In this week’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? we talk to our guest Bethany Pease about life as a social worker.
Bethany graduated from York three years ago with a degree in Social Work. She now works in the fostering team in a local authority, and previously worked in child protection. In this episode Bethany and Kate talk about what the job is like, the key skills you need and tips for getting into the sector.
To hear more Social action/ Ethical related podcast stories:
- Cat Shroeter, Senior Community Fundraiser, Action for Children
- Sam Thomas, Programme Manager, The Health Foundation
- Jess Allason, Midwife and hypnobirth therapist
- Kate Pyle, Compliance and Corporate Service Manager, St Leonard’s Hospice
- Ross Gehnich, Police Officer
You’re listening to the What Do You Actually Do?! podcast. Each week we want to bring you an inspiring interview, a useful tip, or encouraging message to help you find your place in the professional world.
This episode was recorded during lockdown.
Hello and welcome to this episode of What Do You Actually Do?!. My name is Kate Morris, and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode we’ll be talking about working in social work. Today we’re joined via Skype by Bethany Pease, who works as a social worker within the fostering team in a local authority. So, Bethany, what do you actually do?
Hi, thanks for having me. So my job is… I live in Kingston, Kingston upon Thames, which is in London, and I work for the local authority of Kingston and Richmond, but we’re actually a small enterprise, we are called Achieving for Children. So I’m a supervising social worker. I just started this job two months ago now. So before that I was in a child protection team for two years. But a supervising social worker, we assess people that want to become foster carers. So fostering assessment can take up to three to six months to complete. And so we have to go to that person’s home, do a home visit, do really in depth background checks, build up a really good relationship with those people, and decide whether or not they’re suitable to become foster carers. And once they are then approved, we then offer supervision sessions to those foster carers once they have children placed with them. So a big part of my job is matching children to those foster carers, whether that’s babies, the children of middle age, teenagers, and making sure that they have the right support while that child is with them.
That’s really interesting, that sort of having to match the people up with the, you know, because it’s not… everyone’s not going to get on with everybody, are they? So yeah, I guess I hadn’t really thought about that, how you find the right fit for the children.
Yeah, exactly. And you have to take so much into consideration, like – ethnicity and religion. And, you know, say for example, if a child has come from a sibling group of four, it’s – can that foster carer manage all four of those siblings? Or do we need to split up those siblings? With a teenager, we usually find that they actually settle into a foster placement better if there’s already another teenager there, rather than it just being an adult and them by themselves. So there are all those things to think about.
So, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic right now. Newsflash! Are you able to work from home in your role and how is your day different from normal?
Yeah, so yes, I’m working Monday to Friday, nine to five as usual. The difference is that I’m not actively going to peoples’ homes now. So the only difference is that I’m doing all my visits via Zoom or via Skype. And that’s quite odd, because I’m having to get people who I’ve never met before to carry their laptop or phones around their houses to show me their houses. And when we were first told this is what we were going to have to do, I did actually feel quite uncomfortable, because in my mind it’s – how am I going to get a really good grasp of who that person is, and their intentions, and their home environment via technology? So, yes, I am still working, but it is all over laptop and phone now.
How’s that working out then, in terms of the insights that you’re able to gain into the feel of the environment, without actually physically being able to go there?
Yeah, I guess you can physically see what it looks like. I personally like to go into a home and kind of get its warmth, I guess. Like each person’s home represents their character, in my opinion. So not to be able to actually walk in and see how you’re welcomed, or to see like finishing touches to a home that makes it.. you know, make a house a home. That’s where the challenge is lying at the moment – you can physically see something, but you’re not getting that emotional depth to it.
I guess it is good that you’re still able to continue your work, though, because it’d be awful if everything was put on pause and the children weren’t actually able to be fostered.
Exactly. And we’ve had, you know, the first three weeks of this pandemic, and there were so many fostering referrals coming in, because obviously all the schools have shut. And you have children with ADHD, autism or extra learning needs, who all of a sudden are home all day, and their parents really don’t know how to cope with their behavior because the schools have been such a safety net for them. So now we’re having referrals in to get respite for those children, and we actually had to ask some of our own social workers to step up and be emergency foster carers for this pandemic. So we had to do really short assessments, which would usually take us three to six months, in a week. Yeah, to get our social workers to step up and help us take in some of these children that needed placements.
So, you did a degree in social work. So you’ve been planning your career for a long time. What was your starting point? And where did your interest in Social Work come from?
