Ms. Greenberg: South High’s Social Worker–From Teaching Science to Giving Guidance


Ms. Greenberg standing outside of her office in the guidance hall.

Luke Goodman

Her morning begins with a trek to the guidance hall where her office is located, burrowed deep within the corridor. She carries a coffee in one hand, and her planner in the other. Following a check-in with her fellow social workers via a Facebook group chat, she eases into a little morning meditation to get the day started. 

This has been Ms. Joan Greenberg’s routine for the past 19 years, but her experience in social work, and the educational field, goes much further back. Before becoming a social worker, Ms. Greenberg was a high school chemistry and biology teacher. Although she enjoyed teaching, she discovered that she enjoyed gathering around a table with students and just talking to them much more. “I realized I would rather just listen to students than teach them about covalent bonds,” she said. So Mrs. Greenberg decided to pursue a career in social work. She went back to school to get her MSW (Masters in Social Work), and to take a licensing exam to get her MLSW (Masters in Licensed Social Work). Afterwards, she worked at the Queens Child Guidance Center for 11 years, where she was responsible for counseling children in both clinics and NYC public schools. In 1999, Mrs. Greenberg was employed by Great Neck as a part-time social worker for various schools in the district, including South Middle, EM Baker, and JFK. She had this position for four years, until a full-time social worker position opened up at South High. It was during this time that Great Neck Public Schools began designating social workers for every school in the district. 

As a high school social worker, the majority of Ms. Greenberg’s duties include talking to students who are mandated to meet with a school counselor. That may sound similar to the work of a psychologist, which includes testing and counseling students, because it is. At the beginning of each school year, Ms. Greenberg and the South High psychologists, Ms. Lauren Ferguson and Dr. Jaqueline Scott, meet to review the cases of students who require counseling. They distribute these cases between them based on who they think will be a better fit for the student in question. Outside of counseling students directly, Ms. Greenberg also works in conjunction with teachers of students with certain behavioral or academic problems. While counseling these students is a potential solution, Mrs. Greenberg tries to tackle these issues within the classroom first. She aims to educate the teachers on how to properly educate and understand these types of students. She is also involved with the home-life and family structures of the students that she counsels. “Being a social worker, you kind of see someone’s whole environment, and you’re constantly trying to make it better,” she said. “You aren’t supposed to be happy with the status quo; you are supposed to want to change it.” 

All Ms. Greenberg wants is for the world to be a better place, and she does all she can to make it better. As advisor of the GSA club, she ensures that no student feels inferior to others because of their gender or sexual orientation. And as advisor of Adolescent Advocates club, she and her club members recently educated South High teachers on various microaggressions that may be likely to occur in a classroom. Although Ms. Greenberg’s dedication is apparent among the students, her devotion extends to teachers and faculty as well. Ms. Greenberg is the union representative of South High School, as she has always been interested in teacher’s rights. “I want to support my colleagues just as I would my students, and I’m willing to put myself on the line to do that,” she said. Outside of South High, Ms. Greenberg is an adjunct professor at New York University, teaching masters-level social work. Not only does this keep her long-forgotten teacher skills sharp but also educates the social workers of the next generation. 

When she’s not working at school (South High or NYU), Mrs. Greenberg lives life to the fullest. She is a fan of knitting, bike riding, and watching sports like baseball or hockey. She also enjoys being in the sun, and “being in nature.” Mrs. Greenberg is an avid reader, but only of one genre in particular: foreign fiction. She likes to read books from different places to learn about different cultures. “I feel like you can understand so much about someone just by listening to their stories,” she said. That quote is a very real metaphor for her life. Mrs. Greenberg listens to the students of South High and their stories, making them feel understood.