The What If? Question

By: Nancy Feyl Chavkin, Ph.D., credentials - SSWAA Workshop Series Author / Oxford University Press


Having you ever been so overwhelmed with constantly trying to fix things that you wondered how things could be different? A faculty member in my MSW program changed me forever with one simple question. My professor encouraged me to take a pause from helping and fixing problems and to ask myself the question of “what if?” This tiny two-word question transformed my path, and in these challenging times, I would like to share some thoughts on it with you.


My Beginning “What If?’”

  • What if . . . instead of putting band-aids on problems in our schools and communities, I looked for long-term solutions that focused on the root of the problems with the students, families, and communities where I was working? I asked myself:

  • What if . . . I took 10% of my week to work on prevention of problems?

  • What if . . . I spent some time away to learning more about what caused the problems?

  • What if . . . I joined with others to discuss ways to solve issues?

  • What if . . . instead of helping those most affected, I helped them develop their own solutions?

  • What if . . . instead of working with existing leaders, I also helped prepare others for leadership roles?

  • What if . . . I got small groups and communities working together to help their children and their schools?

  • What if . . . I reframed our view of our clients to recognize and use their strengths to solve issues?

  • And the list continued with more “what if?”

Doubting Myself

The naysayer in me was thinking, but . . . I don’t know anything about this way of looking for long-term solutions. I am a beginner. I don’t have time. I have this caseload. I must do so many other things first. I will save these ideas for later when I am more established and have more seniority. Maybe I can get an intern to help me at some time. Maybe this is not the time to look at other approaches. This was getting scary. How could I venture out of the roles I studied in school and the experiences I knew as a school social worker ? I was just getting comfortable working with individuals and small groups. The voices in my head kept saying that now was not the time to seek long-range solutions.


Starting Small

Luckily, I ignored those naysayer thoughts and listened to my “what ifs?”. I took a risk, and in every position as a school social worker, I negotiated time to devote an hour or two a week to prevention. The results of this approach were small at first, but I did get high school students to help younger students and become tutors and mentors with elementary students who were not doing well academically or socially. I also organized family volunteers who decided they could lessen the fighting at lunchtime by being at school during lunch. The family volunteers liked the results so much that they started meeting on their own and suggesting other activities that could help the school.

Later, I had the chance to devote more of my professional time to research on student, family, and community engagement. I have conducted research and followed this “what if?” work for more than forty years. The research is incontrovertible. Working with family, school, community

partnerships improves students’ wellbeing and educational outcomes.

The 3 C’s: Connect, Communicate, Collaborate

I quickly learned that three words were essential to this family, school, and community work: Connect, Communicate, and Collaborate. I like to call them the 3 C’s, but just any old method of connecting, communicating, and collaborating will not work. Two other crosscutting concepts are essential in this process: engagement and trust.


Engagement is a key word to success and goes well beyond involvement. It is important at every point in the process as you connect, communicate, and collaborate. Involving your families and communities with students and schools is a good first step , but it implies you doing the actions. I learned that engagement means working together and letting the family and community decide on issues that are important to them and their whole community and use their strengths to take on these challenges.


Building trust is difficult to explain because it is a process that takes time and sincerity. It begins with authentic communication which is not typically gained by traditional newsletter or email communication. It begins with personal communications and builds with shared experiences and transparency. It is a critical part of how you connect, communicate, and collaborate.


Lessons Learned

Asking my “what if?” was life changing and an essential step for me. I realized I did not have to change my job description. I did not have to spend an inordinate amount of time. I didn’t have to know a lot before I began. I just need to ask, “what if?” and begin by connecting with families and communities. I remain forever indebted to my professor and mentor for encouraging me to explore my “what if?” questions.

In these challenging pandemic times, maybe exploring the “what if?” question, can help us all look for new solutions with our families and communities. Maybe we need to spend some time looking at root causes instead of always trying to fix things after the fact. Maybe there are some changes in our systems that would cause us to spend less time trying to fix things.


To discover the “what if?” in your own work, take the road less traveled. Connect. Communicate. Collaborate. Start engaging with your community (wherever or whatever it is---students, families, organizations) with the 3 C’s and build trusting relationships. It will be worth it for your students, families, schools, communities, and you. Now may be the time to start thinking about your “what if?” questions. Who knows what path these “what if” questions might lead you on or how much closer you will be to making a difference in the world? Ask yourself your “what if?” questions now.


This blog feels a little like my recent snapshot of a mountain range, it just doesn’t capture the whole picture or all the mountain range’s beauty and challenge. Before I end, I should share that the special faculty member who encouraged me to ask the “what if?” question was Professor Lela B. Costin, school social work pioneer. I will be indebted forever for her leadership and mentorship. I know that Professor Costin would tell us that although COVID-19 is indeed challenging, it also gives us the opportunity and the imperative to look for new ways to partner with students, families, and communities.


If you are interested in exploring more about working with families, schools, and communities, you can read about it in Family Engagement with Schools: Strategies for School Social Workers and Educators (Oxford Workshop Series, 2017).





Nancy Feyl Chavkin, Ph.D., is the author of four books and more than a hundred publications on family/community engagement in education, child welfare, program evaluation, and community partnerships. Dr. Chavkin currently serves as Regents’ Professor and University Distinguished Professor Emerita of Social Work at Texas State University. She has been the principal investigator of grants and contracts totally more than $18 million dollars. Her evaluation experience spans two decades and includes work with grants from the US Department of Education, the Administration for Children and Families, foundations, and state agencies. Professor Chavkin has served on the steering committee for the National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools, as a panel expert for National Household Survey on Early Childhood/Parent Involvement, and as a member of the National Parental Information and Resource Center Local Evaluation Panel. She is the recipient of the Minnie Stevens Piper Teaching Award. Her most recent book, Family Engagement with Schools: Strategies for School Social Workers and Educators was published by Oxford University Press and is part of the SSWAA Workshop Series. For more information or to purchase this book, click here.

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