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Value-based supervision

Lisa Shepard and Mark Freado

Effective supervision, particularly of front-line staff, is one of the most important tasks any education or treatment program must perform. This article provides an overview of effective supervision using principles and values based on interviews with staff and leaders in re-education programs.

Supporters as colleagues, teachers, and supporters
Of the people who have worked in re-education for 20 to 25 years (a few even longer), most started as teacher/counselors. While some continue in the classroom, many were promoted to supervisory or administrative positions. When we asked these veterans what was fundamental in their development as treatment professionals, almost all identified at least one supervisor who supported them through the many troubling issues that arise when working with seriously troubled children. They described these trusted mentors in these terms:

“I never felt stupid for asking a question.”

“I felt I could go to him/her about anything; they cared if I got better at my job.”

“I understood the rules; even though I felt like I was working without a net, I felt their support.”

“It was clear that we were in it together.”

Teacher/counselors could name their supervisors from 20 years ago and identify what the supervisor’s role had been for them personally. All used the word “teach.” These supervisors could operationalize each of the Re-ED principles.

The supervisory function
Supervisors make the program go. They are the link between what we’re supposed to be doing and what we’re actually doing. They ensure that what we do is consistent with Re-ED values.

Supervisors in our programs have a dual function in management and clinical areas. They are responsible for functional tasks, such as scheduling staff. They share human resource responsibilities, keep staff aware of agency rules, licensing regulations, and other tasks. In the clinical domain, they monitor implementation of treatment plans and assist teacher/counselors in understanding and utilizing ReED-philosophy. They help the teacher/counselor learn to see beyond the behavior to “the kid inside the kid.” They help translate the philosophy of strength-based practice into action steps for staff.

Is there such a thing as a natural supervisor or a natural leader? We believe there is, but that is not saying a good supervisor cannot be taught. Supervisors need to be both good managers and good leaders. Being too much of one and not enough of the other will disenfranchise the teacher/counselor staff who are, after all, the backbone of the program. A teacher/counselor who is now an administrator recalled how difficult being a teacher/counselor was for him. He was able to perform the mechanics of daily life, and he was genuinely good at his job. But every day was a struggle since building relationships with the kids was not natural or comfortable. He was fortunate enough to work with his good friend who was a natural teacher/counselor. His teammate had the uncanny natural ability to relax with the kids, to find joy in the job, and to believe in the inherent goodness of the kids with whom he was working. The fledgling teacher /counselor was determined to learn because he wanted to be good at his work. He saw it as a personal challenge and made it his business to do this work well. He modeled many of the behaviors of his colleagues because, “I saw how different it was for me than for my teammate.” Just as we believe that kids can become competent, so we believe that our staff can be taught.

Preparing new supervisors
Many programs lack the procedures to identify potential supervisors or begin a process that will prepare them to perform this responsibility. Often staff are promoted to supervisory positions for random reasons, among them:

  1. they have performed direct-care responsibilities in an acceptable to exceptional manner,
  2. they have expressed interest in the position and engaged in the appropriate political and program actions necessary for consideration, and/or
  3. they've stayed around long enough (sometimes as little as six months), and they are first in line to fill that critical position.

Many survive an unprepared transition to supervision, but at a cost to the individual, the staff being supervised, and the children and families they serve. If a program’s supervisors are not competent, they will impede program quality from reaching its highest potential “even when direct service staff are basically competent.

While the interpersonal tasks involved in being either an effective teacher/counselor or an effective supervisor are not dramatically different, the transition between leading kids and leading adults can be challenging. Both roles involve:

  1. supporting through understanding,
  2. teaching needed skills,
  3. building on strengths, and
  4. providing fair and effective accountability.

But the supervisor must also have the ability to create and sustain balanced relationships. Striking a balance between the personal and professional aspects of a relationship is imperative. The supervisor must make the expectations for staff growth and development clear, but this can be in a personally supportive manner.

Preparation to become a supervisor ideally begins under three conditions:

  1. a staff member has grown into the direct care position she/he holds and demonstrates some competency across the responsibilities of the job,
  2. the staff member is interested in assuming supervisory responsibilities, and
  3. the organization recognizes supervisory potential and identifies tasks to help the staff member grow in a way that promotes supervisory skills. This might include helping with training of new staff and participating in administrative /regulatory activities.

Creating and sustaining supervisors from a principle-based perspective
The process of creating effective supervisors from within the program begins early, with the orientation they receive when they are first hired for a front-line role. That initial experience gives them a sense of the scope of the program and introduces them to the values and principles of the program. How leaders represent themselves and the work of the program in the initial exposure with new staff sets the stage for all that follows. Staff who have the opportunity to begin with an understanding of positive, strength-based interventions are better prepared to work with our youth and families. Holding credentials is no guarantee of prior preparation for the job, and the job of sharing our values and approaches with new staff is essential, regardless of credentials.

Under the best of circumstances (having effective training and support), it takes perhaps six months for someone to become an effective teacher/counselor. It is little wonder they aren’t ready to supervise other teacher/counselors at that time. In healthy programs, where staff are trained and turnover is minimal, there is rarely the pressure to have to push someone so inexperienced and unprepared into a critical middle management position.

Once a strong foundation of principles and skills has been laid, programs should begin to seek and cultivate future leadership from within. There are a number of ways to identify prospective supervisors from among those who express interest and even those who do not. Prospective supervisors absorb the training they receive and then work hard to actualize that training in their work. They are the ones who ask questions, seek feedback, and request support to help them improve. They participate in treatment meetings in an articulate and balanced manner.

As prospective supervisors become more comfortable in representing themselves as teacher/ counselors, it is important to involve them in some aspects of administrative experience. They can be incorporated, formally and informally, into the training of new staff. They are often able to relate their recent, direct-care experiences in ways that address the practices as well as the principles. By helping to bring in new staff in a safe and competent manner, they are already providing one of the most important aspects of effective supervision: leadership. They will have credibility, not just for what they've done, but also for what they are doing. That will help build their self-confidence as well as respect from those they may supervise. From formal presentations in the program-training curriculum, they can extend their reach to making presentations in regional, state, or national conference forums.

Supervisors as managers and leaders
Likely leaders should be exposed to the mechanics of effective supervision. Ideally, they will see positive models firsthand in the supervision they receive in their program. The essential ingredients for effective supervision are:

These components can be taught by example in the classroom. If these functions are covered, one can become a good manager. If these can be combined with a positive vision that brings principles to life, the manager is also a leader.

This feature: Shepard, Lisa and Freado, Mark (2002). Value-based supervision. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 11, 2. pp. 103-105.

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