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29 JUNE 2001
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The power in numbers

Grant Charles

A colleague and I have been conducting a training program over the past few months to a group of residential supervisors in Nova Scotia. We meet a couple of days a month in different locations around the province. One of the main purposes of the training is to establish a common framework of supervision in the residential programs. It's been an interesting journey bringing together a group of people with diverse experiences and skills in an attempt to find common ground. Like so much of our work in our field the process of coming together is at least as important as is the achieving of the stated goal of the training.

As I’m writing this column I’m remembering our first days together as a group. There had been the typical coming together interactions that occur when a group of people come together for the first time. You know how it goes. People check each other out trying to figure out where they fit in the group. People were trying to figure out how much they should trust us as trainers and each other as peers. Nothing unexpected, just the dance we do when we first come together as a group.

What did surprise me, however, was how few people in the room had previously met each other. I guess I had expected that because the province does not cover a huge geographic area (at least in Canadian terms) that most of the residential supervisors would have known each other. Many had talked to each other on the telephone but it surprised me how few people had met in person. As a result one of the biggest benefits that people say they have gotten from the training has been the opportunity to get together to discuss common concerns and interests.

I’ve thought a lot about the pleasure people get from meeting each other. Apart from the pleasure one gets from meeting new people it seemed to me that in this case a major need was being met for many of the supervisors. It seemed to me that for the first time many were connecting with their colleagues as peers and possible sources of support. However, it reminded me how many of us as supervisors or managers experience a sense of isolation in our work.

This isolation comes in many shapes. The job itself can, of course, be isolating. In smaller programs a supervisor may be the only person in the position. By virtue of this they may not have any peers in the organization. However, even in large organizations supervisors may be isolated. Here the isolation may be more purposeful. Some supervisors may not reach out to their peers because they see them as “competitors”. Some of us stay isolated because we have a need to pretend we don’t need the support of other people. I know of other situations where supervisors are kept isolated from each other by their bosses. This is more like a divide and conquer situation. I guess some bosses feel they can keep better control of their “subordinates” if they can keep them from coming together in a supportive way. Whatever the reason or the cause the end result of all of this is a sense of isolation on the part of many supervisors.

What strikes me as sad is this whole thing is how, in my experience, lots of supervisors let themselves stay isolated. Whether the isolation is caused by the size of the program or a sense of competition or the actions of a boss it seems to me that the only way it can continue is if one lets it continue. Isolation can only continue if one doesn’t reach out and end it. It also says something about the places where we work. In having a structure that isolates supervisors we once again are recreating the types of environments we are trying to prevent the kids in our care from experiencing. We try to stop them from being isolated yet we set up structures and hierarchies that promote isolation for ourselves. There’s an irony here that says a lot about our field.

However, there are people who are trying to reach out and support each other. These people should be praised for this effort. So here’s to a group of people I respect for reaching out and taking risks. The beneficiaries will not just be themselves but also the young people in their care. Here’s to the residential supervisors of Nova Scotia.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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