Inspiring New Learning in Social Work: An Interview with CUCS Trainer Allison Costine
March 10, 2020

March is National Social Work Month—an opportunity to celebrate the field at the core of our mission, as well as the social workers that make us who we are.

CUCS is committed to being on the forefront of social work and to share knowledge across the community. Key to that effort is the CUCS Training Institute. The Institute offers trainings on a variety of topics, from the Case Management Certification series to clinical and service delivery trainings, such as Working with the Chronically Homeless. The full catalog of our trainings can be found here.

We sat down with one of our trainers, Allison Costine, to get an inside look at the Institute’s work. Allison has a deep background in working with trauma, and can often be found teaching Trauma and Its Aftermath, Overview of Psychiatric Disorders and Medications, Stages of Change, and other clinically-based trainings.

Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you become a trainer at CUCS?

I was a theater major in my undergrad, and I did a lot of off-Broadway before I came to the social work field. Then I went back to school and got masters degrees in psychology and in social work. So I came from a pretty big clinical practice. I worked mainly with substance use and mental health. The last job I had before coming here was working with homeless veterans who had a history of trauma, PTSD, and substance use, and helping them get ready to move into housing. I loved that job, but the grant never got renewed.

Then I saw an ad for a position as a trainer at CUCS. I had come to the trainings for years, so I was already familiar with the Institute. I had never thought I would go that route, but it seemed to tie everything together. Everything kind of came full circle—all the stuff I’ve been doing my whole life. It finally felt like I found the job that encompassed all the things I like to do.

What is your philosophy when it comes to leading a training?

I love that all the trainers have a different vibe and a different way they come at it, so it’s not very cookie-cutter. I think our personalities definitely come into play. As for me, I have a lot of upbeat, positive energy. I try to bring humor. Of course, there is a fine line especially on certain topics, but I feel that even in trauma—of course there’s nothing funny about it, but sometimes you’ve got to give people a little space to take a breath. Not making light, but just finding some areas where people can smile, because you don’t want six hours of darkness. It’s about finding a space where someone can exhale. That’s something I am very conscious about as a trainer.

I also really value discussion among the participants. I think it is really valuable for trainees to share their stories from the field. It enriches the experience so much. I also try not to go in there like, “I’m the expert and you’re not.” I am there to also learn from the trainees.

I go in thinking that every training is different. For example, sometimes people are nervous to talk. So, you go in there with a plan, but knowing that this could go anywhere.

What do you think someone should know, before going into their first training with CUCS?

The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or even to come in with questions. Be prepared for there to be audience participation and roleplaying, which ultimately makes things more engaging.

From your experience, how can training make a difference in the field?

Especially with trainings like our Motivational Interviewing course, training gives people a chance to ask questions, to share stories, and to learn what other people are doing. It can even be as simple as networking—learning about other agencies that you didn’t know about, and might even be able to refer clients to. It is a way to keep in touch with people in the field and also to learn about what’s new in the field. Even with people who have been in the field for 20 years, sometimes a refresher can remind you of core values and re-inspire you to get connected to why you were in the field in the first place. Training can help people find their way and stay engaged.

Do you have a favorite piece of advice you like to give in your trainings?

We really encourage people to work with their clients from a very recovery-oriented point-of-view. Our field can sometimes have the attitude of “symptom reduction equals success.” But it’s more than that. It’s looking at your clients like everyone has dreams and everyone has goals. So sometimes that means letting your clients take healthy risks and have more autonomy when it’s safe. It’s a collaboration.

Also, a lot of programs push self-care like, “You need to take care of yourself, and I also need those 15 treatment plans on my desk by Friday.” So people get really frustrated. But you really do need to take care of yourself, and your programs might not always be as good at supporting that. So, it’s kind of on you to ask, “How do I take care of myself in this field and not burn out?” Because not only does that make life miserable for you, it also will affect the people you’re working alongside and the people you’re serving. We need you here, and you are so valuable.

That is why we have our Reducing Job Related Stress Training, but in every training, I encourage people to think about how you can take care of yourself and how you can support each other in this field. I think it’s really important for people to understand, because everyone comes into the helping profession because they want to help other people, but we so rarely turn that lens on ourselves. We need to take the same advice we give our clients. It’s really tough out there. I remind people to set boundaries with yourself, even when you get home. Are you living the kind of lifestyle that supports you to do this work?

What do you find most rewarding about being a trainer?

When you see people really engaged and then the training takes on like a life of its own, with people directly talking with each other. When the majority of people really buy in, it becomes their training. I’m still there to facilitate and I’m still there to make sure we stay on track, but I want them to feel like it’s their training.