Ugly Truth About Becoming a Practice Educator

As a social work student, a Practice Educator (PE) supported my 70 and 100-day placement. I aspired to become a Practice Educator to support students learning.

The University ensured that students had access to several resources to help make our placement journey a success, however, placement experiences differed because of a combination of several factors. I have discussed some of these factors in my article on 13 reasons why you are failing your social work placement.

So back to the primary focus of this article.

Who is a Practice Educator in Social Work?

A Practice Educator is a social worker who mentors, supervises, assesses and supports students on placement in a practice setting (example, local authority, school setting, hospital or children’s centre). The PE could be based on site (onsite PE) or off site (off-site PE).

Although the PE role comes with a lot of power and responsibility, training to become a Practice Educator involves a lot of commitment and dedication to supporting a student through their learning.

In this article, I will showcase my journey to becoming a Practice Educator and how I supported a student while training.

The Ugly Truth About Becoming a Practice Educator

how to become a practice educator in social work

Why I trained to be a Practice Educator in Social Work

I would say my experience on placement with PE’s was not perfect, however, it was not the worst either. Following my placement experience, I wanted to become a PE to support students, improve standards in social work education and contribute towards positive practice placement experience for social work students.

My Practice Educator training

Placement experience in social workI will use Gibbs reflective cycle to draw on my PE journey and the process of supporting a student. I will critically analyse the assessment methods used, theories and how I used these methods to monitor and test the student’s learning. I will examine power dynamics in the context of practice education and practice learning and the impact on the assessment process.

My student was a final year MSc student on a 100-day placement and of a black African heritage. The placement was within a non-statutory set up with an On-Site Supervisor, and I was the Off-Site Practice Educator.

Prior to planning the induction process, I knew that a final year student requires a vast amount of experience on placement in order to meet all the competencies expected in line with the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF).

This meant that by the end of the placement, the student should be able to deal with complexities, respond flexibly and use their professional judgement confidently.

This heightened my anxiety as I needed to think of creative ways to prepare and maintain a positive learning environment by using creative approaches to engage the student.

I felt that I had a good working relationship with the On-Site Supervisor. This meant that we could work collaboratively to ensure the student gets the best learning experience on placement.

Why is Planning Important in Social Work Placement

Planning in social work practice

Prior to going on the PE course and taking on a student, I recognised that before I enabled others; I needed to understand more about myself as a learner and ensure that I have developed myself to be the type of learner who is independent and self-directing.

I realised that my practice is critically informed as I keep up to date with the world of adult social work by regularly attending workshops, researching online information and constantly referring to policies and guidance when working with service users.

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First, to identify the assessment method to use and to monitor and evaluate the student’s learning, there was the need for me to organise the student’s work-based learning/induction. I felt that this was very important, as it would help identify the needs of the learner.

According to Taylor (2010) good induction arrangements ensure that new students on placement are settled in quickly and effectively to a happy and productive role (Taylor, 2010). Within this context, the Three-Stage theory framework recommended by Collingwood (2005) was used.

The approach helped me to explore aspects of knowledge, skills and values to help introduce the student to what underpins the specific social work service offered within the placement agency. I explored the following:

Knowledge: What the student needs to know to carry out their role effectively and appropriately engage with service users. This involved a discussion around the organisation’s duties and responsibilities. In hindsight, this approach helped me identify the prior knowledge of the student and helped me identify gaps.

For instance, the student had prior knowledge of working with people who lacked capacity in managing their own finances. I also familiarised myself with their first placement report, although I was aware of my own unconscious biases and remained self-aware in order not to let the views of the previous practice educator influence my assumptions.

Skills: This helped me explore how the student may use social work methods or interventions to effect change. For instance, I identified that a strength-based approach was relevant in identifying what the service users can do for themselves and which areas of their finances they needed support with.

Values: This helped me explore the student’s own values and the values of the organisation. It was identified that going above and beyond the expectations of the service user was paramount.

For instance, a service user may require support with finances, however, if it is identified that this is affecting on their housing because of non-payment of rent, the worker should look into supporting them to resolve issues around their housing.

How to use Theories to understand your Student’s Learning needs

How to identify learning styles for social work studentsFor a PE to effectively facilitate learning in any setting, they need to be aware of the different theories of adult learning.

Because of the complexity and varied way people learn, no single theory can satisfactorily explain how this takes place. However, I found social learning theory, reflective practice and humanistic theory effective when supporting my student.

Social learning theory

Bandura (1977) is the main exponent of the social learning theory, which is based on modelling/imitating others to learn. This approach meant that I had to evidence social work values positively when working with the student. I provided inspiration and models of good practice.

As a result, I incorporated shadowing opportunities into the student’s learning opportunities chart. In hindsight, this was a good way for the student to learn as they preferred to shadow activities before taking on any tasks independently.

Humanistic theory

Within the humanist learning approach, the role of the PE is to increase the range of experiences to enable effective learning.

Collingwood (2005) state that this approach places the learner and their desire to fulfil their potential at the heart of the learning process. I allowed the student to design tasks which challenge them.

