We all remember middle school. Bad class photos, cafeteria cliques, and learning that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell defined some of our most formative years.
However, it’s also a vulnerable time when children are desperate to fit in. Unfortunately, this can come at the expense of classmates in the form of bullying—face-to-face or online.
Master of Social Work (MSW) student Leah Fish, GSS ’26, has been a frontline witness to this bullying as a substitute teacher in New York. One case in particular—involving physical and emotional abuse—resulted in a student dreading her days at school. Fish, who acted as an aide in the classroom at the time, pulled the student aside and asked her what was going on.
“She said, ‘I really don’t want to come to school anymore,’” Fish said. “That broke my heart.”
This bullying story is like many others we come across—a child in class picked out by a few of her classmates as a target for insults. However, the issue escalated into more than just verbal abuse; the student’s classmates were attacking her through social media platforms like TikTok, and even got physical by pushing her into a locker.
With the student’s consent, Fish approached the school social worker to inform him about the incident. He and Fish—along with the classroom’s teacher and the school principal—worked together on an action plan that ended the bullying and made the student feel safe.
“[The student] saw me at the end of the day, and she cried, ran up to me, hugged me, and said, ‘Thank you so much. I can’t thank you enough,’” Fish said. “I went home and cried.”
The experience was life-altering for Fish. It showed her that while she felt her presence was needed in the classroom, it was in a capacity outside of the academic process. So, she switched paths—leaving her master’s in teaching program for a Master of Social Work to become a school social worker. She’s never been happier.
“There’s something more special about helping a student go through a problem than it is to help them solve a problem,” she said.
Born to Teach
If you’d asked five-year-old Leah Fish what she wanted to do when she grew up, it was teach. Fish has felt called to the classroom for as long as she can remember, and after graduating with her undergraduate degree, she enrolled in a master’s of teaching program to solidify the process.
This was before she knew about school social workers. Although Fish’s mother is a social worker, Fish didn’t know much about the profession throughout school and never considered it a career path. However, it clicked once she began to substitute teach, work with the school social workers, and see their impact on students.
“When I realized that the students needed me more for that emotional development as opposed to academic guidance, I switched courses completely,” she said. “How was I supposed to care if my students were not doing well on a spelling test if they didn’t have food at home?”
So, she began researching Master of Social Work programs. She found the Graduate School of Social Service’s phone number online and called the admissions office (“because I’m a talker,” she said). Fish said she knew Fordham was her choice after hearing about the Fordham GSS/NYC Public Schools Collaborative field program, where MSW students receive a scholarship and complete an internship at a school within the five NY boroughs.
“I was like, Oh, I’m sold,” she said.
She begins her field placement with the Collaborative in September.
The Importance of School Social Work
Through her time substitute teaching, Fish has noticed an interesting and unexpected dynamic between the students and the school social worker. Fish remembered having guidance counselors in her schools growing up, but not school social workers—and it was known that the guidance counselor’s office wasn’t necessarily where students wanted to be. That perspective has shifted with the implementation of more school social workers.
“[Students] don’t view the school social worker as something that’s either embarrassing or a punishment,” she said. “They want to go speak to him. He is inspirational to them. He’s cool; he is someone they feel honored to spend time with.”
This presence in our schools is imperative, especially with the increased curricular attention on social emotional learning. Advertisements, social media, and societal expectations constantly pressure young people today. School social workers act as mentors and guides for students navigating these difficulties. Fish is excited to serve in this capacity in her field placement next semester and throughout her career.
“It’s just good to have someone there that’s socially and emotionally someone [students]can depend on,” she said. “I want to be that person.”