ABCs for successful supervision
As psychologists, we rightly place huge emphasis upon the importance of relationships.
We know that the teacher-student relationship is one of the biggest predictors of success (Rimm-Kaufman & Sandilos, 2017) and much of our work focusses upon empowering people to offer good quality support and relationships to the children and young people they work with. With this in mind, I began reflecting on the helping relationships I experienced throughout my training.
Supervision is one of those hot topics when you are training to become an Educational Psychologist; What’s yours like? How do you do it? How often do you do it? Being allocated a supervisor can be a source of nerves and anticipation, as this relationship has an undeniable impact on your time as a TEP. And what about that moment you become a supervisor? I don’t doubt it is also filled with anxiety at the responsibilities that lie ahead.
I had heard various horror stories about supervision, so I was relieved to find myself in the encouraging position of holding my supervision, and supervisor, in high esteem. The progression of this relationship certainly contributed towards not only an effective placement, but a positive experience of being a TEP more generally.
In this blog post we explore three concepts we attribute towards a successful supervisory relationship, from my TEP perspective (Dr Jemma Carter) and my supervisor’s perspective (Dr Helen Clews).
A for Autonomy
From the start of my second year, Helen actively encouraged me to make hypotheses and subsequently decisions independently. I felt my (limited) experience was genuinely valued by her, and she offered me the safety to shape my own approaches and methods when taking part in casework and later statutory work.
Whilst Helen was not familiar with all the approaches I felt keen to pursue, such as dynamic assessment, rather than let this become a barrier she was keen to develop these approaches further. I felt the key to feeling happy and confident in our supervisory relationship, was the intellectual freedom and self-determination that Helen fostered from the start.
I think it’s really important for supervisors to recognise that the supervisory process is very much two way, and to be open to the idea that they can learn a huge amount from their trainees. Even though I only qualified eight years ago, it was clear that the doctoral training had moved on, and every course can have a slightly different focus, which means there’s always something new to learn about. I am an inveterate thief of good ideas, so I was happy to pounce on everything that Jemma could introduce me to.
It’s equally important to very quickly get a sense of your trainee’s prior experience and their confidence at completing EP activities. For me, I think the best way has been to try to make trainees feel ok about saying what they feel comfortable with and what they are ready to do. In my opinion, it’s my failure as a supervisor if a trainee feels they can’t admit to not being ready and agrees to do something that pushes them too far, because they feel pressure to be the ‘good’ trainee.
I remember once seeing an EP supervisor volunteer their trainee to run an anger management group for young adults with complex learning difficulties, without any option to say no, and it always stuck in my mind as a benchmark of what not to do. Equally, if it is clear that you have a very experienced trainee, then you also have to be ready to let them run with it and give them the freedom to experiment with techniques and approaches – not slowly kill their enthusiasm and erode their very sense of joy in life by making them watch EPs administer standardised assessments for months on end and micromanaging their every move.
B for Belief
Trust is the basis of many successful relationships, particularly those which are there to explore vulnerabilities and are synonymous with a power dynamic. Helen made it clear that our supervision sessions were private and that our discussions would be confidential, unless otherwise stated. She also had a very obvious set of values that she clearly practised, which made me feel safe and believe in her ability to receive and respond to any difficulties or challenges I was experiencing.
It was clear to me that the trust needed to work both ways, I understood that during supervision we may discuss Helen’s own experiences and that this was also held under the same covenant that mine were. Helen did not scrutinise my daily activity, try to manage my diary or check I was attending to what was planned. Our relationship was developed on the grounds that she believed I would do what I should and communicate with her when required, and I believed that she would be present and interested if and when that communication occurred.
All supervisors need to be very aware of the power dynamic that is inherent in any supervisor-trainee relationship. It is important to remember that before they had ‘Trainee’ stamped in front of their names, they were competent people involved with all kinds of challenging careers, developing skills which they still possess and bring to their role. I trained at the Tavistock, so I can’t avoid seeing a power dynamic even if I want to, but you really can’t avoid them with supervision.
When I was a trainee I was once patted on the head by a SENDCo. As I’m nearly six-foot-tall, tattooed and pierced, this does not happen very often in other situations. As Jemma says, I trusted her to do what she said she was going to, and then tell me how it went, whether good or bad. This is different to just not bothering to monitor what your trainee is doing – in case there is any confusion there. It was my role, and my responsibility, to make the judgement that Jemma was capable of carrying out the activity, and to make sure we took the time to talk through how it had gone afterwards. This will be different for every trainee and every supervisor, but for me I think the key thing is ensuring that your relationship with your trainee is strong and trusting enough that you can make that judgement call.
C for Communication
Robust communication was central to the supervisory relationship we established. Openness and honesty characterised our conversations (as well as humour!). Good quality communication can of course be taught; focussing on active listening skills, body language and the way we speak. However, the rapport we built was based on consistent, protected communication which we both placed equal importance upon.
At the start of our supervisory journey we scheduled weekly supervision sessions, which we attended during term-time. Despite Helen having an extremely heavy work load, she prioritised my supervision sessions and they were only moved in exceptional circumstances. Throughout our journey the content of these sessions evolved, and when clinical supervision wasn’t necessary we ensured we used the time to discuss the wider issues around being part of the service, university work, thesis, viva, and the general offerings of life!
Helen understood as a mother of an infant, a university student, and a trainee EP that my home life could impact on my working life and gave equal importance to discussions around these issues as others. The unconditional interest and positive regard Helen offered throughout my time as a trainee, were paramount to my feelings of success and belonging within the service.
Again, I think my own doctoral training, which stressed the importance of containment, played a role in how I am as a supervisor – I felt it was really important that Jemma had consistent supervision sessions so that she felt fully supported. I had experienced some brilliant supervisors while I was training, who made me feel that our sessions were valued and protected, and I wanted to try to ensure that Jemma had the same experience. I also felt in my turn that I had good support from Jemma’s university and fieldwork tutor – I think this would be vital if any issues did arise with a trainee. Not every trainee-supervisor relationship works, and if difficulties occur then it is crucial that supervisors feel that universities are right there working with them to ensure that the situation can be resolved positively for everyone.
I love being a supervisor – so far it has proved to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job. I think EPs can be reluctant sometimes to offer to supervise trainees, perhaps because they are concerned about the responsibilities of the role, or whether they are ‘good enough’ EPs to contribute to the training of others. Although I really wanted to supervise, I was worried about not being one of those EPs who is like “Woo hoo, Yeah! Psychology is amazing! I live and breathe it!” I am not that person. But then a trainee I was chatting to reframed me being knackered and cynical as being grounded and realistic (See? Trainees are great) and assured me that this approach can be just as valuable for trainees, and can help to reduce the pressure to be perfect, if they see that EPs who have been doing the job for ages can still find it a struggle sometimes. So I interviewed for a supervisor’s role and got it, and I’ve loved it ever since.
It is incredibly satisfying watching someone explore their role and discover who they are as an EP, and it’s a privilege to share in the process. I would totally recommend it.
Rimm-Kaufman, S., & Sandilos, L. (2011). Improving students’ relationships with teachers to provide essential supports for learning. Teacher’s Modules.