The student came up with activities such as role play and presenting at team meetings, and these were embedded in the student’s learning opportunities.

I felt that my approach to facilitating learning is in line with the humanist theory which identifies the student as empowered and autonomous with my role being one of a ‘facilitator’, establishing the right environment and offering a wide range of learning opportunities that the student uses to achieve their desired learning. I found that this enabled the student to be proactive rather than reactive.

The student took ownership and responsibility for their work and would come to me for support and guidance in dealing with issues beyond his knowledge (Biggs, 2003).

Cognitive learning theory

Cognitive learning theories on the other hand argue that the learners have choices and some level of control and make conscious decisions.

Cognitive theorists suggest that feedback and the interaction between the learner and the teacher is an essential component of the learning process (Taplin, 2018). I gave the student plenty of opportunity to observe the PE and staff at the placement agency undertaking tasks and assessments. I gave the student the opportunity to gather information and present it in an assessment format.

The student completed financial assessments and housing applications for service users.

How do you Handle Power Imbalance as a Practice Educator?

power imbalance in social work practiceI was aware of the power dynamics that could exist between professionals and the student. I remained self-aware and ensured that the student’s voice was heard.

For instance, I asked the student open questions “what does a good placement look like to you?” The student informed me that a good placement considers the student’s learning style, skills and what they want out of the placement. The student added that they wanted to be confident and knowledgeable by the end of the placement.

Following the student’s comments, I identified their learning style by using Honey and Mumford’s questionnaire to identify the student’s learning preferences. What was good about this experience is that it helped me identify that the student is a reflector and a pragmatist.

Subsequently, I could identify that the student learnt best from observing, doing and then reflecting on what had happened. As a result, to promote the student’s learning, I arranged for them to observe me in practice preparing and carrying out assessments.

Afterwards, I used the supervision session to reflect on the intervention that had occurred, what had gone well or not, and what had been learnt.

However, it was noticed from the onset that a lack of specialist knowledge was preventing the student from appreciating the service user’s capabilities and the impact their physical disabilities had on their day to day living.

I therefore recommended that the student does some research into physical disabilities to widen their breadth of understanding. However, the student informed me that they found online journals difficult to understand. I therefore arranged for the student to attend a face-to-face training on the various physical disabilities the team supports.

By allowing the student the flexibility and freedom to self-direct their learning at this point, I ensured that the most effective learning took place.

Creating a learning agreement

A learning agreement was drawn up that matches the student’s needs with learning opportunities. This is with the viewpoint that the learning agreement forms the basis for continued discussion in supervisions with regards to the student’s progress, barriers and finding possible solutions (Gray and Webb, 2010; Rutter and Williams, 2010; Rothman, 1999).

Furthermore, I was able to work in partnership with the student as it enabled me to address the inevitable power imbalance that results from my role as a PE.

Creating tailored learning opportunities allowed the student to approach their learning in an active, questioning and critically reflective way. On the other hand, it has been suggested that a lot of factors can affect learning in practice placement, among them is the environment where learning takes place (Rutter and Williams, 2012).

Wonnacott (2012) argues that the unaccountable aspect of practice and the power imbalance between the supervisor and the supervisee raises concerns in that it places the supervisee in a vulnerable position that can be exploited.

Addressing Power Imbalance as a Practice Educator

I was fully aware of the power imbalance, in that I determined whether or not the student passes the placement. I constantly reflected on our interactions and provided regular feedback, which were supportive and constructive in nature.

For example, during supervision, I commended the student for how well he was doing in terms of professionalism (PCF 1). He was turning up on time each day for placement and dressed appropriately.

However, he needed to work on submitting his paperwork on time. Together, we set deadlines for him to submit any outstanding work. I also attempted to engage in culturally competent supervision sessions. Within this context, I shaped supervision sessions to take into account the cultural orientation, background and values of the student and remained self-aware to help prevent my own unconscious bias.

Following this experience, I thought of how to assess my student. I thought of ways of making the assessment approaches relevant, valid, reliable, sufficient and authentic. I thought of selecting assessments which would help the student meet all the PCF domains and monitored this using supervision and assessments.

Why is supervision important in Social Work Practice? 

supervision in social work practiceRegular supervision helped me assess the student’s progress. Nobel and Irwin (2009) highlighted that historically the development of supervision has always gone hand-in-hand with social work professional activities.


Initially, I thought of using the MANDELA model as it is a new and innovative tool for effectively engaging social work students of black African heritage studying on social work qualifying programmes across England and Wales (Tedam, 2010).

I felt that this tool was cyclical in nature with a logical starting point and flexible enough to be used at different paces in recognition of the student’s learning style and comfort in engagement. In hindsight, using the MANDELA model helped me identify the student’s identity, and I was able to understand and appreciate the similarities, differences between their own culture/identity and mine.

Razack (2001) argues that practice educators set the tone and pace of practice placements and therefore if discussions about a student’s race, ethnicity and needs are not undertaken, their learning and development is compromised.

Bring and Buy exercise

In addition, I used the ‘Bring and Buy’ exercise by Maclean and Lloyd (2013) during supervision.

