First-Year Social Workers Share Their Advice for Supporting Students
SCHOOLS | April 27, 2021
First-Year Social Workers Share Their Advice for Supporting Students

Our district knows that one of the most important roles required to meet the needs of every student in every neighborhood—particularly our most vulnerable—is our school social workers. As part of a $17 million investment to increase staffing levels in critical support roles, we will be adding 44 social worker positions next school year to reach a record-high number of 580 social workers across our district. This is just our latest step to reaching our goal of providing a nurse and social worker in every school by the 2023-24 school year. 

Learn from two of our district’s newest social workers below about how they were able to hit the ground running despite the challenges of this school year. They’ll also share some of their strategies for building personal connections with students as well as areas they hope to grow in their careers.

Q&A with Mr. Joseph Tam, a school social worker at Crane Medical Prep High School 

What led you to becoming a school-based social worker? 

I love working with children and adolescents. I enjoy talking and building relationships with them, and I feel like I have a lot to learn from kids. They’re an inspiration to me. I also felt like my skills and personality aligned to working in an education-based setting. 

How would you sum up how you support students? 

Social workers wear a lot of different hats. Our goal is to serve our most vulnerable students who have acute needs. We’re also mental health professionals and are trained to provide counseling for all students and staff. On top of that, I see myself as an educator specializing in social-emotional learning (SEL) and supporting the integration of SEL into the classroom.

What’s one area in which you’ve grown this year? 

Relationship building has been a challenge to build rapport with students and staff from scratch without meeting them in person. I’m proud that I’ve been able to get my face out there and make myself available for staff in a variety of capacities. 

How have you been able to successfully build relationships with students even while they were learning from home? 

I’ve been able to go into freshman and sophomore classes, and, instead of pulling individual students out, I’ve been able to do SEL and mindfulness lessons in those classes. It’s given students an opportunity to see who I am, and, through doing that, I’ve made them more comfortable to reach out to me if they need support or just to talk. 

How are you adapting now that high school students are beginning to return to learning at school? 

There are going to be things that I will need to learn how to handle more being in the in-person setting, and learning what my style is for responding to issues on the fly will be important. Staying humble and teachable will help me develop these skills.

Q&A with Ms. Dessiree Malone, a school social worker at Dett Elementary School 

How does your own background connect to your role as a CPS social worker? 

I’m from the Austin area and attended Ella Flagg Young Elementary School. Being honest about who I am and where I’m from builds trust with students in my current role, even if it takes a few sessions to get to that point. I have to remind myself that I was once a CPS student, which encourages me to stay patient and put myself in my students’ shoes. 

What SEL strategies do you recommend when working with students? 

One of my go-tos with students is using timers. If they need three minutes before they are ready to talk, I’ll have a timer ready to give students their time and space. I also have a Google Form that students can fill out to let us know how they feel and if they need a check in. 

What is your approach to working directly with teachers and other staff members? 

For each student who is on my caseload, I check in with their teachers every month to see how they are doing in class. I make sure to let them know that I am available to provide support. I’m also exploring more ways to involve teachers in our behavioral health team meetings instead of just writing our takeaways for them on paper.

If you could go back to the beginning of the school year, what advice would you give yourself? 

I would tell myself that it takes time to engage with members of the school community, especially parents. One of the first things I did was call parents to introduce myself, and it’s something I’m still doing. I’m also putting in the work by joining the behavioral health team, introducing restorative practices for parents, and trying to build connections with the Local School Council. 

What has been your biggest success story this year? 

Our school community has a very high percentage of students who have IEPs or 504s, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell if you’re making a difference with them, especially this year. However, I’ve had teachers tell me: “I’ve noticed this student has changed since they’ve talked to you,” and hearing about that growth has really had a positive impact on me.

Interested in learning about more of the investments we have planned for next school year? Check out our guide here.