My volunteering as a Homework Club Tutor is an example of service learning which is an educational tradition in occupational therapy. “Service learning has been called the out-of-classroom experience because it engages the students with the people they are studying in community settings” (Purk & Lague, 2003). It is also believed that “The opportunity to apply your ethical knowledge and skills in real-life situations will help your confidence grow and experience deepen” (Purtilo, R. & Doherty, R. 2011). This is why volunteering was a great learning experience for me; however, it was only beneficial because I reflected after each session. “Reflection occurs when individuals examine their attitudes and reactions to an interactive experience” (O’ Toole, G. 2008). I viewed reflection as revisiting experiences in order to understand them. After critically reflecting on each Homework Club session I was able to recognise my abilities/strengths, but it also highlighted my skills that are lacking. Through reflection, I could then focus on improving these skills.
I had many goals before starting my volunteering but my main one was to develop my professional behaviour. I was also intrigued to see if I enjoyed working with children as we will be focusing on Occupational Therapy for children in year two. I went into Homework Club with the mindset that I could develop the student’s idea of college or further education and develop my own communication skills with children for next year. “The goal of a helping professional is to provide opportunities for growth and development of the person seeking help” (Lloyd, C., & Maas, F. 1991) and I wanted to do exactly this. I kept a journal throughout this process and from reading my first entry, I was very nervous on my first day as a volunteer. I was quite uncertain of what to even expect and was scared that it would be awkward and that we would run out of things to say. I think this is because I am quite shy and lack confidence in leading a group discussion. My biggest worry was that I wouldn’t know an answer to one of their homework questions and that I would feel embarrassed, but this was only natural, and my fellow classmates had the same worries.
What? – what I did and So what? -what I learned across three areas of professional development:
Professional Interactions and Responsibilities:
During my Homework Club sessions, I did my best to act professionally and tried to hold a “certain standard of actions and behaviours” (Davis, L., & Rosee, M. 2015). On reflection, I am happy that I dressed in an appropriate manner to the volunteering environment and that I always remained ethical and never showed up late or drunk etc.
I was concerned about the concept of confidentiality as we were told that we should report something to one of the teachers or head tutor if necessary. I thought this would be challenging if I did get told something by a student, trying to decide whether I needed to report it or not. After my first session I decided that if I did have a concern, I should just tell the head tutor anyway, but luckily a situation like this did not arise. On reflection, I think I was worried about making the wrong decision by keeping something important to myself or breaking the students trust by telling a secret they told me. I quickly came up with the idea on the second session to inform the children that our sessions would remain confidential unless I felt the need to tell a teacher etc. This put me at ease as I no longer felt like I would be breaking their trust, but I knew they could also confide in me if they felt comfortable.
It was very important to me that the students could feel like they trusted me as this really improves the outcomes of the session and helps me to improve my client centred thinking. “if patients see right away that they can count on you, they never forget it” (Taylor, R. 2008). This was a great learning experience for me, and I feel like I have developed/improved a professional skill of confidentiality which will be vital in my job. “Beyond the necessary sharing of information with professional colleagues, occupational therapists should safeguard confidential information relating to patients or clients”. I can happily say that I complied with this standard.
In the first school, I was placed helping first year students which I enjoyed because it gave me more of an insight into working with younger children. However, in the second school I was working with third year girls and seems as that they were so close to my age, trying to keep personal and professional boundaries was very difficult. I had instincts to get into a conversation with them about life outside of school as they had such similar interests to me due to the small age gap and because I am such a friendly person. It was challenging not to do this, but I had a clear understanding of my limits, my role and the boundaries of the relationship between me the volunteer and the students. The code of professional conduct and ethics for occupational therapists sets out a standard that it is unacceptable to “form inappropriate personal relationships with service users” (CORU 2014). This would include following each other on social media etc, I made sure that I adhered to this standard in order to advance my professional development.
Even though I was concerned about keeping boundaries, I also wanted to find an effective way of forming a bond with my students. This proved difficult as I needed to act professional and adhere/sick to my limits but also gain their trust/friendship in order to create a bond which would help them develop/get the most out of the sessions/ as much as possible from the sessions. I knew this would involve full commitment on my behalf to client centred thinking but also to turning up every week and not letting my students down. On reflection I remember thinking that my students would not miss me or be disappointed if I missed a session. However, after two weeks, I could really feel a bond being formed and felt obligated to not let them down.
I was quite surprised at how fast this was formed and how much satisfaction I got from helping them. At the start I thought I would view this as something that just needed to be completed for my course, but I truly did not expect to get that much pleasure from helping others. Taking a stand back, I think it surprised me so much because it was my first volunteering work and had never experienced something like that before. My key moment out of all of this was when I gave a tour to my students from the first school around UCC and this was my last day with them. We had a great fun and I tried to inform them and show them as much as I could however, it was bittersweet as they were so sad leaving me at the end but it showed me how much of an impact I had on them. This was quite heart-warming and was so unexpected.
Regarding my professional development, it certainly showed me how important commitment is to my clients and to my job. I learned that in order to gain the best outcome for the client from therapy, the client needs to be able to rely on the practitioner and be able to trust them. Not only does this result in the client getting the best outcome but it’s also very rewarding for the practitioner to be a part of the client’s growth. Commitment forms the basis of this bond and is a crucial trait/skill for any health professional but especially for an occupational therapist. “The degree to which I can create relationships which facilitate the growth of others as separate persons is a measure of the growth I have achieved in myself” (O’ Toole, G. 2008). I feel that I have developed professionally by realising the importance of commitment, the importance of forming a bond with your client and the satisfaction it leaves for the practitioner. It makes the job even more worthwhile.
Not only did I have to work with the students, I also needed to work co-operatively with the teacher, fellow volunteers and the head Homework Club Tutor. This overall helped me develop my communication skills, my teamwork skills and my ability to act respectful. These in turn all advanced my professional development. In my second school I sat alone with my group of students, whereas in the first school I was paired with the head tutor as I had the largest group. On reflection I preferred working on my own with the students as I felt like it was easier to form a bond with them because it was just me. But in hindsight, having to work with another tutor made the experience even more beneficial. Not only did I have to respect the fact that she had higher authority, but I also had to learn how to effectively share tasks and make sure that the children got equal attention from both of us. In some situations, I found it hard to stick to my role as a helper and not someone who was in charge of the children’s behaviour such as the teacher.
For example, when one of my students was refusing to do his homework, I knew I had no authority to give out to him, but I couldn’t just sit back and let him get away with doing no work either. My way of dealing with this was by explaining the downfalls of not doing your homework. From reflecting on the event afterwards, I think in future I would try and make his homework seem more fun or try and get him to start with his favourite subject. Overall, I think I respected that the teachers and head tutor had more power, I was not there to give orders to the children but only to do my best to help them and guide them. I am happy that I developed professionally by being self-aware, by working openly with colleagues and that I respected everyone’s roles leading to the best outcomes. “The greatest benefit of self-awareness is self-acceptance and valuing of self. Self-acceptance empowers health professionals to value and respect others regardless of the situation.” (O’ Toole, G. 2008).