Updated: Feb 18
By Sheri Koller, LCSW, LCSW-C, NCSSW, PPSC
When I was in graduate school, a well-respected social worker told me that school social work had no future with budget cuts, systemic misunderstandings of what school social workers do, and a lack of prestige within the social work profession. I didn’t listen to this field instructor and became a school social worker anyway. It was the best decision of my career. Schools are beautiful, messy, courageous, wondrous places of chaos and growth and I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.
My 21 years as a social worker have always been connected to schools; whether it was through my time working for a mental health agency that provided therapy in schools, my time as an adjunct professor educating Master of Social Work students about human behavior and development or my current work providing consultation services (training, support, and program development) to school districts nationwide. As my career evolved so has my view about the role of the school social worker, shifting from a micro level practitioner to addressing the systemic issues in our schools. The intersection of mental health, equity and academia has become the foundation for my mezzo and macro level practice.
When the School Social Work Association of America began offering the National Certification for School Social Workers (NCSSW), I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue it. It seemed like a huge time investment and I was not sure how it would enhance my practice. Historically, I am not described as an “early adopter;” my style is typically more, “let me sit back, observe, check data points and then decide.” After a few months consideration, I decided to apply.
4 reasons I applied for the NCSSW certification:
I’m a nerd and I love school. Writing papers and testing my knowledge makes my heart happy.
School social work is evolving. The need for school social workers has grown tremendously; now is the time for us to join the decision makers. The timing is now for the certification and to enhance the respect of school social workers.
One of my colleagues frequently says, “If they don’t offer you a seat at the table, bring your own chair.” The NCSSW certification demonstrates parity with NASP, NASC and other recognized professional credentialing bodies. This levels the playing field and allows me to bring my own nationally certified chair to the table.
As a business owner, furthering my skills and enhancing my school social work services with the certification provide more credence to my business. The NCSSW impresses people in academia and this is valuable.
Tips for anyone considering the journey:
Summer is your friend. As we know, the school year is an ebb and flow of stress and challenges. Completing as many of the 9 competencies as possible during the summer, made the process less stressful for me.
Organization matters. I used a spreadsheet to organize ideas/concepts, artifacts per submission and keep track of submission and revision dates.
Don’t give yourself the whole year to do it. Stay focused. Entropy is the atrophy of energy and synergy increases energy (quick shout out to my fellow systems theory geeks ;) ). I completed the entire process in about 2-3 months. The energy created by my progress and efforts fueled the momentum to keep going.
Plan ahead. I took notes on all 9 competencies, jotting down what I would like to discuss. Then I thought about different artifacts I could include and gathered those. And lastly, I wrote the paper.
Adopt the vulnerability and tenacity of an MSW student. Getting feedback on your work is hard, especially when you are writing about your skills and learned experiences. You will have to revise some (or many) of your submissions. Swallow the frustration and push on.
Finally, revel in the bliss of completion.
How it’s helped:
Bragging rights. Becoming the 3rd school social worker nationwide to receive the NCSSW has been ego boosting to me and inspiring to my colleagues.
Confidence boosting. Penning the papers for certification meant that I mindfully reviewed my experiences in the field and a solid reminder of the many skills I possess.
Publicity for school social workers. One of my contracts (the 4th largest school district in the United States) posted a press release about the NCSSW and my experiences. A local newspaper in Maryland published a press release and I’ve received local attention from individuals and business in the community asking about school social work and my consulting business.
Increased wealth and prestige. Uh, the jury is still out here, but I have already seen how the publicity and outreach is helping to grow my business, bring new professional opportunities and increase my credibility.
Parity. Everyone on a school campus has a nationally recognized organization they belong to that provides certification and value. The NCSSW gives us parity.
When I look back now at the advice I was given early on about school social work, what stands out for me most is that the field instructor was right about one thing: our profession IS changing. The big question is: Will we take a seat at the table to affect those changes? I believe the NCSSW certification can help.
Sheri Koller, LCSW, LCSW-C, NCSSW, PPSC is the third individual to become a National Certified School Social Worker (NCSSW). With over 20 years of experience as a school social worker, Sheri is an expert in the field of student mental health and suicide prevention. She is an experienced clinician who focuses on individual and family therapy, supervision, program development, advocacy, data analysis, crisis intervention and training. As a professor for seven years, Sheri educated hundreds of MSW students on mental health and human behavior. As the owner of Brave Journeys LLC, she currently supports schools nationwide through her consulting business, and is passionate about helping schools understand the intersection between student mental health, social justice and academic outcomes. Sheri develops programs to address the complex mental health issues facing our schools, including a fundamentally different approach to suicide prevention and intervention.