The Essential Role of Field Instructors in Social Work Education

Field education is an essential part of all Master of Social Work (MSW) programs, and is defined as internships that MSW students complete in real social work settings under the supervision of a qualified social worker (also known as a field instructor). Field education provides MSW students with the opportunity to apply the principles and methods they have learned in the classroom to work with actual clients in a professional environment, explore and/or refine their career interests, and develop a strong and flexible skills set that is relevant to their future profession.

According to the CSWE, field education is considered the signature pedagogy of social work education, and is unique in that it is structured to truly immerse students in all aspects of the social work profession. In other words, during their field practicums, social work students are expected to engage in all the key responsibilities that a practicing social worker in the same setting must complete on a daily basis–including but not limited to working directly with clients and their families; collaborating with a larger team to develop treatment plans; completing documentation and other paperwork; running groups; and engaging in research, program development, and/or advocacy initiatives. April O’Dell, Senior Social Worker and field instructor at the Colorado Mental Health Institute, noted in an interview with OnlineMSWPrograms.com, “I expect students to treat [their field practicums] with the same responsibility that they would if they were in paid employment. The clients also expect this level of commitment, as students are often times their primary treatment staff even though they are [interns].”

Field Instructors: Guides to Students’ Professional Development

Due to the high level of engagement and professional responsibility that is expected of social work students during their field practicums, supervision and guidance are particularly important aspects of field education. Field instructors play a central role in students’ professional development, serving as guides, evaluators, and mentors throughout the practicum experience. Tech Tran, ACSW, a clinical social worker and field supervisor at the Rainbow Community Center (RCC) in Concord, CA, explained in an interview with OnlineMSWPrograms.com, “As a field instructor, clinical supervisor, and student teacher/mentor in the field placement site, I instruct, supervise, provide ongoing feedback, and assess student acquisition of knowledge, skills, and values.”

Field instructors are also responsible for ensuring that MSW interns have enough autonomy during their internship to develop the skills necessary for their future careers. Samantha Roberts, LCSW, who worked as a field instructor at Odyssey House, Inc., told OnlineMSWPrograms.com about her experiences working with a student and explained the importance of allowing MSW students to work directly with clients. “She handed in weekly process recordings, which would allow me a small window into her sessions and interactions with the clients. This was important because it allowed me to see what issues she addressed and what topics she avoided,” Samantha Roberts, LCSW noted, “This was essential for supervision, as I couldn’t adequately assess her sessions by sitting in on them. That would potentially make her look incapable and ruin the therapeutic alliance between her and her clients.”

The Collaborative Relationship Between Student and Supervisor

Field instructors typically work with their students to develop a structured plan for skill development and exposure to different professional environments. “As a field instructor I was responsible for creating a plan with the students to have them engage in all areas of the program,” Samantha Roberts, LCSW explained to OnlineMSWPrograms.com, “I met with them weekly for individual supervision, assigned them a caseload, met with their field advisor and reviewed their process recording.” Tech Tran, ACSW also described students’ field education experiences at the RCC. “MSW interns are able to engage in all areas and departments of the RCC, dependent on major factors such as: personal interest, scope of practice, fitness for profession, and alignment with their learning objectives,” he said.

Learning objectives for field practicums are typically a combination of specific standards set by the MSW program (i.e. development of certain professional competencies depending on students’ concentration), and students’ individual goals for gaining experience in certain areas of social work. Jana Morgan, LCSW, who supervises MSW students at the Silicon Valley Children’s Fund’s Emerging Scholars program, told OnlineMSWPrograms.com, “[A student’s progress] is measured through a learning contract, which outlines specific aspects of social work and professional skills that are important for the intern to develop–for example, intake process, bio-psychosocial assessment and range of possible diagnosis according to the DSM-5, and the effective development of a treatment plan.”

Field instructors also work to help students gain a better sense of their professional and personal selves through regular discussions about students’ experiences in the field and how they relate to their overall goals. In addition, student and supervisor also generally discuss how the student can better understand his/her strengths and weaknesses. Jana Morgan, noted to OnlineMSWPrograms.com, “My clinical supervision aims to help interns with the direct practice piece of their work. I ask them to talk to me about what they are honestly seeing and feeling when with their youth. […] It is supervision but it tilts toward personal therapy, which is my challenge–how to help the interns help their clients first and then develop their new professional identities and increased sense of themselves in a therapeutic manner. The line between personal and professional development is close.”

Advice for Students When Completing Their Field Practicums

As field education is such a central aspect of social work students’ professional development, it is recommended that students structure their schedules so that they can truly get the most out of their time in the field and from their interactions with their supervisor. “Field instruction is where you learn the most. As important as classes and papers and exams are, you get hands on experience when you’re in the field,” Samantha Roberts, LCSW noted, “I recommend putting your field placement first when it comes to level of importance.”

However, while it is important for students to bring energy and commitment to their field practicums, self-care and balance are also essential. “I think for optimum integration of learning and practice, students need to be well aware to not spread themselves too thin. It leads to tremendous stress,” Jana Morgan advised. Sheila Clifford, LCSW, who is a Social Services Team Coordinator for Kaiser Permanente and who has also mentored several MSW interns, recommends making a personalized plan for self-care, and being creative about self-care strategies. “Every person is different and when I have a student we explore how they currently utilize self-care techniques in their life. Some people enjoy running while others find yoga or meditation helpful. Last year I had a few runners on my team and so we all completed a half marathon together.” Students who wish to get the most out of their field practicums should implement a combination of dedication, self-awareness, frequent and open conversations with their supervisor, and sound self-care practices.

For additional insights on field education and how MSW students can make the most of their internship experiences, OnlineMSWPrograms.com has completed a series of Field Instructor Interviews, which are provided below.


Field Instructor Interviews

Interview with April O’Dell, LCSW
April O’Dell, LCSW is a Senior Social Worker and Field Instructor at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan.

Interview with Sheila Clifford, MSW
Sheila Clifford, LCSW is a Social Services Team Coordinator for Kaiser Permanente and has worked as both a pediatric and hospice social worker.

Interview with Tech Tran, MSW
Tech Tran, MSW is a Lead Case Manager and Social Work Program Supervisor at the Rainbow Community Center where he provides support to LGBTQ individuals.

Interview with Samantha Roberts, LCSW
Samantha Roberts, LCSW is a forensic social worker who works as a Clinical Case Manager at UCSF’s Department of Psychiatry, on the Citywide Forensics Team.

Interview with Jana Morgan, LCSW
Jana Morgan, LCSW is a field instructor and clinical supervisor for the Silicon Valley Children’s Fund.

Interview with Jessica Warner, LMSW
Jessica Warner, LMSW is a forensic social worker and field instructor at The Legal Aid Society.