Jonathan Stern grew up in Englewood New Jersey, a diverse suburb of New York City. Education is the family business. His mother had a 60-year career as a public high school teacher and administrator and college instructor, his father was an engineer who taught college night classes, his wife, Sue, runs a clinical lab at the University of Michigan Hospital and has a master’s degree in vocational education, his son, Sam, is a teacher at Pathways to Success, and his daughter, Anne, manages a private swim school.
Stern has worked for AAPS for 22 years; and has been at Pioneer High School the last 12.
Why did you become a social worker? It wasn’t what I thought I would be doing when I was young. But, as I moved through my undergraduate career at U-M and became more outwardly oriented, it made sense that I would be drawn or called to a profession whose sole direction is helping others and changing society. I worked in child welfare in Detroit at the start of my career, did some program evaluation research there as well, and then sort of fell into school social work when my kids were in elementary school. It was clear very quickly that this is my niche. I have had a consistent interest in the lives of children, and schools are where kids collect. Besides, I love schools and what is done there, so this all works for me.
What makes you well suited for the job? There have been times when I am working with a student who is in distress, who cannot find the purposes most of us access easily, who are experiencing despair. They will exasperatedly ask me, “Stern, why do you even care?” My typical response is, “I don’t know, but I do.” And that is honest, so I guess that is an inner sensibility that has been with me since I was young. I think life is important and is generally good, that affection is powerful, and that the meaning of life is found in reaching out to and helping others. (Mr. Rogers said, “Life is for service,” so I go with that. Mr. Rogers was a great man). These things will set anyone up to be a good social worker and are what is to be found in most of us in the field.
I’ve already said that I love schools and find them to be the most important social institution. But, more than that, I think that I am particularly well integrated into school settings because of how I feel about the young. I never subscribed to the old saw that children are our future (apologies to George Benson), because they are an integral part of the present. Children and adolescents make strong contributions to culture and the energy of the right now. This is to be respected. I am privileged to be able to be in school each day. The fact is: I never wake up in the morning not wanting to be at school. That’s a great way to live a life.
What is a typical workday like for you? There are typical tasks, but not typical days. I am involved in interventions and sessions with students on my caseload, and interventions with those students who may not yet be. And of course, I am involved in evaluations and meetings for students in the MET/IEP process. I do crisis intervention, consult with teachers and administrators and parents and I am involved with some student groups and so on. Nothing too unusual there, my colleagues in AAPS tend to make themselves a part of many aspects of their students’ lives; we are all busy. In the end, much of my work is about advocacy, problem solving, and care of students.
Do you have time for hobbies? Being a social worker is what I do and who I am, so I don’t have hobbies. I do like to read, but find it hard to do so during the school year when there is so much to do and think about. I do my reading for pleasure and enrichment in the summer. My goal this year—and for the past 10—is to read more because I learned from English department colleagues that this is the way to be smarter.
I am involved as alum of the University of Michigan School of Social Work, where I try to keep the alumni community connected and help current MSW students find purpose in the work and support their focus.
How has the profession changed since you started? How have students changed? I have been a social worker for a relatively short period of time—31 years—in terms of the field. In that time I have seen a strong and successful effort to “professionalize” our field. We are not just there to talk people through things or find resources while others make the big decisions. (Though we still do those sorts of things.) Now there is a strong emphasis on empirically based decision-making and interventions, and this means there is more social work-related research with a quantifiable direction. This is mostly good. In terms of school social work, we are under the demand for data and the justifications of what we do, as all educators are. I think these are good changes until they start to eclipse recognition of the very real interpersonal efforts we make and the value we hold for the climate of schools and how we work towards the understanding teachers and administrators need to have of what students carry into school and what the effective impact of the academic experience can be.
I don’t think students have changed that much. I can walk the halls of any school in this town and see scenes played out that are exactly what I saw when I was in high school (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth). But, the world has changed significantly. Technological changes mean that the flow of information can come at kids unabated and unfiltered. This constant stream can have deleterious effects and create fearsome dynamics and circumstances. In my school career, there certainly seems to be a significant increase in the number of students who have to face mental illness, anxiety, depression and so on. But I feel that schools in this town are becoming well equipped to help, and that is good.
I am not one of those old heads who think everything is getting worse, that students are harder, less respectful, or whatever. I think that a lot of what goes on now is far better than the “good old days.” (You should meet some of the people I went to high school with.)
If you weren’t a high school social worker, what would you be doing? I’ve felt called to this field and it fits me well, so I would likely be a social worker doing child welfare work of some kind, which is what I did before I started working in schools. That being said, I have always thought it would be cool to be a theoretical mathematician. I would sit around solving complex equations in a notebook and saying things like, “This is an elegant solution.” My meager mathematical skills might be a barrier, though. I know this is a fixed mindset; deal with it.
What do you now know about teenagers that you didn’t know right out of college? My son has asked me to list the 16 things I have learned in the course of my career, and I have not been able to adequately articulate one. But I’m going to answer this question just the same.
I facilitate a group at Pioneer called Positive Peer Influence, and one of the founders of that group told me that the ideological premise for the group is that adolescents care about each other, want to help, and can be kind to each other. They care about the world and want to make a difference. This is not a typical view of adolescents, but this has been borne out in my experience throughout my career. I’ve also learned that teens are often structurally inhibited from demonstrating these qualities. I try to work against this in individual interactions I have, and probably need to expand that effort.
What was the most rewarding experience of the past school year? I work in a very affirming environment that gives me the opportunity to do things for others every day, so I have rewarding experiences daily. To pick one experience would be impossible for me. I think that my office is considered a safe place, a place where students who in distress can be heard. A student told me recently how she appreciated that I wasn’t judgmental or condescending. I find all of that rewarding.
I also find rewarding the times when I work with others in the building to help students get to graduation and through the college application process. This involves helping parents fill out the FAFSA and other forms; that proves to be helpful and is the kind of instrumental intervention that can have profound effects.
How do you feel about the AAPS focusing on the word “care” this year? I am all in on that, but it seems to me that has been a hallmark for the teaching and support staff of this district for a long time. Still, we need to be reminded of its importance from time to time. I spoke to the Pioneer staff about an experience I had this summer with a beginning drawing class I took. I did not perform well and was a bit thrown by my reaction to that and was struck by how similar this must be to students who struggle in school. We are very product oriented and there are many students who learn a great deal, but cannot create a product that is considered satisfactory. This is, of course, very limiting, but is also a threat to the emotional health of students at school. This happened to me in an unimportant environment, which school is not. So the affective impact of what we consider to be school failure, due to the academic environment, needs to be something about which we care. Caring is crucial, but action will carry the day.
_ Jo Mathis, AAPS District News Editor