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School Social Worker to School Social Work Educator

By Shercee Barrett, SSWAA Student Intern

SSWAA is excited to highlight Tory Cox, Ed.D, MSW, LCSW, PPSC, and Clinical Associate Professor as a member that has displayed a personal drive to establish key values of equality, diversity, and social justice in his social work career and community. Mr. Cox has worked on a multitude of projects in addition to his education. In our interview, we discussed his recent accomplishments of being selected as a Consulting Editor for the development of his first national Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work and was the former Lead of the COBI Fellowship in Social Innovation, which won the CSWE/SAGE 2016 Award for Innovative Teaching in Social Work Education. He has also co-created numerous School syllabi, including the most recent “Threat Assessment and Management”. Below are more interesting facts about Mr. Cox.

How long did you work in School Social Work?

From 1997-2010, 14 years, starting the year after I earned my MSW at California State University, Long Beach.

Can you tell me more about your role and background?

I began my social work career in 1991 as a line staff with Ettie Lee Homes for Youth group home in Santa Ana, CA. Several months later, I became the Lead Recreation Specialist, a position I held until 1996 when I moved into a Foster Care Social Worker role at Ettie Lee. My first year out of grad school in 1997, I became the Stevenson-YMCA Community School Director at Long Beach USD’s Stevenson Elementary School in Long Beach, CA. Starting in 1998, I became a School Social Worker for Long Beach USD, a position I held until 2010. During that time, I received my LCSW (2003), began a private practice for youth in the evening, and became the Lead School Social Worker for the district. In 2010, I joined the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work as an Assistant Professor of Field Education. In 2018, I received my Doctorate in Education from USC’s Rossier School of Education focusing on Organizational Change and Leadership. I am now approaching my 10-year anniversary at USC and have been an Associate Director for Field Education overseeing our Virtual Academic Center’s field program for five years.

What did you like most about working in school social work?

I liked the variability of the role that required knowledge across the social work spectrum, whether working in special education or general education, tier 1 universal interventions or more targeted student needs, or local versus district-wide policies and administration. We would often say about this phenomenon that since all children are required to come to school and in doing so, bring their challenges from home, school social workers have to be skilled in numerous areas: “All problems in society come to school every day.” I enjoyed greatly the chance to learn something new every day in addressing student and family challenges, building relationships that ultimately served the community, and helping to create more equitable environments for students to succeed.

How has SSWAA contributed to the development in the field of social work?

SSWAA gives School Social Workers an anchor for information, connection, and leadership in the field that joins us in what can otherwise be an isolating profession. There are rarely more than one SSW in a school, which means we can often feel alone in a host setting with an institution that does not always hold the same values as we do. Feeling connected through the website, newsletter communications, and national conferences helps us know that we are part of a bigger entity committed to the whole child.

What have you valued about SSWAA membership over the years?

The opportunity for connection and validation for the work that I have done is what I have valued the most. We have received great support from SSWAA for our California Association of School Social Workers (CASSW) in organization, communication, and linkage at the national level. I have also made individual connections with incredible practitioners and academics because of my involvement with SSWAA over the years. For example, Jim Raines and I have presented Law & Ethics together in the past, but with him unable to make it to Baltimore this year, I am teaming up with Assistant Professor and Internship Director Annette Clayton from Virginia Wesleyan University and Cuyahoga Heights School Social Worker Rachel Meffe from the Ohio SSW Association to present Law & Ethics on March 20, 2020. Those relationships were created through SSWAA and are leading to a collaboration that enhances our practice and should increase our presentation’s relevance for any attendee.

What do you think would make a person successful in School Social Work?

Adhering to the core principles and values of social work is the strongest foundation. From this foundation, the openness you need to work with students, families and educational stakeholders representing every aspect of our society will help you meet the school community members where they are at, to turn a phrase. This belief in the potential of every individual you encounter will help a SSW advocate for students and families in IEP meetings or in consultation with administration to receive the services that they need to be successful. Staying connected to SSWAA helps ground a School Social Worker in the values and practices of school social work and decrease the sense of isolation. Finally, utilizing a consultation model to always be in communication with key individuals will help a School Social Worker in their decision-making.

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges you faced in School

Social Work?

The biggest intervention challenge for me was working with the family, teachers and first responders when two elementary school students drowned during rainstorms that raised rivers to dangerous levels. The grief of the families, the sadness expressed by the students’ teachers, and the pain felt by the first responders all stick with me to this day. It was emotionally challenging and took me to the depths of my resilience. It taught me a lot about creating a healthy work/life balance and knowing where to draw the personal/professional line.

In terms of challenges in the political environment of schools and the host setting, establishing strong working relationships with other Specialized Instructional Support Personnel (SISP) was crucial to an integrated approach to student and family supports. When it was not present, there were challenges. Also, advocating for students in ways that might have been different than what administration wanted was also challenging.

How did you deal with these challenges?

I sought consultation with colleagues and fellow School Social Workers with Long Beach USD. I kept in good contact with my Field Instructor from my Los Angeles USD school-based internship, and she was also a source of support. I also worked on establishing strong relationships with all key stakeholders at the schools that I worked at so we could share collectively how to collaborate on behalf of students and their families. Keeping linkages with CASSW and SSWAA also helped establish strong practice recommendations for how to move through these challenges.

What advice would you give individuals coming into the social work field?

Seek to build relationships with all stakeholders in the school setting, be a resource and source of support to students and families and adhere to social work values and ethics in all of your interactions.

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