social worker vs. elementary school teacher
November 22, 2012 8:34 AM   Subscribe

How would you compare a career in social work with elementary school teaching? Given that underlying values overlap so much, how might you decide which would spark more passion, happiness, and success? (Not that any career is perfect.)

I have been aspiring to be a social worker for the last half year or so. I really enjoy working in a supportive interpersonal context, learning about people's needs, and being an advocate. That all said, I also enjoy teaching and more intellectual/learning exploration. The path I envisioned for myself is direct service practitioner now, professor/researcher much later on. This jives well with me, even though I'm a little apprehensive of being tied to an office context forever.

Over the last little while, I've started to work with kids (I coordinate a youth literacy program in an urban library) kind of for the first time. I'm the youngest in my immediate and extended family and the "kid question" has always loomed - would I get them? Would they get me? I've always been told I would be great with little ones because my energy is really kid friendly. Well, it turns out I really do enjoy kids, and not just in a you're-amusing way. I think they are curious littl people with so much to offer, and the idea of helping them become passionate about learning is exciting to me. I also like the idea of encouraging wellness and self respect in the classroom, as opposed to always catching up with folks already in some kind of social service system - but both are needed!

I've read a lot about social work and teaching, talked to folks in both fields, and still find myself hung up. I think I am more deeply drawn to teaching, in a sense. I know that I come alive in leadership/performance roles, but that the more I am distant from that, the more daunting it seems. In general, I'm afraid of being a mediocre teacher and not supporting the kiddos enough. I am not naturally an orderer of others, and fear I won't be able to get things going in the classroom. I am fine putting great effort into the craft of teaching, but I don't want it to be a foregone conclusion, you know?

Any insight would be very welcome! Thank you.
posted by elephantsvanish to Work & Money (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What is the difference in pay, benefits and job security in your area? I know you want to go with your passion but without appropriate pay benefits and job security you WILL get burnt-out as both careers are demanding and high energy. You can choose positions that put you more in the leadership/advocate role in both fields. If you are thinking about having children of your own, the hours/vacations for teachers tends to be more condusive to parenting.
posted by saucysault at 8:55 AM on November 22, 2012

I really can not speak to the personal satisfaction you may (not) receive in either profession--I think the one big advantage, if you pursue and receive a professional degree in social work, is substantially more horizontal and vertical job mobility. Working environments/conditions/experiences vary widely in different social work settings--however--a classroom/school is always a classroom or school--you can change schools but you can not start teaching elderly, mentally ill, adolescents,victims of abuse, etc. I say this assuming you have an intermediate goal of receiving a BSW and eventually a MSW. What ever you choose it does not have to be forever--delighted to see a motivated person entering either field.
posted by rmhsinc at 8:58 AM on November 22, 2012

Social workers I know are usually super depressed by their work and try to get out of it as soon as the burn out sets in. Neither are great paying fields. Teachers seem more engaged since there's a mix of students and you don't have to be depressed by everyone's sad stories.
posted by discopolo at 8:59 AM on November 22, 2012

Teachers also have a summer break each year, which helps alleviate any burnout and make up for all the hours they spend during the school year. Some years are more challenging than others, but you always have summer to look forward to!
posted by summerstorm at 9:18 AM on November 22, 2012

I disagree with the premise that their values overlap much, unless you're broadly grouping together people whose job it is to give people better futures or better wellbeing. They're coming at the issue from very different agendas and typically very different points of intervention.

An elementary school teacher is there to give an education to children. The best ones might give an education in the more rounded sense of the word.

A social worker is there to work on behalf of an organisation to monitor and ensure the wellbeing of vulnerable people. They are there to assess, support, monitor, organise, supervise, but rarely to educate as such.

While I'm sure elementary school teaching is challenging, it is not emotionally challenging in the way social work is. And where social work is fulfilling, I suspect it is only *relatively* fulfilling most of the time, in that a "job well done" is rarely actually a job done and dusted for ever.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:45 AM on November 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

MuffinMan, thank you for making this distinction. I think I have been comparing the two types of interventions only very vaguely so far. I have often had an educator role in my social service interventions (taught computer classes to adults, helped volunteers tutor in reading) so the two roles have been muddled for me at times. I do really value lifelong learning.

