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Supervision for teachers: why it’s important and what EPs can do

Warm temperature lightbulb in focus, with many out of focus in the background

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 us 

Shohet & 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).


References

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 provisionsOpen 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.



About Gemma Ellis

Gemma is a professional tutor at Cardiff University and the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust and a senior Educational Psychologist for Bath and North East Somerset. She is published in the areas of supervision and reflective practice, sexualised behaviour in children and the experiences of school staff who work with children who have been exposed to domestic abuse. She draws upon psychoanalytic and systemic frameworks amongst others.

View all posts by Gemma Ellis

About Victoria Wolfe

Vicki Wolfe is an independent Child & Educational Psychologist, working across private, charity and local authority settings. She is published in the areas of supervision and reflective practice in schools, and models for positive parental engagement with schools – notably using an ecological systems approach.

View all posts by Victoria Wolfe



3 Comments so far:

  1. Olivia Blick says:

    This is a very interesting and though provoking subject. Having previously been a teacher and then entering into the EP world and receiving supervision I was amazed and also shocked at how in my previous role this incredibly useful tool was completely overlooked. I then went on to research the area and develop a model of supervision that could be used to support teaching staff in schools, specifically focusing on themes I found which teacher found most challenging or needed to help promote their wellbeing. This is an area which I continue to drive and develop within my service.
    I will always advocate for this area and encourage schools to think more holistically about this type of support.
    Great article, thank you for sharing this topic!

  2. Vicki Wolfe says:

    Hi Olivia,

    Thanks so much for your reply. Wow – your research looks fascinating! We would love to hear more about your supervision model. Let’s keep in touch.

    Vicki & Gemma

  3. Our research on supervision in schools can be found at …

    https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19415257.2019.1700152

    Brief summary …

    Our findings indicate that support and supervision has been wholly beneficial identifying a positive impact across three broad themes: Professional learning, health and well-being, and wider school culture. The process facilitates headteachers making professionally situated decisions grounded in an understanding of educational purpose. We call for a virtuosity of school leadership – a practice of educational leadership where decision-making is informed by good educational judgements and not by standardisation and punitive accountability measures. Distinctively, clinical support and supervision promotes a virtuosity of school leadership while also meeting the moral obligation to care for school leaders and in doing so those in their care.

    Please contact me at alan.bainbridge@canterbury.ac.uk if you would like more information.

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