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Feb. 13, 2003

Top Teacher

For Peter De Jong life is about relationships. And he's spent the better part of his life trying to understand what makes for a good relationship. That quest has influenced all he does, including his work as a professor of sociology and social work at Calvin College. Now he's being recognized by the college for his efforts.

DeJong is the 2003 recipient of Calvin's Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching, Calvin's highest faculty honor. The award, which was presented at a special dinner at Calvin this evening, includes a one-of-a-kind medallion and provides the winner with a significant financial stipend thanks to the George B. and Margaret K. Tinholt Endowment fund, set up at Calvin by an anonymous donor in honor of George Tinholt, a former member of the Calvin Board of Trustees.

DeJong is humbled by the award. But those who know him best say he is a deserving recipient.

In a letter of support for De Jong, one student wrote: "Professor DeJong makes learning enjoyable for students. He encourages student participation and actively listens to ideas students present."

Listening, De Jong has learned, is a critical component in relationships. In fact, that seemingly simple idea has informed both his teaching at Calvin and his own nationally recognized research.

In 1998 De Jong wrote "Interviewing for Solutions" with Insoo Kim Berg, director of the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee, Wis. That book, which has at its core the idea of listening, has had a world-wide impact on the social work profession. It has been translated into Dutch, Finnish, German, Japanese, Korean and Swedish and a second edition was released in 2002. It is used as a social work textbook by colleges and universities across the country where students resonate with its easy-to-read, informal style and practical suggestions.

The book advocates important changes in the way social workers interview clients.

"Interviewing in social work," says De Jong, "has been based on principles and techniques largely developed in psychology. These principles assume clients are there voluntarily and thus the focus is on the details of problems and pathologies. Social workers most often deal with clients who are there against their will and resist the practitioner's view of their problems. And so many of the basic assumptions of the social worker need to be revisited."

So in "Interviewing for Solutions" De Jong revisted the relationships between a social worker and the client. He turned the old social work model, in which the social worker tells the clients what they should do, upside down. He advocates a solution-focused approach that views clients as competent, helps them to visualize the changes they want and builds on what they are already doing that works. Interviewing clients effectively is an art, says De Jong, especially when building solutions with clients that reflect what clients, not practitioners, want.

DeJong says his change in philosophy came in 1989 when he was working at Pine Rest as a therapist, in addition to his teaching duties at Calvin (throughout his career at Calvin, De Jong has worked in the field as well as the classroom to ensure that his work is not just theoretical but also practical). At Pine Rest he had a client who was struggling with depression. After reading an article on empowering clients, De Jong decided to try a new approach with this woman. And so he began to look at not her failures, those times when she was depressed, but rather her successes, the times when she was doing well. Together he and his client analyzed those moments and spent the majority of their time trying to figure out how to duplicate those positives. The change in his client, says De Jong, was significant.

Intrigued De Jong began to research this notion further. And in typical fashion he began to translate what he was doing to the Calvin classroom, asking his students what was useful in the classroom, what contributed to students' learning and what made sense to them.

"You have to listen (to students)," he says, "and sometimes you have to push them a little. You have to be willing to explore. But when you do listen and push and explore, you find that students have good ideas. It's a very empowering process for them and for me as a professor. It's a true collaboration."

Sarah Rhein, a 1993 social work major who now does contract work for Bethany Christian Services and Criminal Justice Chaplaincy, experienced that collaborative process when she was a Calvin student. She had De Jong as both a teacher and as her social work advisor. She says De Jong's approach works.

"I always had a sense he wanted to learn more," she says, "and that it didn't matter who he was learning from. It could be a colleague or a social worker or even a student. He had a genuine interest and curiosity. That didn't mean he was given to every whim and fad that comes along. He has a stability that is very apparent. But he takes his students and their opinions seriously. He listens to them."

Among the advances made as a result of listening to students are Calvin's role-playing interview labs. Here current social work majors who are juniors work closely with senior majors and recent graduates, who serve as lab assistants. The interviews are based on practical problems brought to the classroom by the recent grads. And so the students are able to cut their teeth in a realistic setting on real problems. All interviews are videotaped and recorded so that the interviewer can watch his or her sessions again for additional insights.

For De Jong such attentiveness to his students also springs in part from his having been a student recently.

In 1986, 19 years after having earned his bachelors degree from Calvin, De Jong earned a master's in social work from Michigan State, adding the degree to a vita that already included a master's and doctoral degree in sociology. His reasons for returning to school? He felt he had the foundation, the theoretical base, as a Ph.D. in sociology. But he wanted more, the practical applications. And moreover Calvin, which had just a minor in social work, needed to be able to offer a major. So De Jong decided to lead the efforts to introduce a social work major at Calvin, beginning with his own return to school to earn a master's. And over a decade's worth of graduates, about 500 in all (and counting), are glad he did.

Those alumni are working all over the world for agencies whose goal it is to help others. They are in child welfare and child protective services, gerontology, community mental health, crisis intervention, community planning and family services.
They are building families for Bethany Christian Services, assisting children through Michigan's Child Protective Services and helping kids at local schools. And they are pleased to have learned their craft from De Jong.

Jill Mikula, a 2001 social work graduate, now is a supervisor for Catholic Social Services, working with the Families First program which does crisis intervention with families in danger of losing their children. She says the Calvin social work program provided superb preparation for the important work she now does.

"Calvin has a terrific reputation locally," she says, "and Professor De Jong is a big part of that. People here think very highly of him and Calvin. In fact when we have job openings the Calvin resumes are starred. They get flagged when they come in simply because they're from Calvin."

Mikula says De Jong's interviewing class was a highlight of her time at Calvin.

"I wouldn't have the interviewing skills I do without that class," she says. "I wouldn't have been able to move directly from graduation to being in the field without it. That class was a highlight. Professor De Jong helped me learn so much."

Some students have had the unique experience of helping De Jong learn his craft after their graduation.

Rhein had a chance to supervise De Jong when he became an intern for a year to learn the details of foster care case management. She says the experience was enjoyable. De Jong, she notes, came to Bethany Christian as an intern fully expecting to learn all he could about foster care case management. "He didn't come in expecting different treatment than the other interns," she says. "He came in humility, eager to learn all he could. It was a typical approach on his part."

De Jong says simply that the experience was necessary for his teaching at Calvin. "Our students," he says, "will become foster case workers." But, he adds, it also was critical to for work he's doing with the state of Michigan to rewrite social work handbooks and training manuals. That work also has seen him spending time with social workers in Saginaw County in Michigan, hearing first-hand from the field about the challenges inherent in repairing relationships.

His work with the Family Independence Agency (FIA) of the State of Michigan is aimed at introducing strengths-based, solution-focused ways of doing social work to the state's workers.

"I have written training manuals for FIA's Office of Staff Training and Development and its Child Welfare Training Institute," says De Jong, a certified state of Michigan social worker. "Over the past two years, with colleagues, I have continued to work with FIA to develop new practice tools in Children's Protective Services, to research practice outcomes and to revise practice manuals and case documentation requirements along strengths-based, solution-focused lines."

This, for De Jong, is the real-world payoff.

"It's important work," he says. "It's critical work. I'm happy that I have a small part to play in it. And I'm very pleased that Calvin graduates are doing it and doing it well."

Thanks to De Jong they are.

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-957-6475 (v)
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