This is helpful, keep thoughts a coming!
posted by elephantsvanish at 10:28 AM on November 22, 2012

Have you considered being a school counselor? A friend is one at an urban public school - a middle school, I think - and she finds it very fulfilling, despite getting pink-slipped almost every year (and them rehired when the budget gets shaken out).
posted by rtha at 10:42 AM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

While I'm sure elementary school teaching is challenging, it is not emotionally challenging in the way social work is.

I'm going to strongly disagree with this. As someone who has been a teacher for 25+ years from elementary to high school grades, I couldn't disagree more. I don't turn off my care and concern for students when they leave the building for the day or for the year or forever. I carry their burdens with me constantly even if I don't want to. In addition to teaching the curriculum, I've brought in coats for students who don't have them, made sure needy families got holiday meals and gifts and even taken laundry home for a student so they would have clean clothes. I've helped students fill out financial aid forms, edited essays for college acceptances and written letters of recommendation. I've celebrated with the college acceptances and awards for good grades and I've been empathic and supportive when college rejection letters arrive.

One of the big differences is that with social work, you meet with one person at a time and can focus all of your attention on that one person. Teaching is much more of a juggling act where you have to balance all 25 of your students' emotional needs at the same time. It is very emotionally challenging - not only to meet the needs of one student but to balance those with the needs of the other 24 students and maintain discipline among all of them and teach a curriculum. Multi-tasking is a necessity for teaching.

A social worker is there to work on behalf of an organisation to monitor and ensure the wellbeing of vulnerable people. They are there to assess, support, monitor, organise, supervise, but rarely to educate as such.

Who is more vulnerable than children? I have done all of those things for my students: assess, support, monitor, organize, and supervise as well as educate. IMHO, these positions are more similar than different. But yes, there are differences like I stated above.

You can always do both careers. You don't have to pick one and stick with it forever. I started out in elementary and life took its twists and turns, I became a reading specialist and now I am teaching high school English. Who knows what I will be teaching a few years from now? My advice to you is what I tell my seniors - do some job shadowing in both fields. Seriously, spend a few days with a teacher and then a social worker - you will get a much better idea of how demanding (emotionally or otherwise) each career will be. There are many differences and many similarities between the two fields and only you know which ones will work best for you.

Good luck with your decision, we need a lot more people like you in this world!
posted by NoraCharles at 10:59 AM on November 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

Have you considered doing special education work of some kind? That could combine an interest in teaching with an interest in supporting kids who need extra help.

My mom was an elementary school teacher for a long time, but she found the hours exhausting, especially since she had to switch to teaching new grades several times. She taught during summers as well in order to make a reasonable salary. With additional training, she has moved into various forms of "instructional coordinator" and "instructional coach" positions where she analyzes test scores and trains teachers in new curriculum/strategies/etc., but the relevant part is that for a while she was an "intervention coordinator" where she organized programs to help low-achieving and learning-disabled students catch up. You might be interested in a career path like that.
posted by dreamyshade at 2:26 PM on November 22, 2012

My sister is a social worker in the public school system and she loves it!! That might be the perfect fit for you in reading your post. I think it might depend on where you live, as some states/cities don't have social workers in their schools.
posted by retrofitted at 8:49 PM on November 22, 2012

My cousin is also a school social worker. She does tons of children's education, actually, in addition to groups and individual sessions with students. Even though she works with elementary age children, she does a bunch of workshops for kids about bullying, anger management, self-esteem, sexual and physical abuse, safety online, effective communication, etc. She also teaches classes for educators (administrative and classroom teachers) to help them learn about new issues in schools, new laws and regulations, and so on. She works with families, county social services, and is responsible for helping the poorest families have nice winter holidays through a donation program she manages and shops for. Her students run the gamut--emotionally disturbed, autistic, just plain old angsty and troubled, and so on. She does tons of classroom observation and works with teachers and students to optimize their learning experience.

It's the school psychologist who does the testing and crafts classroom accommodations for kids with emotional or learning problems.
posted by xyzzy at 10:09 PM on November 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I really identify with the school social worker suggestion. Xyzzy, all of the job duties you list appeal to me 100%.
posted by elephantsvanish at 11:04 AM on November 23, 2012

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