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Supporting teachers in their role: making the case for formal supervision in the workplace

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What is supervision and why might teachers benefit from engaging in the process? Alan Bainbridge and Jane Westergaard define what is meant by ‘supervision’ and argue the case for adopting this supportive reflective activity in the teaching profession.

Montage of workplace faces and imagesWe are currently undertaking a supervision research pilot project in partnership with the Diocese of Kent. Independently facilitated supervision sessions (a safe, supportive, confidential and protected space) are taking place with Head Teachers and members of the senior leadership team in three schools. The content of these confidential sessions has raised a number of important issues in relation to the emotional and psychological impact of the work – particularly in relation to safeguarding issues and the pastoral dimension of work with children, young people and their families. And these are the pressures that every professional practicing in the educational context is managing in their everyday work with children and young people.

The problem

Teachers, teaching assistants, Learning Mentors and others working in schools, colleges and alternative educational settings are currently supporting children, young people and their families on a regular basis, often with complex social and psychological, as well as learning-related, issues.  The challenges that children and young people face in their everyday lives clearly have an impact on their ability to access and engage with their learning. And listening and attending to these issues is part of the daily work of many education professionals.

In this light, education practice can be emotionally draining or even detrimental to the education professional’s own health and psychological well-being. At best this can be exhausting – at worst the ability of teachers to maintain their role long-term may be at risk. In 2012 the DfE reported that teacher retention was low and that after 5 years only 73% of those who qualify and 52% of those who follow undergraduate routes remain in the profession. Coupled with an increasing instrumental focus in education on reporting, audit, target attainment, inspection and so on, it is perhaps not surprising that Stephen Ball argues that teachers may feel that their work is ‘measured’ rather than ‘valued’ and ‘surveyed’ rather than ‘supported’. Opportunities to share, reflect on, examine and develop their professional practice are often few and far between. As a result, Judyth Sachs’ notes those who work in education settings are often given neither the systemic or relational support to claim and develop their own sense of professionalism; at a personal level this has the potential to lead to work-based stress and burn-out, whilst at a local and even national level this is likely to preclude the meaningful development of a professional practice highlighted above.

The teaching profession has been consistently challenged by politicians since the 1988 Education Reform Act or indeed Callaghan’s famous Ruskin College speech in 1976. Recent political and policy changes appear to have had a significant impact on the level of teachers’ professional self-esteem and the associated increase in work-based stress.  Within this challenging environment colleagues may be reluctant to disclose difficulties they are experiencing, perhaps, ironically, in fear that by doing so they could damage their career prospects.

It is our contention that those who work with young people in educational settings should have entitlement and access to quality ‘supervision’- a term that in itself can be misconstrued and is somewhat problematic, given the obvious ‘surveillance’ and ‘management’ connotations. It is important to note, though, that this not what is meant by supervision in this context.

So what is supervision?

The concept of supervision is firmly established in counselling, health and allied professions where it is acknowledged that those whose work is focused on ‘helping and supportive interventions’ with others may require time and space to reflect on their practice in a facilitated exchange. The purpose of supervision in this context is to:

  • Develop best practice through reflection
  • Manage the emotional and psychological impact of the work
  • Ensure stress levels are recognised, acknowledged and attended to
  • Reduce time taken away from the work place with stress-related illness
  • Improve retention of staff
  • Develop competent, confident and autonomous practitioners
  • Highlight systemic issues requiring organisational/policy responses
  • Ensure that pupils continue to receive a quality education experience

(Reid and Westergaard, 2013).

A supervisor is not a mentor, although like a mentor they will encourage their supervisee to find new and effective ways of developing their practice. Neither are they a counsellor, although like a counsellor they will attend to the emotional and psychological dimension. Nor are they a manager – although they will ensure that the supervisee is working within the norms of the organisation, the policies, the codes of practice and the law. The relationship is confidential. It is one built on trust whereby the supervisee is able to examine all aspects of their practice in a safe space.

And how might supervision work in schools?

We perceive supervision as a safe reflective space where what takes place in schools can be approached in a holistic manner: where the development and management of good practice can be examined alongside the emotional and psychological impact of the work. Here, supervision is clearly distinguished from the more managerial notions of audit and offers the possibility of providing genuine reflection, care and support.

Our conception of supervision is a process that has ‘formative, normative and restorative’ functions and as such attends to the development and management of best practice and the emotional and psychological impact and effects of the work.

The restoration of teacher morale and well-being within the context of supervision is closely correlated with maintaining high quality, sustainable educational experiences for students – a ‘parallel process’. Colleagues who have opportunities for effective, open and reflective dialogue will be more able to focus on their professional role (as teachers, support staff, senior managers and head teachers). It will be within supervision that good practice will be examined and possibilities for further professional development explored. Our vision is one whereby supervision becomes a mandatory part of training and continuing professional development for teachers at all stages of their career pathway.

On a practical level, undertaking supervision would require teachers to meet with an independent supervisor, perhaps three times a term for at least an hour, where a safe and trusting relationship develops. The teacher (or supervisee) has the opportunity to talk about all elements of their practice – including the often challenging pastoral support dimension of their role. This meeting will not be informed by line management responsibilities but rather a more holistic view that encompasses all those who work with young people in scholastic environments. We see this approach as revolutionary by relocating the control and development of individuals and the profession as a whole.

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5 Responses to Supporting teachers in their role: making the case for formal supervision in the workplace

  1. Vanessa Dell Monday, 5 October 2015 at 21:42 #

    Very interested to know how this research project is going and when you might have a report back? I am a NQT in a special school and supervision seems particularly pertinent to this setting, not just for teachers but for the Learning Support Assistants too. Many thanks

  2. Sonia Mayor Sunday, 28 February 2016 at 20:58 #

    Really interested to hear more, I’m a Clinical Supervisor, working across health, education and social care. I have recently developed a reflective supervision programme for School Heads as well as wider teaching staff.
    Many thanks

    • Sarah Navin Wednesday, 13 April 2016 at 14:40 #

      I would like to know how to find out more about your programme Sonia. My school is based in Manchester.

  3. Sarah Navin Wednesday, 13 April 2016 at 14:38 #

    I am very keen to hear more. I am currently looking into how to access appropriate supervision for my Inclusion Leader who spends a significant part of her time working with vulnerable children and families.

  4. Carol Foster Friday, 24 February 2017 at 14:11 #

    I am very interested in this. As part of the Inclusion team, I work with many vulnerable children and their families as well as being involved in Child Protection cases. School staff do not have access to the appropriate supervision and it does indeed take its toll. I am currently looking into how to access such support for our staff. I am keen to hear more.