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Recognizing Ellen Katz’s contributions to experiential learning and mindfulness practice in social work research and education

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Ellen Katz will never forget her first practicum as a social work student. “I walked into the room and there was the client,” she says. “I closed the door and thought, ‘What do I do now?’” To help alleviate this common feeling of uncertainty in other students, Katz – who is retiring from the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work on June 30 — has devoted her academic career to enhancing their clinical competence and confidence.

Social work was a second career for Katz, who joined the faculty in 2014. After completing an undergraduate degree in anthropology, her keen interest in family life across different societies led her to become a childbirth educator. “I found it fascinating to watch the dynamics within families as they expanded with children,” she says. Wanting to expand her knowledge in this area, she later decided to do a Master of Social Work degree at U of T.

Looking back on her initial forays in the field, Katz says she had an excellent foundation of theoretical knowledge, but, like many students, sometimes struggled to apply it. “I had to learn as I went along, making lots of mistakes.” She soon found her stride, though, and enjoyed a rewarding career that has included working in family therapy at the former Hincks-Dellcrest Centre (now the Garry Hurvitz Centre for Community Mental Health at SickKids) and at Peel Children’s Centre. She has also worked in hospital social work and in private practice. In total, she has worked in the social work field for almost 30 years. “I couldn’t believe I got paid to do the work I loved so much,” she says.

After working for nearly 20 years at the Hincks, the agency asked if Katz would be willing to do a PhD at U of T to forge closer ties between the two institutions. “I knew it would be difficult and I had mixed feelings, but I said yes,” she says. In 2006, she began doctoral studies under Professor Marion Bogo, who shared her interest in increasing student capabilities in practice. “After decades in hospital social work, family therapy and children’s mental health, where I supervised many social work students and was a practicum supervisor, an educational coordinator, and a faculty-field liaison, I had a lot of ideas about what kind of training would be useful for students,” she says. “Essentially, it came down to this: the more experiential, the better.”

Associate Professor Ellen Katz, receiving the inaugural Larry Enkin Innovation in Teaching with Simulation Award in February 2020, presented by Professor Marion Bogo, with A. Ka Tat Tsang looking on.

Associate Professor Ellen Katz, receiving the Larry Enkin Innovation in Teaching with Simulation Award in February 2020.

She and Bogo were among the pioneers in developing simulation-based learning and assessment for social workers. This tactic allows students to interact with clients — played by trained actors — so they can put their theoretical knowledge to work, take risks, receive constructive feedback and ultimately refine their skills. Katz worked with Bogo and others both at FIFSW and elsewhere to adapt a simulation-based assessment called the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE), primarily used in medical education, as an evaluation for first-year social work students prior to their practicum. In 2020, Katz received the inaugural Larry Enkin Innovation in Teaching with Simulation Award in acknowledgement of her work to elevate this method and help establish simulation as the faculty’s signature pedagogy.

“The crux of experiential learning, whether it’s a simulation or in person, is about the present moment,” says Katz. “What does a student do? And how do we teach them how do it?” Before joining the faculty, she had developed a Buddhist practice and discovered that meditation and mindfulness greatly enriched her clinical effectiveness. “Mindfulness improves our ability to pay deep attention to clients and stay with them, whatever is unfolding,” she says. To bring the benefits of this approach to students, Katz developed a course on mindfulness in social work, which used simulation-based learning to foster this advanced practice competency. She also created a course on mindfulness and mental health interventions for New College’s Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health Program.

Katz’s focus on developing experiential learning opportunities led to the creation of a new family therapy course for Master of Social Work students taught off-campus at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre, now the Garry Hurvitz Centre for Community Mental Health, at SickKids. This course, which she will continue to teach, allows students to follow and participate in live family therapy sessions. It also fulfills the goal Katz set when she started her PhD to cement closer ties between the university and the agency.

“Ellen Katz’s contributions to our Faculty, to social work education and the profession as a whole have helped elevate and transform how we both teach and practice,” says Charmaine Williams, professor and interim dean at FIFSW. “Although she is officially retiring from the University of Toronto this year, her work in experiential and mindfulness-based education, and her dedication to student success and wellbeing will continue to have an impact in this Faculty and beyond.

Beyond her formal teaching, Katz incorporated mindfulness in every aspect of her work at the faculty. Syrus Osborn (MSW 2022), who did a practicum under Katz’s supervision, says Katz taught her to be a mindful practitioner. “She not only helped me become more present with my clients, but more self-aware when I’m being emotionally triggered. For example, I grew up very poor, so talking with low-income clients about issues like food insecurity brings up my childhood struggles. She showed me how mindfulness can allow me to be aware of those emotions and accept them without losing my concentration.”

Toula Kourgiantakis, a U of T social work professor whose teaching and research emphasis is also on clinical social work education, says Katz consistently “walked the talk” as an educator and research colleague. “When she’s speaking with you, she is totally focused, and I think that makes students feel seen and heard. She’s had a very calming effect on many people at the faculty.”

Katz also gave her time to lead weekly mindfulness sittings – first in person, and then daily online through the pandemic – that welcomed anyone in social work or at the wider university. “Not everyone knew this about Ellen because she has so much humility,” says Kourgiantakis. “She does things because they’re important to her, not to be recognized for them.”

Many of Katz’s students keep in touch after graduation. Hearing that they felt more prepared for the intense moments in their profession, she says, has been one of the most gratifying aspects of her career. “For me, it’s about doing. It’s about taking the theories and helping students apply them in ways that they can feel comfortable with. That’s effective practice.”

By Megan Easton