24 people a minute: Teaching about intimate partner violence

I read a memoir recently called Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival by Kelly Sundberg. I hope to use it in the spring 2024 semester when teaching an interdisciplinary learning course on Trauma Studies, but if I hadn’t already missed the deadline for book orders for fall 2023, I would probably add it to my HBSE list in addition to the traditional textbook.

As the title indicates, this memoir is about the author’s experience of intimate partner violence (IPV) in her marriage. For anyone who has ever said “I just don’t understand why someone just won’t leave a violent relationship!”, this book can help you understand. For anyone who has ever minimized, or heard someone else minimize, the impact of non-physical IPV, this book will help you see how damaging it can be. For anyone who needs specific examples of the way the cycle of violence can be manifest in a relationship, you can see it here.

From a social work/educator point of view, this memoir is really valuable for all the reasons above and more. The only thing that gave me a bit of pause was at the end of the book, when the author offered some possible reasons why her husband had been violent. There were a couple that (from my reading) sounded like she was implicating her behaviors as a reason violence had occurred and that is contrary to what I believe and how I have been taught from early on in my professional career. Someone else could have a different read on that, and it could still lead to good class discussions.

I always talk about IPV during the young adult lifespan stage in my HBSE course. Most years I have taught HBSE at least twice an academic year and so have taught it at least 40 times. Never have I taught the class where someone did not speak up in class or approach me afterword about their own personal or family experience with IPV. When you think about the frequency with which this happens, this isn’t a surprise.

Obviously, you need to be sensitive when introducing this topic. The week beforehand, I always remind students that we will be discussing IPV and that they should remember to care for themselves if reading the material or preparing for class is triggering in some way.

Most people are familiar with the Cycle of Violence and the original Power and Control Wheel. There are also extensions and other editions (for lack of a better word) of the power and control wheel available here.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a great resource to point students to, not only for them to be able to share with others but also to get an understanding of how safety plans can be constructed. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has a wealth of information, including fact sheets and state level resources that are useful for classroom activities and helping people understand more about this issue. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has a number of resources that are easily accessible for students, including discussions of risk factors, teen dating violence, stalking, and more.

I always think this topic is important to discuss not only from the perspective of being a future social worker or other helping professional, but also just from the perspective of being human. One of the main things I was thinking as I read the memoir was “I wish you had had a village of supportive people around you”.

We are a part of each other’s villages.

Books are…the most patient of teachers: My top picks

One of the things we talk about in social work is the necessity of lifelong learning. When I think about all the knowledge I have now, versus when I graduated with my undergrad degree in social work, I would be in poor shape indeed without additional learning. Most of this has come in the form of reading. I love reading (as opposed to a workshop or something) because you can take in the material at your own pace and it is relatively inexpensive (or free, if you use the library). Charles Eliot said “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”

Photo by Huu1ef3nh u0110u1ea1t on Pexels.com

If you missed these books in your formal education so far, read them when you can. Some may be more of a “fit” for your work than others, but I think they all have important things to teach us, either with respect to families, child development, poverty, racism, policy history, and/or other systemic issues. In no particular order, these are the books that have shaped me in recent years (some more recent than others) and been the most patient of teachers for me:

  • The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog (Note: this book is older, but is the best at illustrating real life human stories of abuse and neglect and impacts on development. Also provides a really good look at the beginnings of our understanding of brain science and brain/body connections)
  • The Deepest Well: Healing the Long Term Effects of Childhood Adversity.
  • My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Mending of our Bodies and Hearts
  • The 1619 Project
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
  • Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
  • Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy
  • Where We Stand: Class Matters
  • We the Resistance
  • Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family
  • Toward Collective Liberation
  • Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America’s Premier Mental Hospital
  • Feminism is for Everybody
  • Between the World and Me
  • A People’s History of Poverty in the US
  • Educated: A Memoir
  • One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All (Note: the numbers/data in this book is older but the theoretical and developmental discussions are important. Also, this author <Mark Rank> has a new book out on poverty that I am reading later this summer.)