Oh, gosh… So, it’s gonna sound really funny, and I actually remember saying this in my interview at York. When I came for my interview, I had such an in depth – I think it was a good hour and a half – interview. And they said to me – ‘Why do you want to be a social worker?’, and the first thing that came to my head, it’s quite embarrassing now, was Tracy Beaker. When I was younger, I used to sit, and I used to watch all these episodes of Tracy Beaker, and, you know, them in the care home, and Elaine the Pain and all that, and all the, you know, the social workers working there. But when I… I actually had quite a journey into social work. So I left Sixth Form, I didn’t get very good A-levels and I decided I wanted to take a gap year. And so I took… I ended up taking two gap years. And in that time I did so much – I volunteered in a theater, I worked in Sainsbury’s, I went to Australia and worked in a zoo. I then came back and I got my qualification as a beauty therapist. And I think all these different life experiences, I met so many different types of people. And you just… You get chatting to people, and you hear their different stories, and I realised I wanted to be proactive in helping people with the challenging moments in their life. And I didn’t want to go and be a counselor. I wanted to be quite proactive and out there in people’s homes, helping them. So that’s how I decided to apply for the social work degree.
That’s really interesting that you had a good couple of years there to explore what was really important to you, and test out different things, and then it helped you clarify – ‘Yeah, it’s this I want to do’, eliminate other ideas. That’s a really… Because often people go straight from school to uni, and then it’s that – either at uni or maybe even after university, wondering, you know – ‘Where am I supposed to be going’ kind of thing. So that’s cool that you did that before.
I think that would be quite… At York, actually, they’d say this, they’d want people. before they got onto their social work degree, to have that life experience. And that was one thing I noticed when I was applying for York rather than other universities – that, when I was there, when I came to York three years ago now, you had to be 21 to get on to the Social Work degree. I don’t know whether it’s the same now. While other universities will take you at 18. But York says 21 because you’ve then had that life experience that can help you in the job.
So what opportunities are there for students who are not actually studying social work?
So there’s the programme Frontline, who I’ve worked with quite a few students, in our borrow, who do the Frontline programme, and they’ve come from degrees such as: English Literature and Sociology… I think quite a few did their nursing or teaching degrees, and all those experiences are so beneficial then to link to social work. Say for example, take English Literature, you’re writing so many assessments in social work, you can link that. With teaching, obviously, you’ve worked with children before, you can bring that in. But yeah, I would really say any degree, and actually any age you are, to get into social work.. I think the older you are, the better, because.. Well, I found starting out on my journey in social work – I wasn’t as respected by my clients as some of the older people were, because I didn’t have children yet. And that would always be the question – ‘Well, you’re not a parent, so how can you tell me what to do?’. So I think if you have had that different experience of a different path in life – teaching, nursing, whatever it may be – then you are likely to be more respected in the job.
That’s interesting, and it’s interesting that it’s actually a career area where you can make a complete change, and enter it after doing something completely different. There are these conversion courses, these graduate schemes that qualify you, you could do a conversion masters. So there’s lots of different options there. You’ve touched on it a bit, but what would you say are the kind of personal strengths or qualities that are essential to be happy and successful as a social worker?
Yeah, I think this is one of the things that you don’t actually learn until you’re on the job. You do have to have quite a lot of resilience, and that’s really hard to define what resilience is. But I think my first ever job as a social worker was in the child protection team. So you’re constantly challenging people about their parenting, about their ways of life. And you don’t get responded to very well, you get horrible text messages sent to your work phone, thankfully not your personal phone. People don’t want you turning up at their front doors, you’re not welcome anywhere. And it’s learning how to not take that personally. And that really did take me a good six months to adapt into that. And it’s making sure that you’ve got other hobbies and activities to do after work. So it’s not just coming home and moping in front of the TV. For me, I’m really into amateur dramatics, so I did… I do musical theater. So it was going away from work and expressing myself without having to come home and just sit and think about all the horrible words someone said to me that day. Having said that, there are also a lot of positives. So yeah, I’d say resilience, patience, you know, and you also have to believe in people and believe in their capacity to change to a certain extent. I don’t think there’s any point coming into this job if you think, well, everybody’s the same, and nobody’s ever going to change. Determination, because it’s not just determination with the families you work with. Sometimes your managers are going to make decisions that you as the social worker with that family don’t agree with, and you have to challenge that, and be determined and strong enough to say to your manager – ‘I’m the one working with this family and this is what I think is best.’
That’s really interesting – the idea that your work-life balance, and finding those strategies for switching off at the end of the day. I think that’s common in other sort of health care and social care areas, where you are dealing with difficult, traumatic, highly stressful situations sometimes. To be able to learn how to literally close the door on that at the end of the day, and still have that space and energy, and calm for yourself, I think is such an important skill.
Yeah, definitely. And it’s, you know, what’s also difficult in this job, and probably in, you know, teaching professions and law professions as well, is that you can’t tell everybody the extent of what you’ve done that day. So you could come home and say to your partner or mom, or dad, or brother, or sister – ‘Oh, this has happened at work today’, but you can’t really get it all off your chest, because you’re not allowed to go into loads and loads of detail. And that’s about having a really good team and really good colleagues is really important, because you can talk about it within your team.
I guess that’s part of, doing the supervision that you’re doing now for the foster parents, I think, that’s, I guess, part of that role – you’re helping them have someone who they can kind of really download everything to in a safe confidential way.
