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97 FEBRUARY 2007
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It’s what you do

Mary Burnison

“Similar to Child and Youth Care Work, supervision is not the way you talk or write about it. Rather, it is the way you do it.”

That having been said, when I was asked to write a couple of pages about supervision for CYC-Online , I said “Yes” even though I knew it would be challenging to do so.

“What the hell was I thinking?”

Part of the difficulty is in putting into words something that I take for granted as part of my everyday work. Nevertheless I agreed to take a stab at this because it is something I know a little about and also something I value.

What follows is an essay on some of my thoughts on what makes for good supervision. It is based on my own work and life experiences “both as a supervisee and as a supervisor. Hopefully some of what I have to say will resonate with those of you who read this.

I have been privileged to have some very fine supervisors. One of the first to come to mind was a Journalism Professor most students called “Ma Laird.” She knew how to inspire, motivate and expect big things – as a supervisor she planted the seed of an idea in such a manner that I, the supervisee, just knew I could do whatever it was I was attempting to do. Ruth Laird was a developer of people; she got to know me and other students in ways that inspired and motivated each of us to try new things, to stretch and work in ways that helped us develop skills that were brand new and possibly even scary to practice because they were so new. She was a great coach.

But most of all she believed in us! Hence we believed in ourselves! The result for me: I published my first magazine article at 21 in a national publication. I believe it was the supervisory/ mentoring relationship that I had with “Ma Laird” that laid the ground for that bit of success.

Another person who counted big time as a good supervisor was D.J. Cline who was a fireball of energy. She was one of those extremely busy people who always found time for you and made sure you knew she would take the time to listen or advise you if you needed extra help or a bit of a boost to get you launched on whatever project you needed to get moving on. She was tough and kind at the same time, a stickler for paying attention to details and she stuck with you even when the “going got really tough.” You knew you could count on her.

Then there was Bob Williams – my first boss after college. The man was brilliant and funny and was always making friends, making relationships, paying attention to the context of everything around him. He loved to teach, loved to laugh, loved to tell stories. Matter of fact, telling stories of everyday things that he encountered was one of the best ways he had to teach whatever it was he thought you might need to learn. He shared his own ideas, his own work and asked you for ways that you would do it differently. There was a real give-and-take collegiality – he truly lived the notion of “dare to be taught by others.” Creativity and hands-on learning opportunities were always part of how he supervised and mentored me. It started at the job interview – when he asked me to write and also when he and I told each other stories and laughed together. He knew how to set a personal yet professional tone. He made learning/supervising interactive and playful.

Sometime later I encountered Dave Steenson, head of a local social service agency where I was a beginning youth worker in a girls” group home. What I remember most was when he would stop by the group home, usually late afternoon or early evening a little before supper. He felt like the friendly visitor on his way home to his family, who just dropped by for a snack, cup of coffee and short visit. During that time he would chat with staff and kids, often asking how the day had gone. Some days he would stay and have dinner with us. Thinking back on it, it reminds me of the old house calls that doctors used to make. It was the best of informal, “on-the hoof” supervision. I felt cared about as an employee and that he was interested in the work I was doing with a group of lively and sometimes difficult adolescent girls. Dave Steenson had a way of asking about and listening that made supervision seem like time with a family elder that you knew, loved and trusted. He was a background presence and you knew he would back you up when you needed him. Yet he never felt intrusive, authoritarian or one-up. He really understood the concepts of mutual respect and trust. Most especially he had a gentle humility that endeared him to those of us who worked with him as well as to the teenage girls who lived in the group home. He encouraged me and others to get more education, secured the necessary dollars for training and workshops and wrote reference letters that made further education and professional development possible.

After attending graduate school, I had the good fortune to meet Jerry Beker who was the head of the Center for Youth Development and Research at the University of Minnesota and a well known scholar in the Child and Youth Care field. He later became my supervisor. From him I learned the importance of building a stronger understanding of the field of Child and Youth Care Work (historically and internationally) and to build a more theoretical knowledge base in Youth Work and Youth Development. These would complement my hands-on experiences in both Youth Work and Social Work. I also learned that regular 1:1 time with a supervisor who knows how to listen, ask good questions and connect you with other good resources is worth a ton! It was with Jerry that I really began to understand the power of storytelling, story finding and story listening. Under his supervision I got the chance to develop my own capacity to teach and supervise many beginning youth workers as part of a youth work practicum course I taught for fourteen years in Youth Studies at the University of Minnesota. What did I learn from this?

Well for starters – to supervise means many different things. It means to know oneself well and also to know how to build solid, trusting relationships with others. It requires respect, understanding, patience and humor.

There is an art to it, in that it works differently with different people. Knowing when to listen, when to intervene, when to push, when to probe, when to be quiet – it always depends. Similar to Child and Youth Care work, there is no formula for supervision.

I believe that getting to know each supervisee is key. As is learning from each of them what it is that they need from their supervisor in order to grow and develop personally and professionally. At best, our work as supervisors is to encourage and support the folks we supervise to do and be the best that they can be. Sometimes that means we are sounding boards, supervisors who “hear staff out” and listen to the stories/situations related to their work. Sometimes we are present with them in the moment when a critical incident occurs “at such times we may be primarily observers, someone for the worker to talk with later about what happened; sometimes we listen, sometimes we question, sometimes we share our own perspectives. Other times we may be more actively involved, working alongside staff, together figuring out what it is we need to do. There might also be opportunities for us to show how we would handle a situation. The possibilities are endless.

Supervision is interactive and artistic and requires strong relationship skills. Attention to details, attention to the ways that others learn and the ability to alter timing and rhythm is also important as situations and people shift and change. Being able to improvise in the moment is very helpful.

To supervise well means many things. And it always depends! One must know oneself – and also know how to make connections and build on these connections in ways that lead to solid relationships with others. Knowing how to build respectful, trusting relationships and then finding ways to interact both formally and informally with those you supervise makes it easier to offer help, support and encouragement at times when it can be heard or utilized.

The following list includes a few of my own insights related to the characteristics of an effective supervisor. An effective Supervisor is someone who -

How do I know some of these things work? I use such approaches every day and have for years and I have learned from a variety of mentors and supervisors that have used many of these ways with me. Such supervision is relationship-based and recognizes the importance of developing trusting, respectful relationships between supervisor and supervisee. A willingness to spend time listening, advising, counseling, working together when critical incidents arise is also key: as is knowing that this is process-oriented work where one needs to be available to help the supervisee sort through the incident and think of a variety of choices that he/she might try in response.

I think that one of the purposes of good supervision is to allow for role rehearsal time – time that creates opportunities for someone to think of the situation in alternative ways and then go back to the work site and past situation or on to future situations better prepared to try other ways – perhaps because the youth worker’s perspective has shifted and he/she sees options for responding or doing something differently.

To many of you these ideas will not be new and perhaps seem rather obvious. Even so my hopes are that they stimulate some of you to write your own list of “An Effective Supervisor is someone who – ” And then to lift up some of your own knowledge (meaning-making) of what it is you know from your own work experiences as a supervisor or supervisee. My intent has been to show some of my own insights and to invite each of you to surface what you already know yourself about supervision.

In much the same way as good Child and Youth Care work, good supervision is an interactive and artistic process and when skillfully done, it enhances the effectiveness and continued development of Child and Youth Care workers who in turn do better work with children and youth.

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