The right question(s) to ask about communities

Earlier this week I was walking around a part of the city that I don’t spend much time in, and as I was meandering down a side street, a building caught my eye because of some of the graffiti on it. As I got closer to the building, I saw that one of the windows was broken and the glass was still on the sidewalk. Getting closer still, close enough to put my hand through the hole in the window, I saw a “to rent” sign in front of the building. A Google search tells me the building used to house a small business selling t-shirts with local flare. (It looks like the business is still in operation, just online and in “pop up” stores and at festivals rather than a brick-and-mortar store.)

Anytime I see a broken window in a neighborhood, I think of “broken windows theory”, which I learned about in a criminal justice class in the early 90s. The theory was interesting to me then, because it seemed so beautifully simple. (This was around the time I was also learning about Occam’s Razor so it makes sense that the simplicity of the theory was appealing to me.)

If you are unfamiliar with the theory, it is basically the idea that when signs of deterioration or decay in neighborhoods (like broken windows) are left unaddressed, it can be interpreted as a sign that no one cares about the neighborhood. This signal of disinvestment would, according to the theory, lead to even more crime and disorder.

The theory emerged in the early to mid 1980s (based on research from the 1960s) and in the 1990s it became the guiding framework for zero-tolerance policing, including the problematic “stop and frisk” policies of the NYPD. While the theory was being implemented in ways not envisioned by academics, politicians touted its success. However, it wasn’t too many years before there were indications that broken-windows policing wasn’t actually the reason that crime was declining. There is also evidence indicating the discriminatory impact and racial bias inherent in this type of policing. Another criticism of broken windows theory applied in this manner is that it is reactive, and isn’t addressing root issues in a community, particularly poverty.

Albert Einstein once said, in response to a question, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” I share this quote with classes sometimes, as a way of emphasizing the importance of a good assessment process, whether on a micro level or macro level. When I give students an assignment to do a neighborhood visit as part of a community project, I give them some guiding questions to ask. I have tweaked these questions over the years from various sources, primarily the Asset Based Community Development Institute and the section on community assessment from the Community Tool Box

  • What individual strengths do you see on display in the community?
  • What collective strengths or assets do you see present in the community?
  • What groups do you see represented? How are they represented?
  • What signs of transition do you see?
  • What signs of hope do you see?
  • Who do you see “out and about” in the community?
  • Where are people spending time? (Where are the green spaces? The public spaces?)

I think these types of questions help us understand a community more than the presence of shattered glass on a sidewalk. Every community has strength, whether broken windows are present or not.

Same song, different verse: Resources for teaching about gun violence

In prior posts, I have written about the issue of gun violence before, most recently here https://teachingbeloved.com/2022/02/05/remembering-deebony/

Yesterday in Nashville, the city where I live, there was a school shooting. Three children died. Three adult school staff. And the shooter was killed by police. I wrote some about this from a personal perspective yesterday here: https://medium.com/@williamsonsabrina4/the-most-important-lesson-we-didnt-learn-from-columbine-will-we-learn-it-from-covenant-ee92d34c3bf2

We have to have policy change in this area.

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

Sometimes in classes when we are talking about comparative policy (especially how policy in one country on an issue might be different than the US policy stance), students will ask about other countries that make decisions that lead to better outcomes for their citizens than what we currently experience in the US. Broadly, students usually ask these questions in the context of educational policy, healthcare access and policy, and gun violence.

Here are three good and fairly recent resources for sharing and discussing the issue of gun violence policy. They are from varied resources, but all reputable, and easily consumed/understood by students:



After discussing the content, you can always ask students to contact their elected officials to share their opinions and concerns. Here’s how they can quickly find their federal elected representatives: https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative

It is also useful to look at state legislative assemblies as well, and have students do some comparing and contrasting in class.

