In our “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers, and psychologists who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.
Indianapolis Public Schools social worker Sarah Gould never knows who’s going to walk through her door each day.
At William Penn School 49 on the westside, any one of the 600 elementary and middle school students might come to Gould seeking counseling or references to mental health services. Sometimes a student needs to be taken to get glasses. Sometimes students are simply looking for a new, clean shirt that fits the dress code.
“I really enjoy the day-to-day, making a difference, and doing the little things that mean a lot,” said Gould, who has worked at the school for 18 years.
She doesn’t always know if what she does will stick with students. But one year, a student who Gould had worked with every day as a first-grader came back — on her graduation day, with an invitation to the ceremony.
Gould, who was recently named Indiana’s 2018 School Social Worker of the Year, talked to Chalkbeat about what that moment meant to her, how she makes school a safe place for students, and how she explains to parents that she wants to work with them, not against them.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Why did you become a social worker?
I originally was going to go into teaching when I was at Indiana University, because I always knew I wanted to work with children in some capacity. As I went on, I changed my major to psychology because I wanted to do more helping. After I graduated, I knew that in order to work in a school setting, I had to have my master’s degree. I debated, “Do I get a master’s in counseling, or a master’s in social work?” Social work was highly recommended because there are so many options — you could work in any type of setting with that degree.
I’ve worked for IPS for so long. They’ve supported me in that I’ve been able to stay at the same school and do my job effectively. I drive 30 minutes every day to get here, but I haven’t wanted to work anywhere else.
I have kiddos who were here maybe in sixth grade who now have kindergarten students. They’re like, “Oh my gosh, you’re still here!” Yes, I’m still here. With not living in this community, I still feel like I’m part of it. If you can stay at the same school, which not many people can, it’s the best opportunity to be there for the kiddos long-term.
Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Last year, we did a kindness challenge for our school. It started with the middle school, but we got everyone involved. That challenge made a huge impact on the school.
Each classroom had to do some kind of kindness project — for example, doing thank-you letters for the cafeteria staff. We did a drive where we took things over to Dayspring Center (a family shelter). We had students write little kind notes to the teachers. That was really inspirational because the teachers know that they’re making a difference, but sometimes they don’t hear it until much later.
We always tell students “be kind,” “be nice to each other.” Those are things that they hear often, but I feel like actually doing projects or helping out in some way really challenges kiddos so they see it differently.
Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
I call them “lunch bunch” groups. I pull students who the teacher has referred, or I’ve identified as needing extra support. I try to get as much background information from the teachers and the parents trying to understand what the students need at that point. I put them in different groups, like for anger management, social skills, or how to get along with others.
During that time, one of the main tools I use are Julia Cook’s social story books — books about bullying or personal space. One’s called “A Bad Case of Tattle Tongue,” and it’s about when do you say someone’s bothering you, or when do you handle it on your own? It’s trying to teach kiddos how to stand up for themselves, to tell the teacher, “I need help,” or tell someone, “I need you to stop doing this.” It’s teaching them to be more assertive.
What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?
Sometimes when people hear that the social worker wants to speak with them, or if I call and say, “This is Mrs. Gould, the school social worker,” sometimes I hear a sigh. Like, “Oh, what is she calling about?”
Sometimes they think the social workers, we’re here only looking at the negatives, or we’re going to take their children away. They say, “Are you going to refer me to Child Protective Services? Are you going to take my child away?” No, that’s not my goal. My goal is to work with you. So if I have a kiddo who’s missing a ton of days of school, I’ll say, “Hey, what’s going on with so-and-so? Is it transportation? Is it a problem with the alarm clock?” I don’t want to send you to court for attendance. I want to work with you.
There’s that sigh of relief, that I can be a resource — I’m not saying they’re not doing a good job as a parent. I feel like that’s a huge misconception at times, and breaking that barrier is really tough.
Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
I had a little kiddo, she was in first grade, and she was scared to death of coming to school. She wouldn’t leave mom. I had car rider duty, and I used to have to pry her fingers off the door to get her in the building on a regular basis. When I’d get her in the building, I’d bring her to my office, and we’d spend time together and talk.
I told her that she’s safe here. She’s going to do great things. And she needed to be at school, because one day she’s going to graduate from high school. Once you do, I want you to come back and tell me about it. I can congratulate you and everything.
You don’t always know: Did they hear you? Do they remember?
But she came back the year she graduated from George Washington. The whole class walked through here to show our students their caps and gowns.
She came up to me and said, “Mrs. Gould, I have an invitation for you. It’s my graduation today.”
Oh my gosh, that was one of my proudest moments. Because I know we make a difference, and I know we do help change lives, but you don’t always know the impact you have. We don’t always get those same visits when they come back to see teachers. But then sometimes they come back and say, “Hey, I really heard you. I really listened to you when we were in your office, and I did it.”
It was the day of her graduation. I have two kiddos of my own, and my daughter had a softball game out of town. I called my husband and said, “This came up. I can’t say no. I can’t miss this.”
What is the hardest part of your job?
Some days it really hits you, like, “Oh my gosh, this is really hard.” Or you hear stories and you think, “How do they get through this?” Because most adults could not get through what the kiddos I speak with get through on a daily basis.
My hardest part is knowing that they’re not happy or nothing’s going to change. I tell them, “I know it’s not easy at home, but life isn’t always going to be this hard. You’re going to get older. You’re going to school. You’re going to graduate, and you’re going to think, how could my life be a little different? What are you going to do to make your life different for you?”
Sometimes we see when there are breaks in the spring and fall, a lot of the kids will act up, because they want to be here. It’s a safe place for them, and they feel those connections, not just with me but with the teachers and administrators who love on them. We just take care of them the best we can, and we try to support them as much as we can at school.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
My perspective changes a lot of times when I go on home visits. I go on home visits when we can’t get a hold of a parent — maybe their phone is disconnected, or teachers have been trying to reach out and haven’t had success.
I see their environment, where they live, what goes on. When a teacher comes to me and says, well, so-and-so isn’t turning in the homework, I can say, well, they don’t necessarily have somewhere to do homework at home. We have some teachers who go on home visits too, and I think they come back and say, “OK, I maybe understand why this kiddo is struggling.”
We have students who are homeless, living with a relative, in a shelter, moving quite often. We have lots of kiddos who are in foster care. If they don’t have a place for them, they’re at the guardian’s home with other kiddos who don’t have a home set up just yet. Or they’re separated from their siblings if there’s not room for all their siblings. It can be pretty traumatic.
What outlets or activities help you cope after a stressful day?
Any time we have a break, I try to just decompress. The day-to-day is very, very stressful, so I try to do things to get my mind off it, like run or walk. I have two kids and a dog, so I spend a lot of time with their activities and just breaking free from the stress. You need those mental breaks, because it can be so hard.
I also rely on other social workers. With IPS, we have some of the best social workers around. I will call them and say, “OK, I have a situation. What do you think? Can you help me? Can you support me? What do you think I can do?”
It’s a huge way to get through it, having the support of colleagues. We also have a monthly meeting of social workers, which not all districts have. We get together once a month for professional development, and we can get really chatty. We all know what we’re going through.