Stempel College social work professor honored for pushing graduate students to excel in the research arena

Dr. Shanna Burke, social work professor at Stempel College, harbors a “secret” that ultimately earned her a top recognition. In March she received the Social Work Educator of the Year Award from the Miami-Dade County chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

A seasoned investigator, she has developed a tried-and-true approach to launch graduate students into the world of research and evidence-based social work practice, and the something extra she gives has not gone unnoticed. The faculty who teach the courses that follow hers in the MSW program—Burke teaches Social Work Research Methodology—have remarked on how well she sets up aspiring social work professionals for success.

Students move on to their next classes “having met her expectations and benefitted from her support,” wrote David Saltman, a senior colleague in the School of Social Work who nominated her for the award. “As a result, the students and faculty accomplish more in those successive classes as well.”

Burke has observed a very consistent learning arc over each 16-week semester, with a critical transformation in her students around week 11 or 12. That’s when she knows her strategy has kicked in.

“They’re feeling anxious,” she explains of how most begin the admittedly difficult course. “Then you watch the confidence build over the semester, and basically it gets to the point where they will say, ‘Wow, I can do this, and I actually like it.’”

That moment of triumph serves as a testament to Burke’s refusing to underestimate those in her classroom. “The thing that’s important is really holding students to a high level of expectations and standards,” she says, “because I have this secret.”

“The secret is that I knew they would get there in their mindset – evolving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. I knew they would get there in their confidence and in their performance. But they don’t necessarily know or believe it in the first half of the semester. And that’s the secret, the whole time I knew they would get there, and I believe in them until they are able to believe in themselves,” Burke explains. “I think that the most respectful way that we can interact with our students and show them that we believe in them is actually holding them to those high standards, and I think they come around to see that each semester.”

Master’s student Jodi Szabo could not agree more. She describes Burke as “tough” and “strict” and agrees the coursework “can feel really insurmountable.” And yet, she says, Burke turns even the most hesitant of students into researchers and evidence-informed practitioners.

“Most social workers don’t go into social work because they are good in math and statistics,” Szabo says by way of explaining a problem many encounter. In her case, a pronounced distaste for numbers had previously limited her to reading only the beginnings and endings of research papers, the parts that typically contain only descriptive words.

Burke, however, changed all that by elucidating every step of the research process and providing constructive feedback at every turn. “I can finally understand and decipher the middle part of journal articles,” says Szabo, who adds, “She makes data fun. How is that even possible?”

Currently an intern at Lotus House women’s shelter, Szabo is putting to use lessons learned from Burke by contributing to a research project, and cannot say enough about her impact.

“When you find someone, who is both personable and professional, eloquent and humorous at the same time,” the student says, “it’s just such a special blend.”

With colleagues and students alike praising the educator and the recent teaching award to her credit, one thing is for certain: Burke’s powerful secret is out.