CYC-Online 73 FEBRUARY 2005
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A little supervisory help

Mary Murray

I still recall the first time I heard the word “supervision” being used in a context other than that of meaning a person working in a position of authority over others. It was during a team induction session prior to the opening of a children's residential unit in the Health Board. We, as the new Child Care team, were being told that we would all receive this “supervision” on a regular basis. Being entirely in the dark I whispered to the person beside me, “What is that?” and she replied, “a meeting with your manager where you can talk things out, your problems etc”. Being a deep thinker myself and rather reticent about sharing personal feelings, my hand shot straight up and I heard myself ask “Is it mandatory?” I can still remember the bemused look on the face of a Senior Social Worker when she replied, “Yes Mary, everyone is entitled to it”. This only heightened my confusion as I pondered the meaning of mandatory and entitlement. Somehow I wouldn’t have used these two words simultaneously. So there the seed was sown! From that moment on “supervision” would always stir up feelings of dread and anxiety.

My first practical experience of the dreaded “supervision” did in fact live up to my expectations. I was taken to a pub (for coffee) and there I was asked that question I was dreading, “so how is it going?” “Fine” I replied, and so this became my standard response for every question to follow. This exchange was repeated on a monthly basis and I remember scanning the supervision list to see when I next had to endure this waffle. Dread developed into proactive strategies of avoidance by changing shifts on the day it was due or by becoming involved in a meeting scheduled for the same day, thus making myself unavailable for my supervision session.

Today I am one of supervision's greatest advocates. So what went so terribly wrong and how have I taken such a U-turn regarding professional supervision?

That’s easy! In a nutshell, I had the privilege of working with a very skilled supervisor with a true gift of listening and openly communicating. She was an honest person who was willing and able to give open, honest feedback on my professional performance as she saw it. Not only that, but she enabled me to communicate, to examine my own performance, and to come up with suggestions as to how I could develop professionally. She helped me to develop the art of reflective practice and to use these professional supervision sessions to better myself professionally. She also let me off-load when necessary if I had a bee in my bonnet about a co-worker – but never without asking me to examine my responses in any situation. I remember once remonstrating at length about a member of staff who I felt was, by her demeanour and negativity, escalating the behaviour of children rather than de-escalating. My supervisor asked me what I had done about it. “What do you mean” I replied. “Well, have you challenged this person if you feel she is being unfair to the children?” Well that shook me! From these supervisory sessions my sense of who I am and my awareness of my professional responsibilities blossomed. Though, God knows, that didn’t make it any easier!

It has struck me many times since how we can let a personal relationship with a co-worker hinder our professional development and permit professional misconduct against children. Is it not my duty to speak up if I witness staff wrongfully punishing a child? Is it not my responsibility to challenge that person or any person whose standards of care are less than professional? Yes, Yes, Yes! These professional supervision sessions gave me a forum from which I could give and receive feedback, challenge myself professionally, pave my professional path ahead, and were a safe place just to be.

Some managers and many (not so brilliant) supervisors later, I found myself in a supervisory position, with the responsibility of ensuring best practice in a residential setting. Unfortunately, “professional supervision” was unheard of in this new centre. I say unfortunately, but here was my chance to introduce this support mechanism for a team of Care Workers. We sought and received the expertise of Eileen O” Neill (RMA) in order that the three staff in supervisory positions could receive training. The training in itself was a challenge. We did role-plays as supervisor and supervisee but we had to use real issues. All three were astounded as to what was verbalised for the first time. We soon realised that our communication was less than open. This had to change. How could we expect open communication from staff when we were having so much difficulty ourselves? Eileen would interrupt our banter with words such as, “but did you hear what she just said? She said she thinks you are a control freak”. She ensured that we heard the other and openly listened while another spoke. It was intense to say the least and I will never forget it.

In my opinion, this is what good professional supervision is all about:

and much much more besides. That’s a far cry from the dread and trepidation with which I approached my supervision sessions in my earlier days!! Today I wouldn’t be without a supervisor. If there is none available in my place of work I go out and get one for myself.

There are many factors which can help to make supervision sessions a wonderful support system e.g. setting the scene (preferably not a pub!), no telephone distractions, advanced planning of what you will bring to the session, good record keeping, confidentiality, trust and honesty, knowing your staff, the ability to give and receive feedback, to name but a few. The one thing I would stress is that the supervisor must always have a supervisor him/herself. This is one area where we perhaps fell down having introduced it into the Service. The supervisors themselves felt unsupported with the absence of their own supervision sessions.

I could go on for hours with many anecdotes of my own attempts in the art of good supervision – but for another day!! Suffice to say that I do try to be honest and open and to carry on the inspiring work of my first most gifted supervisor. I’m not a patch on her but I will keep trying. God bless the work!

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