Finally: it may take some digging on the students’ part but having them examine how their elected officials voted on gun related legislation is interesting. Here’s a bit of a recent historical look: https://www.npr.org/2018/02/19/566731477/chart-how-have-your-members-of-congress-voted-on-gun-bills

Secondary traumatic stress and burnout, part 2

In the most recent post, I shared some resources I use when teaching students about secondary traumatic stress (STS). STS results when social workers, teachers, nurses, doctors, police officers and others in helping professions begin to experience symptoms of trauma because of the stories they hear from their clients/patients/students. Helping professionals may also experience STS because of trauma they might directly witness in the workplace, as well as from seeing their clients/patients/students in the aftermath of trauma.

Any professional who works with people exposed to trauma is at risk of experiencing STS, but there are factors that increase the risk, including being female, being a young professional, and having had a prior exposure to trauma. It is these factors that increase risk that impress upon me the need to make sure students understand it; I know it is a real likelihood they could experience it, depending on the specific field of practice they go into. In addition to the resources I shared in the previous post, this is a really useful booklet that looks to have been created for educators’ professional development: https://safesupportivelearning.ed.gov/sites/default/files/Building_TSS_Handout_3secondary_trauma.pdf The information on risk factors that I shared above is included in here, as well as more information on signs/symptoms of STS and some strategies for self-care. The thing I especially appreciate here is that the strategies aren’t all left up to the individual; there is an understanding that there has to be some organizational level work to facilitate and support self-care and there have to be some changes in the organizational environment.

Photo by Cullan Smith on Unsplash

Burnout is different; any professional can experience burnout. I have seen friends who were accountants, engineers, teachers, ministers, and–yes–social workers who “burned out” of their work. Burnout is classified by ICD (International Classification of Diseases) as an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition. As shared on the World Health Organization website, and pulling from the ICD, burnout is characterized by exhaustion, feeling cynical about your work, having mental distance/disengagement from your work, and having reduced efficacy in your work. Here’s the link to the WHO website on the topic: https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases

I know burnout in any field isn’t going to feel good; no one wants to wake up and feel cynical about their work or ineffective while doing it. But I think burnout is more critical in the helping or people-facing professions because of the impact it has on others. Social workers who are burned out are going to stop writing their case notes, cut corners on home visits, leave their jobs sooner (which hurts clients) and more. I have seen all of these happen in places I have worked. Impacts of burnout on clients/service recipients could be even more detrimental in other settings where health and mental health are concerned.

A good supervisor is invaluable when it comes to preventing burnout. Having someone who knows how to help their colleague set boundaries, who encourages self-care, and who is supportive and available for consultation goes a long way. Reflective supervision is important as well; having space in supervision to process your responses to the work you are doing is surely a prevention for burnout.

If you don’t have a supervisor or overall work environment that encourages self-care and boundary setting, the social worker (or other professional) has to prioritize it for themselves. This was always hard for me (still is hard, to be honest) and I am grateful for colleagues then and now who helped me with this even when supervisors didn’t. As we tell our students, self-care isn’t just bubble baths and time for journaling; self-care is making time to get your teeth cleaned, to pay your bills, to call a friend, to get good rest each day. This concept of “boring self-care” is discussed in several places, but this one is specific to social workers: https://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/self-care/think-self-care-always-feels-good/

Finally, a resource that is new to me is this FRIED podcast: https://www.friedtheburnoutpodcast.com/. I have only listened to a couple of episodes but I look forward to checking out more of them. I am especially interested in the ones devoted to burnout recovery, especially as a form of resistance to so many workplace cultures that are unhealthy.

Secondary traumatic stress and burnout, part 1

Earlier this evening I saw a social media post from a student I had several years ago. She was writing about transitioning into a new line of work because of experiencing burnout in her social work career. I have kept up with this student over the years and I know her to be committed to service, and to be someone who works with integrity. I am sorry she is leaving social work practice in the traditional sense, but I know she will always be a social worker in the sense of looking at the world in systems, in terms of problem solving, etc. I am sorry she is leaving the profession, but I understand it.

Burnout is real, and it is brutal.

Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

I have a BSW and, sadly, no professor in my undergraduate program taught me about the dangers of burnout. I don’t remember the discussion of it in my MSW program either. Maybe those topics weren’t talked about then, maybe they were discussed but not by my professors. Maybe it was discussed in practice class the day I was late because of talking to a boy in the hallway and the professor locked the door on me.

