Oles goes beyond the classroom: Professor discusses influence of social work practice

Posted by Mariel Kennedy

Pat Oles has been a professor, social worker, assistant dean of Faculty and dean of Student Affairs on campus. He is currently teaching the First Year seminar Purple Nation, which he describes as "playful romp through 20th century political struggles," Study of Social Policy and Introduction to Social Work.

Besides teaching and social work, Oles enjoys pizza, the Grateful Dead and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. His favorite Beatle is Paul.

Skidmore News: Where are you originally from and where did you go to school?

Pat Oles: I spent most of my childhood in South Hadley, Massachusetts. It's a small college town. I studied at Syracuse University, and I'm hoping we'll return as national champs in basketball this year.

SN: How long have you been a professor at Skidmore?

OLES: I came here in 1985. I know I look remarkably young for being here for so long.

SN: Did you hold any other teaching positions before coming to Skidmore?

OLES: I was the director of a small, nonprofit agency in town, and several faculty members were on the board of directors. I started teaching here part-time and found that I really liked it; it felt good. When a position opened I applied and was hired. The Skidmore position was my first teaching job.

SN: What is it about social work that interests you and prompted you to become a social worker?

OLES: I always planned on going to law school because I love politics. The summer after my junior year, I worked with emotionally disturbed kids. I loved the job, and it turned all my plans upside-down.

I worked with children as a family therapist and then as a clinical social worker. What I love about social work is that it captures both of my interests: politics and social policy as well as working with kids and families. This is what still holds me in the profession.

SN: Can you speak a little about your experiences as a social worker?

OLES: First, I worked mainly with latency age (five- and six-year-old) kids with Attention Deficit Disorder and learning disabilities.

This was a great place to start because the kids were a great age with which to work.

This age group is very behavioral in character. Also when you're young as a clinician, the age difference is great enough to be authoritative.

Next, I worked with adolescent delinquents. This was very challenging and interesting work because I dealt with older teen males who were in trouble with the law. Also, in general it is tough working with teens from urban environments. Along with clinical issues, they have a discouraging setting which creates a social issue.

Finally, I worked with female teens that were sexually abused and on the streets. This area was the most challenging in a way, but I learned most from them — mostly because it wasn't until I was in this position that I realized what shmucks men were. It helped me to greatly understand the gender relations in us all.

SN: How has being a social worker affected you as a teacher?

OLES: In teaching, there is always the idea of what is being taught and to whom. Social work is a relationship-based profession and so is teaching.

I'm interested in who I am teaching, their goals, what they want from the class and their different learning styles.

Social work values clients' self-determination and rights. One struggle in teaching the current generation is determining who is responsible for how well the students do in the class.

We are inclined to think that it's the institution's responsibility, but I find it is more affected by the efforts students put in.

I try to find ways for students to learn independently. I'm a big fan of service learning and learning outside the classroom.

I have students working on political campaigns, with disabled students and with the elderly to name a few. In many ways, these experiences are more powerful than lectures, even though some systems are tempted to not recognize the work put into these activities.

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