It’s a well-earned truism that helping and educational professionals enter their fields because of a strong sense of care and responsibility. Such is the nature of care, however, that when professional practices come into question, as is absolutely necessary if one is to provide effective service, it can often feel as though care and intention are also coming under question. It can in fact feel very personal, and so questions about practice often (understandably) evoke all manner of personal defences and self-justification.
And yet, how else are professionals to grow and innovate without entertaining the open examination of practice?
How else are we to accurately match our services to the needs of the people we serve?
Nowhere is it more vital for professionals to undertake self-examination of this sort than in the fields of helping and education – since consumers in both of these domains are by definition some of the most vulnerable people there are.
Vulnerability is often equated with ‘weakness’ or inability, but in its truest sense means exposure to the possibility of being attacked or harmed. We use this word here to draw intentional focus to the phenomenon of ‘power’ in human services. Power is the ability to exert influence in a given environment or circumstance. While we as teachers and helpers might not really believe we have ‘power’ since the day-to-day work is often highly demanding and exhausting, and most days our efforts can only really amount to a drop in the bucket of a student’s life. Who ‘feels’ powerful, anyway! But feeling energized or believing oneself to be useful and effective is not the same as having power. It’s possible to feel overwhelmed, exhausted, or frustrated, and still have power.
Simply put, we couldn’t do our work without a socially sanctioned role and scope of practice.
We couldn’t do our work without being granted power.
If it’s still difficult to see ‘power’, consider this: regardless of how we feel as individuals, as teachers and helpers what we say and do can have tremendous effect on the people we serve. As much as we think our clients and students affect us, it is simply not the same. There exists a power differential. And, as many have noted, great power is necessarily attended by great responsibility.
In short, care and intention is not enough. In order to render responsive, ethical practice, we must open up our efforts to examination of our impacts and the outcomes of our work.
That being said, if it can be agreed that examination is important and that practice ought to be evaluated, a question naturally arises:
On what basis/bases are we to evaluate our efforts? We offer several distinct but interconnected criteria:
- client/student perspective: Does what we do align with client or student needs, values, strengths and goals? (vs. what professionals identify as needs, values, strengths and goals)
- service outcomes: Do clients find our services to be useful and effective?
- personal vision: Does what we’re doing recruit our personal needs, values, strengths, goals? Does it abide by what we truly believe about people and our role in helping them?
- agency vision/culture: Is what we’re doing in alignment with institutional vision, mission, values? Are we working collectively, as a system, operating from a position of shared values and priorities, or are we working individualistically, idiosyncratically and even at cross-purposes with one another with no shared agreements about people, problems and practices?
Of particular note, while these constitute criteria against which we can judge our work, they also vitally serve as resources for us to build our purposes and practices from. Put another way, if we develop awareness in each of these four areas, we are better able to construct ethical, responsive, sustainable and effective ways of working.
Our intention here at the Responsive Project is to help you privilege these four domains, to make all four of these visible in your work, and to help you land them in your day-to-day practice.
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If you’re a helping professional in social work, addiction & mental health, justice, youth work, counselling (etc.), feel free to sign up for Responsive Helper news and resources.