Exactly. Because one of the things when people sign up to be foster carers – we do a training, it’s a three day training course called Skills to Foster. And they can come on that, and they don’t then have to become foster carers, they can literally just come on that to open their minds to fostering and [inaudible] confidentiality, and the fact that themselves as foster carers, they’re not going to be able to tell their children, or their siblings, or their parents, all the issues that that child has come to them with, and how are they going to work through that.
It sounds like there’s some really challenging parts of the role. What do you really love about the work? What keeps you going at it, what sort of made you stay within it and want to continue within it?
I think it’s just so interesting. All aspects of social work are really, really fascinating. Especially in fostering what I’m loving is building up relationships with people. And you really get to know people on a personal basis, because you’re spending six months with them, asking them all these in-depth questions about their childhood, how they were parented, you know, their relationships with their brothers and sisters, and things like that. So you really get to know people’s lives and people’s lifestyles. And I guess what also keeps me going, especially in fostering, is how many people out there have that… good hearts and open hearts to take in these children, because it’s not an easy job to be a foster parent. And I’m always so grateful when we receive those applications of people who want to foster. So yeah, it’s building relationships and, you know, seeing loads of goodness out there – that keeps me going.
What’s the one sort of worst thing about the role?
Oh, I think it’s… in fostering it’s been… So I guess if I go back to when I was in child protection, I was there on the front line when all the bad stuff was happening. So say for example, you’d see some.. I’d have to take children to hospital when they had been injured. And it’s… that’s horrible. In fostering – it’s receiving that referral on a piece of paper. Say, for example, it’s when a parent actually says – ‘I don’t want my child anymore’. I think that’s been the hardest thing in fostering. It’s not the circumstances that has brought that child to us – it’s actually a parent’s decision. I think that’s been the hardest thing in fostering,
Yes, that must be really difficult. Looking ahead, what do you think the key challenges will be for Social Work, sort of, over the next few years? I know, obviously we’re going through a health pandemic now, and who knows how long it will go on, or what the sort of ramifications will be. So don’t know if that’s going to impact on things, or if there were already things that were on your horizon as a social worker? I’m just thinking what students can perhaps anticipate, or do a bit more research into?
I think one thing for students to really think about would be – how social work can help aid other professions? Because at the moment, I feel that – and I think lots of my colleagues feel as well – is that social work is one thing, teaching is another thing, and medicine is another thing, and law, because you work quite closely with solicitors in social work, is another thing. And how can we as social workers bring all those professions together, and enable them to really understand what it is we actually do? I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding with what it is we actually do, and that we just kind of destroy people’s lives. You know, that’s the impression that people get. But if we could build partnerships with schools in whatever area we’re working in, or hospitals, I think that would be a really good thing for students to look into – how can there be a multi-agency, and they’ll hear a lot about that on their degree, how can there be a lot more multi-agency working, so that everyone is for each other and not against each other. So that’ll be a one thing. I’d say another thing would be, it’s going to be everywhere after this, is funding. You know, at the moment in this global pandemic – yes, NHS are standing out as heroes, definitely they deserve that. But also the teachers and schools, they’re still going. My husband’s a teacher, he still has to go in and look after the vulnerable kids in school. And social workers, my colleagues in the child protection team I used to work in – they’re still going out on home visits and seeing kids in dangerous situations. So it’s.. Funding from the government of these professions that aren’t recognized as much. So I’d definitely say those two things for the future. How can we work better together with all different agencies, and funding for us as a key agency.
And is there any kind of advice you’d give students who are thinking about maybe wanting to work in social work? What might be a useful experience to get? It sounds like life experience generally is good. You mentioned meeting lots of different people from lots of different walks of life, and how that has helped you. But is there anything else that you would say is worth them maybe looking into?
Yeah, so volunteering in any area you’re interested in, you know, before you go on a social work degree, or even when you’re on your social work degree. You know, I had friends that worked for the blind and deaf charity. And even though at the time they couldn’t see how they’d be able to link that to eventually being in social work, they can now see how that has helped them. And yeah, so, and read a lot as well. It can be really hard to get into social work books, because again, it is actually quite a lot of law, and that’s something I never realised, and I’m only really just appreciating now, three years into my career. So I’d really recommend reading a lot of books around all different types of social work. Because it’s not just children’s social work – there’s adult social work, there’s hospital social work, there’s mental health social work. So, and don’t close your mind to one part of it, be really open to all aspects of it. Community Care website’s really good for getting on, and just seeing what’s happening in the world of social work. So yeah, reading and volunteering, I’d say.
Brilliant. Well, I’ll add some more information about the career areas that we’ve mentioned today and some different links to the episode description, and a link to the full transcript of today’s show. But for now just want to say – Bethany, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and advice with us today, and for your time.
Thank you for having me on.
Thanks for joining us this week on What Do You Actually Do?!. This episode was hosted by myself Kate Morris, and edited and produced by the Careers and Placements team. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow the University of York Careers and Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode’s description.
This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers