Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Coercion, Teaching, Social Work

by Skald

This is a version of a post I recently added to the teaching blog:

Coercion is dead. Over. The days of the drone are numbered.

Well, not exactly. There are still plenty of drone jobs (lots). Im not a businessman or scientist but I read about these topics to keep up to date... and everything I read suggests that the factory-soldier work mentality is collapsing.. while organic, autonomous, decentralized, project/team oriented organizations are on the rise. This may not be true in every field... but is at least (and especially) true among the emerging industries that will employ the bulk of our college-educated students: technology, creative services, design,.. and other fast-changing, sectors of the economy.

Thus the imperative to radically redesign "education". Is it easier (for the teacher) to just tell students what to do.. and punish them if they dont? Its certainly simpler. But more effective? No way.

Many teachers balk at this statement. Its nothing Im not used to. I encountered the same doubt as a social worker. As Clinical Coordinator for Stephens House (in SC)... I was constantly told (by my boss, by doctors, by nurses, by other social workers, by damn near every self-appointed expert in the field) that I must "be strict with the clients"... "you must be the parent because they have the mentality of children".... "lay down the law"... "make them take responsibility" (an oxymoron if ever I heard one)... "they wouldnt be where they are if they could make good decisions".

Who were "they". They were homeless, HIV positive, substance addicted individuals.... most of them minorities (gay, African-American,...). In other words, they were prime candidates for the title "bottom of the socio-economic ladder".

The people above them on the ladder were convinced that these people must be coerced and controlled "for their own good".

I disagreed and for the first time of my "career", I decided to throw caution to the wind and completely defy my boss. I surrendered control to the clients (residents of a transitional shelter). I gave them control of the house (upkeep, decoration, etc.). I gave them control of creating and enforcing "house rules". I put them in charge of transportation (getting clients to doctors appointments). I put them in charge of social activities. Im put them damn near in charge of everything.

And contrary to all the naysayers... they kicked ass. The more power they got, the more "responsible" they became. When they took over upkeep of the house... it improved dramatically (repairs made promptly, new paint on the walls, yard sales to fund decorations and social activities, everything cleaned regularly, etc.).

The most dramatic improvement was in the area of drug use. When I took my position, the house was in crisis. Clients were regularly using drugs in the house. They were inviting drug using friends into the house.. and having them spend the night in their rooms. Drug use on premises was the number one reason for ejection from the program.. and it happened alot.

The "experts" told me to get tough: Institute random drug testing, spy on them, encourage them to snitch, randomly search their rooms, etc.

Instead, I talked to two of the residents who were die-hard members of AA and NA. They attended meetings all the time. I asked them to talk to the other residents and find a way to solve the drug problem.

Here's what they did:
*They decided to host an NA (Narcotics Anonymous) weekly meeting in the house.
*They arranged for sponsors for all clients with substance abuse problems.
*They relentlessly encouraged, supported, badgered, and ass-whooped each other to prevent relapses.. or nip them in the bud.
*They instituted a volunteer mentor program.. volunteers from the community were paired with clients.
*They requested semi-regular private meetings with me.
*THEY requested drug testing "to help us maintain our recovery".
*THEY strictly enforced the "no overnight guests" rule.

Drug use plummeted. Ejections for drug use plummeted. The reputation of the house improved dramatically.

And I didnt do a damn thing.

For this I was eventually fired by my "treat them as children" boss. It was the proudest moment of my social work career.

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