Another topic I didn’t hear about was secondary traumatic stress (STS), but that’s because we (as a profession) weren’t aware of this concept in any significant way at that time.

Secondary traumatic stress is real, and it is brutal.

One of the things I try to help my students understand is the difference between burnout and secondary traumatic stress. There is negative impact of both, certainly, but solutions differ somewhat. I typically explore this in the context of child welfare class, and somewhat in the macro practice class when we are talking about how organizational culture shapes our practice but it would also fit in a micro or mezzo practice class.

This podcast episode is useful for understanding STS, and told from the perspective of child welfare professionals with long histories in child welfare work: https://www.childwelfare.gov/more-tools-resources/podcast/episode-4/

I had my students listen to this outside of class and then we discussed it in class. They were interested in the degree to which an agency or organization had to be very intentional about addressing STS and working to prevent it. Some of the organizational strategies were pretty simple, like a “no gossiping” policy (so that people didn’t have to worry that being vulnerable and sharing their challenges would get them talked about by colleagues), while other strategies involved more layers of mentoring and the use of groups with an intentional structure of building resilience and emotional safety for the workers.

Here are some other resources I use, either to share with students or for my own background understanding: https://www.nctsn.org/trauma-informed-care/secondary-traumatic-stress/nctsn-resources and https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/52281/secondary-traumatic-stress-for-educators-understanding-and-mitigating-the-effects This second resource is directed toward K-12 educators as an audience, but there is good overlap for social work students and social workers as well. I sometimes use this in my policy class when we are talking about education policy and trauma-informed schools.

Check back soon (or soon-ish) for resources for teaching about burnout.

Arrange whatever pieces come your way: Teaching about caregiving

One of the classes I have taught most often is Human Behavior in the Social Environment, aka HBSE. I love teaching this class so much; I have standard concepts that we address each semester, but I am also able to be flexible in how I present some of the content and the sources that I use.

Depending on how the semester is unfolding, I either teach about caregiving in the section on Middle Adulthood or Older Adulthood. We highlight and discuss some of the information from the CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/aging/caregiving/caregiver-brief.html, and we look at some general information on resources for caregivers here https://www.caregiver.org/caregiver-resources/all-resources/. I also ask students to reflect on, and share if they feel comfortable, their own experiences with or observations of caregiving and how it has played it out in their families. And, because I teach in Social Work and we always want to have students be thinking about how they can apply material, we look at a case study and I ask them to think about how they would provide support to different types of caregivers portrayed in this link https://www.caregiving.org/caregiving-in-the-us-2020/

Photo by Christina Victoria Craft on Unsplash

Finally, I almost always show this Ted Talk, because she talks so genuinely and humbly about what she has learned about caregiving:

Finally, I wrote briefly on my own new experience with being a caregiver earlier today on Medium. I wouldn’t (personally) share it with my students, but check it out if you are interested: https://medium.com/@williamsonsabrina4/check-on-your-friends-who-are-caregiving-c0e8e3bbbe48

Walking update, and naming + class ideas

I wrote about my plans for local intentional walking on my sabbatical here about a month ago, and since then I have made decent progress. I am about 19 miles in to my minimum goal of 62.14. One of my best walks was in the neighborhoods where Fisk University and Meharry Medical College are located, and I spent some time on the campus as well of both of those institutions. I have some definite thoughts on naming (buildings, schools, etc), which I wrote about here earlier this evening (https://medium.com/@williamsonsabrina4/whats-in-a-name-e75d511667f5) but more related to teaching, I have been reminded of the importance of active learning in authentic settings.

I teach a macro practice class for senior social work majors. This class includes content on the Civil Rights Movement and other social movements and community organizing strategies. I always tell them about the events that took place in Nashville, and we have watched clips, but why haven’t we had class in the community? I mean, I hate logistics and fear liability of people driving across town and having an accident when they would otherwise be in my classroom….but walking around and seeing the historical markers of events and knowing that I was walking where big things happened….this was priceless. It made the work, and the sacrifice that those students made, seem even more real. I think students would feel that too.

