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Chico State

Office Hours: School of Social Work Professor Sue Steiner

Portait of Sue Steiner
Jason Halley / University Photographer

In 1986, Sue Steiner began her career a social worker. For several years, she organized doing social justice events, living in San Francisco, and making $12,000 a year. And though she could not have known it at the time, Steiner was on the path to teaching. She did know, however, that change was afoot. Encouraged by a friend to enter academia, Steiner pursued her PhD at the University of Washington and fell in love with teaching.

“I have a very bad fear of public speaking,” she said. “I couldn’t fathom that I could teach because I can’t speak in front of anybody, so I’m kind of astonished that I ended up teaching—but I love it.”

Steiner joined Chico State’s School of Social Work in 2007, bringing with her a heart for social justice and a drive to elevate communities. Most recently, she has brought change to the way she teaches, called “ungrading”—instead of giving grades, she provides more assignment feedback than ever. This has led to a positive shift in lower stress for her students and how (and how much) they learn.

Steiner is this year’s recipient of the Civically Engaged Scholar Award from the Office of Civic Engagement. She epitomizes this honor, which recognizes Chico State faculty who have demonstrated a significant history of community-engaged partnerships, high levels of student engagement, research or teaching about significant public issues, with public-serving results. She is co-founder of Home and Heart, an affordable housing solution that matches adults in Butte County who have a room to share, with individuals in need of affordable housing.

What do you love so much about teaching?

My students amaze and astonish and inspire me every day. I want to spend all my time around people that want the world to be better and are willing to do it at their own peril. Most of our Social Work students come in wanting to be therapists. It’s so exciting to watch students open up to things they didn’t think they wanted to do and get excited about it—and when they get excited about it, I know they’re going to go out and make the world better, because they’re going to work on social justice and social change. Seeing and knowing that my students are excited is the reason I get up every morning, knowing that what they’re getting excited about will make people’s lives better. So, when they leave my classes and they’ve gone from “eh” to excited, I know they’re going to go out and engage in justice work and make the world more just—and what is better than that?

Steiner Fact #1: Her primary research interests are in the areas of teaching effectiveness, social and economic justice, and community organizing, and she works with community groups to assist with strategic planning, needs assessment, organizing, fundraising, and program evaluation.

Why social work for you?

The reason we’re here is to help other people and make things better. My undergrad degree is in sociology, which was great and fun and mind opening, but there wasn’t a lot of practical application for it. So when I explored social work, I got to look at these fun ideas and engage in them to make the world better at the same time, and that has been my driving force since I was little. The world is messy and there are things we can do to make it better. Interestingly, I’m a middle child. My older sister and my younger brother did not like each other, and I was the person that had to make everything okay for everybody. In some ways, I feel like I didn’t have any choice but to be a social worker. It all led to a career in social work.

Steiner Fact #2: Her guilty pleasures include chocolate and a day on the couch with a good book and bad movies, like romantic comedies.

Is there a way to make social work easier and, if so, what does that look like?

The world feels really heavy and difficult to me right now. Our country and the world feel so divided and angry. And I’m struggling with teaching in a way I never have before.

We expect people to work in very toxic work environments—which a lot of social work environments are—and then to go home and take a bath, and that’s going to make everything better. But I don’t believe that. Something a student said to me years ago has stuck with me—how we do things around self-care is like having a massive toxic spill in our work environment and telling everybody to buy a hazmat suit and continue to show up to work. We don’t expect that in terms of physical health, and we shouldn’t expect it in terms of mental health either.

I think the ways to make it easier is to first realize that the work is really difficult, and to acknowledge and accept that. If we ignore the elephant in the room, it never gets better. And then figure out what we love about this work, so we can keep coming in to do the work we love, even with the difficulties around us. Can I really be careful about taking care of myself while I do this work? Self-care is a buzzword right now, and in social work, it’s really essential to think about: “What can I do to realize I’m stressed and deal with my stress in the healthiest way possible?”

Steiner Fact #3: Her self-care regimen includes daily meditation (part of a 20-year-long meditation practice), going on at least one five-day silent meditation retreat each year, and reading and hiking.

What is “ungrading” and why have you adopted that as a teaching philosophy?

There’s been so much research, particularly in the field of psychology, that extrinsic rewards don’t shape our behavior effectively—grades are very extrinsic—but intrinsic rewards do. Research has shown that when we’re stressed, and we’re thinking about that prize at the end, we don’t learn very well. So I thought, okay, giving grades is not helping learning.

A second piece that convinced me not to give grades anymore, was this idea that many of us know our K–12 system is broken and very inequitable. Historically underserved kids, including a lot of kids of color, don’t get the same education as wealthier kids and whiter kids. So, when they get to college, one is down at the bottom and one is up at the top. And when we expect those people at the bottom who have fewer skills, not through any fault of their own, to meet our same standards as the people with more skills, we’re just dooming them to continued failure because of an unjust, unfair, and inequitable system. The more I thought about that, I realized I can’t do that. Because whenever I continue to grade, it reinforces that oppressive system.

I stopped doing grades a little over a year ago, and the results have been amazing. Students tell me repeatedly that they’re learning more, they’re taking more risks, and they’re focused on what they’re learning and not what the grade is. I’ve stopped giving grades and just give hordes of feedback on what they could be learning. Students tell me they’re less stressed, they’re learning more, and they’re enjoying their learning much more than they used to. They’re engaged in a different way. Attendance is as good as it’s ever been. I’m way less stressed, and their group projects are so much better, because they’re not mad at each other because what somebody does isn’t going to hurt their grade. My classes are so much better. I’m happier, they’re happier—why wouldn’t we all do this?

Steiner Fact #4: Her ideal weekend? It starts with sleeping in, and after a breakfast of homemade sourdough pancakes and waffles, taking her dog for a long walk and visiting the Saturday Farmers Market, followed by a hike, a nap, and cooking and eating a good meal at home.

Can you explain the idea behind Home and Heart?

It’s a home-sharing organization, in which home providers, in our case mostly older adults, want to age in place, but need some help around the house to do so, and have an extra room in their house. Then, people who are housing insecure, home seekers in our program, can live with the home provider either for no rent, or very low rent, and help around the house in exchange for living there. It’s the cheapest way to get housing for low-income folks in California or anywhere, really, because we don’t have to build any new housing, and we’re not taking housing off the market for other people. It’s this perfect thing. According to the Butte County Housing Authority, the biggest supply of available housing in the state right now is empty rooms in people’s homes. So we can get people into those empty rooms, let older adults age in place safely, and let people get housing, often for free. It’s this great system that’s a win-win for everybody.

Steiner has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Brandeis University. She also holds a master’s degree in social work from San Francisco State and a PhD in social work from the University of Washington. Before arriving at Chico State, she taught at Whittier College and Arizona State University.