Supervision is a bit of a buzz-word in the public sector at the moment. I’ve heard about it being rolled out for mental health professionals, nurses, social workers, special needs practitioners and those with responsibility for child protection. I’ve heard about excellent practice that is human and responsive and helps people understand their work better, and I’ve heard about awful practice which is little more than a box-ticking exercise, and which does more harm than good. I have written here and here about the need that I believe exists for supervision for teachers, but what form should it take?
Compulsory Individual Supervision
Personally, I have found that one of the reasons counselling supervision works is because it is compulsory. For every 8 hours I work with clients, I need to see my supervisor for an hour. This means that even in those weeks when everything appears to be going along just fine, I still have to discuss my practice. Invariably it is these sessions that yield the most in terms of professional and personal growth, as they allow me space to think about myself and my work in broader terms rather than focussing on problem-solving. In these sessions I have found my consciousness raised, as more aspects of my personality and beliefs are challenged and integrated into my identity as a counsellor. I have found myself questioning fundamental assumptions and developing a more nuanced, open, human understanding of my work.
Of course, teachers are not required to seek regular supervision, especially not of the consciousness-raising kind. The state has returned us over the last 5 years to a model of teaching which Elliott Eisener called the industrial metaphor. Within this teachers are cogs on an assembly line, applying best-practice efficiently in order to churn out the kind of economy-fodder that will get us ahead in the global race. Cogs do not need to know why they are doing what they are doing. Cogs do not ask questions about the value and meaning of the work they are doing to children, so supervision (unless it can be shown to be best-practice) is not likely to become an integral part of teaching. Anyway, soap-box aside, the only way to create compulsory supervision would be to work within a school which made it an integral part of their system. This is appealing, but would take the kind of strong leadership which, in the current climate, is not always evident. In addition, supervision provided under the auspices of a school – even if the supervisor was independent – runs the risk of being seen by supervisees as another tool of management, or part of the performance-management regime. As a counsellor, my supervisor is not connected to my workplace in any way, so I can discuss institutional issues without any fear of reprisals or conflicted interests.
Elective Individual Supervision
So, compulsory supervision is out, for the moment, but what about elective supervision? I recently moved to Birmingham and have started working with a new counselling supervisor. Trawling through the counselling directory, I was surprised by how many supervisors offered their services for professionals other than counsellors and psychotherapists, including teachers. So the option is out there, but I wonder how many teachers know about it, and if they did how many would feel confident talking to someone from the murky world of counselling about their work. As I struggled with the decision to leave teaching two years ago, paying to talk to someone outside of education about my fears and worries would have felt too much like an admission of failure, and far too risky.
If individual supervision is unlikely, what about group work? Although groups can be more daunting than one-to-one supervision, there is also safety in numbers, and the potential for solidarity. Indeed, there is a strong tradition of group supervision in counselling and healthcare, and it is from this tradition that the Teachers Case Discussion Group has emerged.
Michael Balint was a psychoanalyst who, with his wife Enid, developed the Balint group – a method by which GPs (but increasingly groups of other professionals) could discuss and engage with their experience of their work. Without going into the theory too deeply, the aim was to help GPs understand themselves, their patients, and the relationship between them, better. The group leaders would thus focus the discussion, but would not offer advice or solutions.
The Teachers Discussion Group
Joan Fogel and I have set up a group based in part on Balint’s work, at the Tavistock in North London. In practical terms, in the teacher group the sessions proceed as follows: after the group members introduce themselves, one person offers to discuss a case that is troubling or interesting them. The case might be a particular pupil experienced as challenging, or relationships with staff or parents, or broader concerns with the education system. The speaker is encouraged to explore in as much detail as they can the lived experience of their case. The group may ask factual questions to flesh out the specifics of the situation, but aside from this there is at this stage no interaction.
Their story told, and factual questions answered, the speaker is invited to move their chair back slightly, symbolically leaving the circle of the group. From this slight remove the speaker follows the discussion that the group begin about what they have heard. The facilitators do not lead the discussion, but ensure that it focusses less on recommendation or critique, and more on group members explaining how they were making sense of what they had heard: what resonated, which words made an impression, what memories were triggered? Although there will be a lot of teaching expertise in the room, the facilitators aim to create the kind of space where participants can sidestep the performance management emphasis on accountability, achievement and efficiency, and open up a more human dialogue about teaching – one which they own and define for themselves. The emphasis is more on empathising and making sense than trying to solve problems.
Following this reflective discussion, the original speaker is invited to return to the circle and pick up on anything s/he has noticed, felt, or wishes to share. At this stage the discussion is less formally delineated and may take many different forms, though the facilitators will ensure that the discussion remains non-judgemental.
This process is repeated with another case from a different group member. Over time everyone has the opportunity to present their own cases and so benefit from the reflections of others. However, many participants find that hearing and empathising with others’ stories is of equal value. As the group grows and develops, participants will often offer brief updates from previous sessions, sharing what has changed (or not) for them.
It is the group that does the work in the Teacher’s Case Discussion Group, but the facilitators have an important role to play too. They create the space in which people can begin to feel confident to let their guard down, and they monitor the discussion to ensure that it continues to remain safe and non-judgemental. Beyond this, they also have an eye to the dynamics that exist within the group, and to what these might tell us about the case in discussion, and about the members of the group more broadly. This attitude is based in Group Analysis, which pays close attention to the way in which unconscious processes may play out in personal processes or organisational issues. For example, the facilitator may note the way in which a presenter who feels unsupported by their colleagues may feel similarly towards group members. Or, if the presenter feels frustrated by a pupil, the group might consider the possibility that that’s how the pupil might be feeling.
Challenges and the Future
The main difficulty of getting a group like this up and running is that those who would get the most out of such an opportunity are those who are least likely to have the energy and resilience to take the risk of joining. I know that I would not have exposed myself in this kind of setting when I was at rock-bottom, or even half-way up: I was too concerned with getting through and surviving. I was too afraid of opening up and being swamped by what lay beneath. Although the feedback when we first advertised and discussed this group was overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic, take-up has been less so. This is not necessarily surprising; we understand and are resigned to the fact that it takes groups like this time to become established, but it is frustrating to think of those who would benefit greatly from having such an opportunity feeling too isolated to take it.
There is also the question of stigma. Within teaching it is expected that you will find the job draining and difficult, but it is also expected that you will suck it up and soldier on through. You have the holidays to recover, after all. Even if I had felt able to seek this kind of support, I wouldn’t have felt able to admit it to my colleagues.
That said, the response has been optimistic, and there are a number of people across the country who are passionate about starting up groups like the Teachers Case Discussion Group. Hopefully these will contribute to a change in the culture of teaching which re-empowers those who engage daily with our nation’s future, rather than waiting for change to appear from above.