Supervision for teachers: why it’s important and what EPs can do
It’s perplexing that wellbeing practitioners such as psychologists and social workers have regular supervision that is mandatory, yet our wellbeing ‘front-liners’ do not.
We see supervision as a way of life… What we have seen in ourselves and others is that, when we are most stuck, we can most grow if we have a space to reflect with another who will both support and challenge usShohet & Shohet, 2020, pg. 3
Unique pressures on teachers
Teachers have line management, but this is not the same. Performance or line management is not the same as supervision. Our teachers and school staff are managing increasingly complex cases in relation to the children and families whom they support, yet in the majority of schools the staff are not being offered emotional support, either to do their jobs effectively or to look after themselves. There are of course some schools who do this well, and they are to be celebrated.
Staff in education settings work with children and young people regularly, they build up relationships, they support changes in their circumstances, they hear and understand their learning needs and yet, for the most part, they are not given the space and time to reflect on what effect that might have on them as professionals and as human beings. Surely this must impact teacher wellbeing, and the opposite – stress and burnout.
Education settings have stayed open during lockdown. They are expected to keep going whilst numbers of Covid-19 cases are rising and they are shouldering the responsibility of implementing mixed government guidance. Anecdotal evidence suggests that teachers are struggling with the ‘bubble’ system, not just for the children’s sake – but their own. They miss the staff room, the biscuits, the ‘banter’, the comradery, the support, and the hugs.
Supervision as ‘containment’
So, what is supervision, and could it be a key missing part of the chain that links the role of school staff with relieving the stress that they experience?
In our minds, supervision is a means of ‘containment’. It is not going through a checklist, and ticking boxes to record jobs done and tasks to be completed. In Bion’s work (1959; 1984) he writes about the container/contained concept. This describes the way that a caregiver holds onto a baby’s upsets and frustrations. The caregiver then returns them in a more manageable way when the baby is ready – for example providing words or reassurance or sustenance. To feel contained therefore is to feel safe in the knowledge that something or someone else is holding onto the unmanageable (Bion, 1984).
Supervision is also about a safe space to explore uncertainties and difficulties in work (e.g. the concept of ‘safe uncertainty’ from Barry Mason, 2015). It is a way to reflect on what might be happening for you and the situation you are thinking about. As Shohet and Shohet reflect “taking time out can enable us to renew our energy and bring a greater clarity to our work… and from the quality of their [supervisor and supervisee] presence together, make the space for something new and perhaps life-changing to emerge” (Shohet and Shohet, 2020, pg. 3-4).
Group reflective supervision – a possible solution
Through our work as EPs in local authorities and for charities we have seen first-hand what works in terms of staff wellbeing, and how schools can positively impact their staff’s mental health. Our work has led us to become advocates for reflective supervision. This focusses on the concept of containment mentioned above and reflective practice. Anxieties and worries are contained by ‘sharing’, in a confidential space. Thoughts are listened to and then reflected back by skilled practitioners. A way of doing this in a group setting is via work discussion groups (see Ellis and Wolfe, 2019).
The group voice is a powerful voice. Yes, sometimes sharing anxieties increases anxiety levels in the first instance, but acknowledging difficulties is the first step in working towards a solution. Although reflective supervision is not primarily about finding solutions, it can be solution-focused in its thinking. It is a courageous step for schools to invite their staff to openly share concerns and anxieties they may have, but surely this is what needs to happen for things to move forward?
Now more than ever is the time for us to value the staff in schools, to give them time and space to reflect on all that they are ‘holding’. ‘If education is valuable and if it is to be a successful social and economic investment, the wellbeing, engagement, motivation and resilience of teachers are, also, important issues’. (Lauchlan, Gibbs & Dunsmuir, 2012).
Bion, W. R. (1959). Attacks on linking. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 43, 308-315.
Bion, W. R. (1984). Learning from experience. London: Karnac.
Douglas, H. (2007). Containment and reciprocity: Integrating psychoanalytic theory and child development research for work with children. London: Routledge.
Ellis, G. & Wolfe, V. (2019). Facilitating work discussion groups with support staff in complex educational provisions. Open Journal of Educational Psychology Vol.4.
Lauchlan, F., Gibbs, S., & Dunsmuir, S. (2012). Teachers’ well-being. Educational and Child Psychology, 29 (4), pp. 5-7.
Shohet, R and Shohet, J. (2020). In Love with Supervision: Creating Transformative Conversations. Monmouth: PCCS Books Ltd.