Breaking the Silence: Sexual Orientation in Social Work Field Education

By Newman, Peter A.; Bogo, Marion et al. | Journal of Social Work Education, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Breaking the Silence: Sexual Orientation in Social Work Field Education


Newman, Peter A., Bogo, Marion, Daley, Andrea, Journal of Social Work Education


FIELD EDUCATION, MORE SO than any other component of the social work curriculum, challenges students to integrate professional knowledge, values, and skills into their personal identity and sense of self. This multifaceted integration is clearly a process that takes place over the span of professionals' careers, as social workers examine, deconstruct, and reconstruct values, beliefs, and preferred practice approaches. However, opportunities early in students' professional education are crucial for learning about the ways in which the personal self and professional self are interrelated (Bogo, 1993; Grossman, Levine-Jordano, & Shearer, 1990). Field educators and students have underscored the importance of an open, supportive, and trusting relationship with a field instructor as the ideal place for reflection on practice, increasing self-awareness, revealing vulnerabilities, and learning how to relate to clients (Bogo, Globerman, & Sussman, 2004; Walter & Young, 1999).

Conceptual frameworks that address educational processes in the field instructor-student relationship have generally been articulated at a broad level with the implication that they would apply to all students. For example, Bogo and Vayda (1998) provided a model that includes reflection on how personal aspects of the self are understood by students and brought into their practice both intentionally and in subtle and unintentional ways. They identified a wide range of individual student identity characteristics as illustrative of self issues that students are concerned with as well as approaches for field instructors. Recent empirical studies focused on educational processes for helping students with personal and professional integration have found that students in the final year of their social work programs improved in their ability to achieve a greater differentiation of their personal and professional selves (Deal, 2000) and to be self-critical (Fortune, McCarthy, & Abramson, 2001; Knight, 2001). However, these authors do not address specific social identity characteristics of students.

Social work theorists have incorporated an analysis of the effects of diversity, power, and social identity characteristics, such as race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ability, on practice and education. A recent text on field education advocates infusing content on cultural self-awareness and an understanding of power, privilege, and oppression throughout the field experience (Hendricks, Finch, & Franks, 2005). These authors briefly discuss unique concerns of lesbian and gay students and provide recommendations for field instructors in working with students "who are 'coming out' or being 'outed' in an agency" (p. 185). A review of the social work field education literature, however, found few studies that examine the possible impact of identity characteristics on the relationship between field instructors and students. Investigations have focused on gender (e.g., Thyer, Sower-Hoag, & Love, 1987; Vonk, Zucrow, & Thyer, 1996) and race/ethnicity (e.g., Black, Maki, & Nunn, 1997; Gladstein & Mailick, 1986; Marshack, Hendricks, & Gladstein, 1994; McRoy, Freeman, Logan, & Blackmon, 1986). These studies suggest that participants largely downplay the impact of social identity. Furthermore, although field instructors reported being aware of cultural, ethnic, gender, class, and age similarities and differences between themselves and theft students, they rarely discussed these issues with their students.

One recent study explored field education issues and concerns from the perspectives of 30 lesbian and gay social work students in field placement (Messinger, 2004). The majority of these students identified barriers or issues related to their sexual orientation on individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels. General feelings of lack of safety and anxiety pervaded students' experiences at all levels.

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