Some have no idea what it is we do. One woman told us of her brilliant trick of telling children that their parents would have to pay for their session if it wasn’t canceled in time, in order to ensure that they came in for counseling. She was surprised to hear that we don’t charge, and our kids already have way too much to worry about. Another trainer insisted to my coworker that our site was located in a school. She was pretty good, she almost convinced him.

I think my least favorite trainer is the one who likes to talk about him or herself. A lot. I don’t think I learned anything about play therapy, but I know the names and ages of your three kids, how many dogs you’ve had, and every agency you’ve rescued from the brink of disaster with your incredible consulting skills. That’s very helpful.

There are also types of trainees, of course.

Some people hate the fact that they’re there. They disagree with the fact that they’ve been sent, they have other things to do, or they’re just miserable people in general. Who knows? But they hate it, and they want you to know. They will try to lure you over to their side with snide comments under their breath. Resist if you can. You’re out of the office, after all, and they always give you a lunch break!

Sometimes, you get a new best friend. Someone who missed the fact that you’re awkward and trying to read a book, and wants to know more about what you do. Where is your office? That’s interesting! It’s tricky. I suggest a bathroom break right before lunch, otherwise you’ll end up waiting in line with your new friend at Chipotle when you just wanted to go to Starbucks.

If you’re very unlucky, there will be, essentially, a second trainer in the room. This person really should have been tapped to run the day’s activities, but she wasn’t, so she signed up to be trained instead. Every sentence starts with, “At my agency, we…” or “In my experience…” and of course, “Well yes, but…” I’m sorry, is it time for comments? You won’t remember anyone’s name except hers. This will not be a good thing. She will challenge the knowledgeable trainer on minor, nit-picky details, just to show how smart she is. I recommend another fake bathroom break, because that shit’s annoying.

You also might end up with someone who thought they were signing up for a day long therapy session. Someone who is just way too personal and shares too much. Oh, your daughter was diagnosed with ODD? Yes, I’m sure that was very difficult for you. And you regret sending her to live with her aunt? I can imagine you would. I hope you can get your relationship back on track. Now, about this new method of developing goals with the family…?

Sometimes we love to hate trainings, and sometimes we just hatelove them. They can be a waste of time, but I’ve also gotten some great stuff out of them, after reminding myself that other people actually know things that I don’t.

If nothing else, a boring day is sometimes a good thing around here.





“Have you ever tried…” “not being a pain in the ass?”

9 06 2011

Everyone loves unsolicited advice. Nothing make people happier than mentioning that they’re a bit frustrated with someone or something in their lives, and getting twenty five helpful suggestions over drinks on how they can fix it.

B T dubs, it’s Opposite Day.

People tend to hate advice. We’ve all heard friends complain, about a significant other, parent, or miscellaneous, “Why can’t he/she just listen? I don’t want to be fixed, I just wanted to talk!”

And yet, people the world over continue to give advice. We all do it. It’s so hard not to! Other people can be so dumb. It’s so obvious what they need to do!

Logically, most people know what they need to do. If someone is complaining about being overweight, odds are that they know that diet and exercise are the way to go. People in bad, dead-end relationships know that they need to end it.

But when you’re the one in it, it’s infinitely more complicated than that. The gym? Who has time for the gym?! And maybe you would eat less if your job was not super stressful and right across the street from an amazing smelling bakery.

These are things I imagine one would say. Hypothetically.

So we all try to avoid taking the advice approach with out clients. Once in a while, when people are looking for something concrete, like an apartment or benefits, or if they need a disciplinary strategy that does not involve belts or kneeling on rice, you might offer a suggestion. But overall, we know that helping our clients to figure it out for themselves is the best way to go. It’s more meaningful that way, and more empowering. It helps them to see that they have it in them to be good parents and competent adults. It contributes to lasting change, rather than, “Well yeah, it worked your way that one time.”

This also shows them that we have enough respect for them to realize that, “Well, have you ever tried not beating your children?” is a bit too simplistic.

We can hold back for our clients. Even when we really really know what they should be doing. But can we do that with each other?

I recently had to schedule a conference to address elevated risk in the home of a family I work with. This is social work speak for mom moved her baby’s abusive father back into the home. They admit to a history of domestic violence, but there is no order of protection. Legally, we can’t do anything. But we can meet with the mother and the three teenage children, to talk about safety, what this means for them, and what we can do for the family.

As a sidenote, I must mention the incredible bravery and selflessness of the oldest child, a fifteen year old girl, who took it upon herself to come to me and tell me that this man was back in the home full time, and that she didn’t feel that it was safe. I want to give her a medal. I had to settle for my warm regards and a Metrocard. (Budget cuts, you know.)

When we schedule these conferences, we need to go through child services, and explain the need for the conference. The man I email with the request is just supposed to go ahead and schedule. If any information is missing, he can call for clarification.

Instead, he called with some helpful suggestions. “Did you talk to the mom about this?” No, obviously not. Who would think of such a revolutionary approach? I’ve never been much of an innovator.

“Maybe you should stop by the home to evaluate the child who was hit and check for safety. Then you can talk to mom about the conference.” So I shouldn’t just smack my clients and tell them to do as I say. Weird.

Yes, this is the obnoxious, sarcastic attitude we all get (maybe me more so than others) when we get that unsolicited advice. Especially when it’s from someone who doesn’t really know the field, know the case, or who is just kind of annoying.

Advice that I’ve gotten from what I would consider to be random third parties? Let’s see:

  • “Try encouraging them to have dinner as a family every night.” – trainer, unaware most of my families don’t have tables.
  • “You should let her know you’re cool so she’ll want to talk to you. Show her your Silly Bandz!” -CPS worker, not realizing my reputation for cool precedes me.
  • “Tell the mom that her son probably isn’t gay, he’s just confused.” -Stupid coworker, who I encourage you to blame all the world’s problems on.
  • “If the family isn’t willing to come in, try meeting them at a playground.”- Former director who didn’t realize that playgrounds around here are for drug deals.

Sometimes, the advice sounds good. Why haven’t I had the kids in for an individual session? Why didn’t I refer the father to that group that he sounds perfect for? Particularly in trainings, when they offer typed up examples, in which a worker asking a parent, “What’s your greatest fear for your child?” catches the parent off guard, and leads to them spilling their greatest secrets, which in turn leads to flawless work getting done.

Has it ever gone in real life the way it goes in those example scenarios? Like once? Seriously, I’m grasping at straws, people.

It’s easier to take from someone you trust, and have some respect for. When my supervisor gives me a suggestion, based on her knowledge of my families and her own years of experience, I can take it, make it my own, and use it. When a trainer offers a new way to engage families in counseling, that I can fit in with my own style, I’m open to it.

But when someone whose primary job description matches the definition of a calendar essentially tells me, “try doing your job,” or a less than qualified protective worker tells me I should consider going against my social work principles, “open” is not really the word.

I guess it’s all in the delivery.