René Bergeron

Excellence in Teaching

Associate Professor of Social Work

College of Health and Human Services

 

Right: René Bergeron, out for a paddle on Townhouse Pond in Milton, N.H., the site of her family's summer cottage.

 

 

Tales from the frontlines
Rene Bergeron

Social work can be serious business.

That's why L. René Bergeron likes to share The Chipmunk Story with her students. It's drawn from her own experience as a social worker, when she led a discussion group of elderly, rural, and mostly poor women. A reflection about hardship brought forth one woman's story of clubbing, skinning, and eating chipmunks when times were tough. "I began laughing, not at her or her story, but because I was focusing on this little creature," says Bergeron. "I kept asking her, 'How could you club a chipmunk?'"

The chipmunk turned out to be a woodchuck, a more plausible meal. Still, Bergeron lets her students chuckle at how she blew it by focusing on the chipmunk instead of the real message of the woman's story: that her poverty forced her to hunt for dinner in the backyard. "Sometimes you have to let go of details to let the client know you are listening," she reflects.

"You have to laugh at yourself," she says. "Students have a fear that they're going to make a mistake that will forever injure someone. I try to tell them that most clients are resilient. It's this resiliency that has kept them going. It is our job to recognize it and build on it."

Bergeron's real-world experience—she worked as a hospital social worker for 11 years, followed by 25 years of community work on elder issues while teaching part time—is a reliable arrow in her teaching quiver. Relating her mistakes, she says, helps her students build confidence in their abilities.

By sharing examples from her own professional life, Bergeron helps students "think on their feet and stay open-minded to all possibilities," says Sarah Gagnon '06, who is currently pursuing a Master of Social Work degree at UNH. "I can remember having the feeling during one of René's classes that I had the potential to make a difference in my community and that I had the confidence to push myself to achieve my personal goals."

Bergeron uses these tales from the frontlines of social work to reassure students they can't know everything. "Your clients are going to be as much your teachers as you are going to be of service to them." Still, she says, if young social workers don't approach their work with confidence, they won't gain the respect of their clients, who are likely to be older.

It's older clients—much older—with whom Bergeron has worked for most of her professional life. She has turned her research lens to elders, specifically the role of the social work practitioner in the elder neglect and abuse field. "Solutions to elder abuse are much more complex than with children because of the older person's right to choose," says Bergeron. What happens when a practitioner respects an elder's right to refuse help, for instance, but the elder begins to have house fires, or accrue an unhealthy number of cats?

"We're in a society that values individual rights, not the community, so we have no idea what to do with these people," says Bergeron. "If you add an abusive perpetrator to the mix it becomes even more multifaceted. It's fascinating and it's volatile, and practitioners need more guidelines."

While a half-century gap yawns between her subjects and her students, Bergeron connects the two in the classroom. To help students talk about loss, she encourages them to reflect on discussions they may, or likely may not, have had with their own grandparents about dying.

"Then I try to get them to talk about their own decision making and the losses that may have come from that," she says. Students who have lost a driver's license or other privileges due to drinking, lost financial stability by abusing credit cards, or failed a class by not studying, tend to blame others. Bergeron helps them move from blaming to coping, while students learn a lesson that's valuable in social work and life.

"If they can recognize how hard it is to change," she says, "they're not going to be so glib in practice by saying to their clients, 'Just change.'"

—Beth Potier

 

books Find out what René Bergeron is reading...