This allowed me to identify the skills / attributes my student brings or has learned during the course of the placement and the things he would like to buy or learn more of while on placement. I felt that this was a creative way to monitor and evaluate the students’ learning.

The “me, my, more, must’ approach also known as the reflective exploration approach by Wareing (2017) helped the student to consider who they are and what impact their held values might have before they describe a particular experience, situation or incident.

It looks at how the student’s value system determines their professional judgement. For instance, I could determine that the values important to the student as a person include respect, empathy, and authenticity.

Carl Rogers also identified the essential skills of a practitioner as respect, empathy and authenticity (Davies, 2013; Maclean and Harrison, 2015; Payne, 2014; Wilson et al., 2011).

Identifying these values showed that the student can show respect for the service user opinions and shows an ability to collaborate. The student could also identify the impact of poor empathic and authenticity skills as affecting the relationship between the service user and social worker.

Supervision was held every two weeks, and I shared note taking with the student. During supervision, the student had the opportunity to tell me his experiences on placement over the last couple of weeks.

In supervision, we reviewed his cases and the social work approaches or theories he uses to support service users.

Together, we agreed on an action plan for the next supervision session. The on-site supervisor also gave me regular feedback on the students’ performance.

I found that supervision helped the student to develop skills, knowledge and values that would enable him to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be an accountable practitioner.

The student was encouraged to use reflective models in their reflection. For example, the Gibbs reflective cycle is useful when trying to make sense of situations.

This will enhance understanding around what went well and what did not go so well in order to identify future improvements.

What Assessments do you carry out as a Practice Educator?

Assessment as a practice educatorAssessment and planning are central to the Practice Educator role (Rutter and Williams, 2019). As a result, right from the onset, it was important for the PE to be transparent about the process to minimise the negative impact of power imbalance.

The assessment of any student is a process that is done through dialogue throughout the placement. In order for an assessment to be successful, it is imperative that the PE fully understands the requirements and standard that the student will have to meet and how they will be demonstrated (Morales and Sheafor, 2007; Stark et al., 2014).

I familiarised myself with the Professional Capabilities Framework as well as the Knowledge and Skills Statement for Social Workers in Adult.

I assessed the student using observations during direct work with service users, role plays and written work. I used feedback from service users and other professionals to triangulate my assessment decision.

Following this experience, I have realised that to become an effective Practice Educator, one must be ready to commit to lifelong learning and have excellent organisation and time management skills. This is the ugly truth!


How to Become a practice educator


Biggs. J (2003) Teaching for quality learning at university, 2nd ed. Buckingham: Open University Press

Collingwood, P. (2005). Integrating theory and practice: The Three-Stage Theory Framework. The Journal of Practice Teaching in Health and Social Work. 6 (1). 6-23

Davies, M. (2013). The Blackwell Companion to Social Work (4th ed.). Chichester: Blackwell Publishing Limited.

Gray, M., & Webb, S. (2012). Social Work Theories and Methods: London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Honey, P. and Mumford, A. (1986). The manual of learning styles. USA: Routledge.

Maclean, S. & Harrison, R. (2015). Theory and Practice. A Straightforward Guide for Social Work. (3rd ed.). Lichfield: Kirwin Maclean Associates.

Maclean, S and Lloyd, I. (2013). Developing quality practice learning. London: Kirwin Maclean Associates

Morales, A & Sheafor,  B. W. (2007). Social work: A profession of many faces. (9th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon

Payne, M. (2014). Modern Social Work Theory. (4th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Razack, N. (2001). Diversity and difference in the field education encounter: Racial minority students in the practicum. Social Work Education, 20 (1), 219-232

Rutter, L. and Williams, S. (2019). The Practice Educator’s Handbook. (4th ed.) London: SAGE

Rutter, L. and Williams, S. (2010). The Practice Educator’s Handbook. (1st ed.) London: SAGE

Rutter, L. and Williams, S. (2012). The Practice Educator’s Handbook. (2nd ed.) London: SAGE

Rothman, J. C. (1999). The Self-awareness Workbook for Social Workers. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Scragg, T. (2016). Reflective practice in social work. (4th ed.) London: Sage

Stark, D. J., Miller, J. & Fabricant, F. (2014). Creating Career Success. London: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Taplin, S. (2018) Innovations in practice learning. St Albans: Critical Publishing.

Taylor, B. J. (2010). Reflective Practice for Healthcare professionals. (3rd ed.) Maidenhead: Open University Press

Tedam, P. (2010). The MANDELA model of practice learning. The Journal of Practice Teaching and Learning. 11. 60-76. 10.1921/175951511X661219.

Thompson, N. (2006). Anti-Discriminatory Practice. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wareing, M. (2017) Me, my, more, must: a value based model of reflection, 2(18), 268 – 279 doi

Wilson, K., Ruch, G., Lymbery, M. & Cooper, A. (2011). Social Work. An introduction to contemporary practice. London: Pearson.

Wonnacott, J (2012). Mastering social work supervision. London: Jessica Kingsley

Wright, A. (2008). How to be a brilliant trainee teacher. USA: Routledge. Useful Resources

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