Another thing I have reflected on is the value of an assignment I use in this class. I have students go out in groups to learn about a neighborhood or community within our city. While they are there, I ask them to use the guidelines for Asset Based Community Development and to look for signs of hope, signs of change, assets at the individual level, association levels, etc. Being out in the community on foot has made me love this assignment even more. If the ABCD model is new to you, you can learn more here: https://abcdinaction.org/ Also, this is a good, in-depth piece on basic principles of what you look for in a community (history, infrastructure, leaders, etc) when you are working to understand it better: https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/assessment/assessing-community-needs-and-resources/describe-the-community/main

A chasing after the wind

When I was a young professional (honestly, with not enough life experience to do the job I was doing), I went to a church that was pretty big, and though I was very involved, the minister could never remember my name. He always greeted me warmly at the door and called me Samantha. (My name is not Samantha.)

It’s fine. Names were not his strong point.

I remember one time he gave a sermon on Ecclesiastes, and he said the key to Ecclesiastes was that you couldn’t read it in bits and pieces because it would be too overwhelming. Too much for the soul. You would need to read it in its entirety so that you wouldn’t be bowled over with despair and you could see the big picture of things.

I think that advice should also apply to faculty annual review processes. Goodness. My institution changed its system for doing this process, and I am on sabbatical but still need to complete one and between this new system and my general lack of desire to do things right now….it feels overwhelming. I just spent a couple of hours trying to familiarize myself with the interface, and tomorrow I am doing the whole thing in one sitting. What doesn’t get done tomorrow will not get done. (This is both my threat and my promise.)

As I was looking at what had been “imported” from the old system to the new system, I was reminded of why I am tired and also why I love my work. There were presentations from 2015 listed, beside things I wrote in 2019, next to service work I had done in 2018 and a panel series I did in 2016, and this and that….and though the chronology of this “imported” document was a mess, it was an 8-point font look at what I have been doing since joining my current university in 2013. And it was fun to look at an remember those sessions, the talks, the collaborations. And it was exhausting.

And then, because I couldn’t see any other way to do it, I had to go in and delete all these past entries because they don’t belong on my current year report. As I saw the list of my work grow shorter and shorter, I was reminded of the oft repeated refrain in Ecclesiastes, “this too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind”. I am doubtful that most of those activities had lasting meaning and impact, in and of themselves.

And the thing is, I love the work I do. I absolutely love the core of what I do: teaching, engaging in the community, mentoring students. But when looking at the nitty gritty of activities (committees, proposals to a conference so that I have something to “count” in a certain year, etc), I see a lot of things that feel pretty meaningless if you take a look at it in isolation from the bigger picture.

I think back to the minister who could never remember my name and I remember his words about reading Ecclesiastes in one sitting. You read it in one sitting so that you can see the light at the end, and have peace about the promise that life does have meaning and purpose.

This fits with my experience of academic life. I will never find joy in documenting student advising notes. But in advising, and hanging out with students in office hours, I build relationships with them, where I find a lot of joy in hearing about their dreams for the future and their everyday lives. I don’t anticipate I will be finding joy in sitting on a search committee and screening applicants the next time my turn comes to do so. But I do find so much joy in my colleagues themselves and in the ways we work together. Like, I miss them so much on sabbatical. I wish I could have them over for coffee every day, or perhaps a post work margarita.

Since COVID, semesters have felt more like a slog and something to get through rather than something to look forward to. One of my biggest hopes for returning after sabbatical is that I can recognize the less glamorous parts for what they are: part of the bigger picture. I won’t find joy in every single task, but I don’t want to forget the bigger picture. There is meaning in what I do, and I feel privileged to get to do it.

If you are in the miry pit of a semester right now and you don’t know how you will survive, hang on as best you can and look around for who can speak a little life and purpose to you. If you don’t have someone to do that for you, reach out to me and I will fill in the gap. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “two are better than one”.