The office as a classroom: Why everyone should work like they are students

Graduate Research Assistant

Just a year shy of 40 and 12 years after completing my Master’s degree I made a decision to reclaim my lunch box and backpack and return to school for a PhD in social work. My choice was guided by the years I’d spent working directly with children and families and my desire to learn more about what was happening “upstream” from my role as a practitioner. I applied, was accepted, and began to psych myself up for homework, late nights and coffee.

While I’d forseen the mountains of homework and late nights, what I didn’t see coming was the shift in perspective that accompanied my new role. Over the last 12 years, I had come to see myself as a “worker.” Sure, I went to trainings and conferences but often viewed these learning opportunities as separate from my daily work. Helpful, but not a priority. In my worker mindset I kept a pretty narrow view about what I brought to the table, where I fit in the agency, and my day to day role. As a student, however, this view began to shift.

At the Center for Public Partnerships and Research (CPPR), I am a student. From the start, I have not viewed myself as confined to one role. I am aware that there are a variety of projects around me and approach my role with newfound curiosity, flexibility, and an open mind. Rather than a self-imposed, boxed-in position, I see opportunity. Just as in past jobs, I have projects, tasks, and am accountable to my co-workers. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that I have given myself permission to be a “learner.” In fact, it’s become a priority. Rather than focusing on where I fit, I find myself focusing on where I can go, who I can learn from, and where I can contribute. Perhaps most importantly, as a student, I find I can give myself a little (only a little, still working on it!) more permission to take risks and make mistakes. As a “worker” I’d put pressure on myself to be an expert. In my student role, however, I can give myself permission to not know, to ask questions, and to wonder. By definition I’m here to learn, and there is a lot of freedom in that. CPPR’s rules of engagement talk about the ability to fail forward and, in my new mindset, this finally feels like good advice I could take even if it’s still scary.

I’m lucky to have landed in a place like CPPR that seeks to draw out the learner inside everyone, and within this environment I have come to recognize how much of my “worker” mentality had been self-imposed. Who had expected me to be an expert? Me. Whose mentality had confined me to a specific role? My own.

The opportunity to experience my chosen profession through new eyes and in a new role has allowed me to access qualities that should have been priorities all along and to begin to set aside fears that hold me back.

One day I will no longer be a student, I will once again be a “worker” but I will always be a learner. My hope for my future and all those who are working in our field is that we will never stop being learners. I hope that I never lose the new mindset that this opportunity has given me.

Thanks to Megan Leopold, LSCSW for contributing to Ideas in Motion.

Megan earned her Master’s degree in social work from The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. As she works toward her PhD in social work, she is a Graduate Research Assistant at the
Center for Public Partnerships and Research at the University of Kansas. When not doing homework, Megan spends time with her husband, two daughters, and dog.