Traditionally rooted more firmly in medicine and the healthcare professions rather than the education profession, supervision is a key mechanism for helping us to take stock; to stand back, reflect and think. It is basically a talking intervention that can help us to reconnect with our jobs and get back in touch with why we do what we do, and it can help us to avoid overwhelm and burnout.
The teaching profession seems to have been slow to embrace supervision. While other development approaches such as coaching and mentoring are enjoying interest and attention in the teaching profession, supervision, which is widely used in the world of health, counselling, social work and beyond, is the relatively new kid on the block where it is being used in education.
One reason for this could well be suspicion about the term “supervision”. It’s forgivable to associate the word with being monitored or watched – being found wanting in some way, being “supervised”. For many, the term does not automatically conjure up the incredibly supportive role that a supervisor can play in an educator’s working life. Regardless of the reason, increasing numbers are reaching the conclusion that this needs to change and that supervision should have a central role in supporting the work and wellbeing of those in the education profession.
In a supervision context, the supervisor does not offer specific guidance but they do help to provide the space in which the supervisee can think about what is going well and what is challenging. Working with a supervisor can help us to look after ourselves as well as the quality of the work that we do in a non-judgmental space. While you may look to a coach for the development of a specific skill in your working life, a supervisor would be working with you to develop your competence and confidence in the role among other things.
Evidence in support of supervision in the education profession is in the process of emerging, and findings are looking positive. In schools where supervision is being used, people are benefitting from time to consider solutions to the issues they are facing in their work, a reinvigoration of their professional practice, and a strengthening of work teams, among others.
It is important to acknowledge that there is no single model of supervision, and it does not need to be done solely as a one-to-one exercise. There are other forms of supervision that may work in your context such as group supervision within departments or teams.
What can supervision offer?
Supervision, usually in sessions of an hour a month, face to face or in person (none of this is set in stone), offers teachers and other school staff numerous benefits, not least of which is the fact that if we improve the working lives of teachers, we just might be improving the school experience of children and young people too. Other benefits include:
- A tried and trusted framework within which to talk about work scenarios – in a job which can be isolating this opportunity to talk about troubling or challenging issues can be positive.
- An opportunity to be reinvigorated in the profession – enthusiasm can be refreshed through professional conversations. It’s easy to overlook just how much we know and how well we are doing! This can also give us an enhanced understanding of the self at work.
- A sense of collegiate working – group supervision and peer supervision can help to engender a sense of collaborative or collegiate working, which can greatly strengthen understanding and empathy in teams.
- The space in which to contain problems while solutions are sought – supervision as a holding space is a powerful tool for understanding issues and moving towards workable solutions.
- The opportunity to work out how the demands of the job might be impacting home life – supervision as a path towards balance in your life.
- Clarity, space and calm – talking about work in a contained, professional context can greatly help to clear the mental clutter, releasing head space for greater efficiency at work.
There is no doubt that in each setting the implementation of supervision will raise issues and questions that will need to be ironed out. While supervision is still to be fully embedded in the education profession, we do need to explore the possibilities of how it can be implemented at scale. Developing in house, peer supervision seems like a sustainable path to pursue and we can borrow from the experiences of other professions for this model. Full supervisor training and ongoing development would, obviously, be essential. But there is also the possibility of buying in the services of external supervisors.
If you are feeling stuck, or overwhelmed, or in need of a sounding board or critical friend then supervision may be able to help. And for a profession that worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, and continues to do so under the challenging circumstances that are a legacy of the pandemic, this investment in school staff would surely be invaluable. Because if we don’t offer scaffolds for the mental health and wellbeing, as well as professional development, of staff in schools through supervision, we just might be missing an important and sustainable opportunity for positive, lasting change.
Find out more…
- Using Supervision in Schools by Jo Rowe and Penny Sturt, published by Pavilion
- Supervision in the Helping Professions 5th edn by Peter Hawkins and Aisling McMahon, published by Open University Press
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world. Elizabeth has also taught on education courses in HE and presented at national and international conferences.