Supervision has a long and illustrious history as a professional practice across multiple disciplines that are concerned with positive outcomes for children, young people and their families. Defined as a work-based learning relationship, it is a reflective space where those involved – either in relational dyads or in small groups – commit to purposefully engaging in learning from experience (Kennedy et al., 2018; Kennedy and Laverick, 2019). It places particular emphasis on how our feelings, thoughts, values and attitudes – our selves-in-role as practitioners – influence what we do at work. Whilst practitioners in other fields, such as medicine, social work, psychology, psychotherapy, counselling and so on, typically conceive of supervision as a core and fundamental component of continuing professional development (CPD) across a career, supervision has received far less attention in education.
Coaching and supervision: Complementary and yet different
Coaching is more commonplace and embedded in schools (Lofthouse et al., 2010). Indeed, there are obvious similarities between coaching and supervision (Kennedy et al., 2017), in that both are learning-oriented and involve relationships between practitioners. There are, however, unique features of each. For example, there is often an emphasis in coaching on the development of specific skills to improve practice. Supervision does attend to this learning/developmental function, and also holds in mind how such learning and development is situated in a wider professional, ethical and cultural context. A further and defining distinctive feature of supervision, especially relational models, is the central significance of the containment provided by the supervisor in facilitating professional connection and challenge. This paper explores how one particular model of supervision, implemented in schools for headteachers, informed practice and the potential impact on student outcomes.
The supervisory experience
Professional supervision was organised and provided for two senior leaders of a medium-sized organisation, both of whom were appointed and tasked with providing leadership to six schools during a hugely complex period of transition. All of the schools were undergoing major changes in management, curriculum provision and relationships with the wider community, at a time of wider local and national turmoil in the education sector generally. Regular fortnightly supervision sessions were scheduled, where each senior leader met individually with the supervisor, and every third session was a joint one. The supervision was contracted for as essentially a supportive measure to ensure that both leaders were provided with a reflective space to ‘park’ emotionally stressful work issues. In addition, a further aim was to facilitate reflection on challenges faced in a work context and ultimately to work together more effectively to achieve common goals (Hulse-Killacky and Page, 1994).
The supervision sessions acted as ‘protected time’ for thinking together about experiences in work and reflecting on the way forward. These experiences ranged from strategic HR issues to difficulties with a parent whose mental health needs affected their relationships with school staff. They also included experiences of working together with staff teams in each of the schools, the governing body and various local authorities, and interactions with other stakeholders (e.g. Ofsted). Both senior leaders used the time to work ‘through’ complexity, reflecting on actions taken and not taken and what some of the underpinning drivers and motivations may have been. Adopting a systemic perspective in terms of how each experience may have been taken up by the various children, families, staff and other colleagues involved – and thinking about the ways in which patterns of interpersonal relating impacted on workplace dynamics – supported the senior leaders in resolving some of the dilemmas faced.
Reflections on success: Relationships matter
Senior leaders must have positive interpersonal relationships at work and display high levels of emotional intelligence. They also carry the ultimate responsibility for the majority of the most difficult conversations with staff, parents and other professionals. To do both with any degree of effectiveness, senior leaders have to manage their own anxieties, frustrations, anger and stresses without such understandable feelings ‘leaking’ out. They often do so with limited support, and headship can be a lonely and isolating place. Having an experienced supervisor who understood the operational aspects of working in schools was helpful, in that senior leaders could talk about what had been happening in the organisation as a whole, and their associated role and task, without having to constantly clarify or explain the ordinary workings of schools.
The most important contributory factor to the success of supervision was the trusting relationship that existed between the two senior leader colleagues, as well as between them and the supervisor. Such trust required a high level of openness and honesty, and a willingness to take risks in adopting different positions and holding different views whilst still respecting the other. After two terms of regular supervision, it became evident that not only did these sessions contribute to strategic work during turbulent change-management, but they also provided an emotionally containing function. Supervision was an outlet to air emotions in a safe and confidential way, allowing space and time for worries to be acknowledged and stressful situations to be reframed. It is not therefore surprising that in the case of this organisation, supervision has continued to feature as part of the leaders’ work calendar. Far from it being viewed as a selfish thing to do, the integral value of supervision sessions for senior leaders has become increasingly evident. The schools’ family liaison and inclusion teams now benefit from workplace supervision, and the organisational culture overall is one committed to professionally reflective practice and learning relationships. Feedback from ‘team’ and individual supervisions has been positive and, more importantly, focused on how school staff have looked at the same experience differently, considering ideas about new ways of working with particular pupils and parents going forward.
School leaders are often referred to as system leaders, operating in profoundly challenging financial and political times. Although there have been studies of what makes a school leader effective (and therefore capable of driving standards in schools), less has been written about how to ensure that they have time to think, and to think systematically and systemically. Professional supervision offers a confidential space where school leaders can be heard in an empathic way, can discuss emotional responses to demanding work situations and, ultimately, can reflect on how best to improve pupils’ school experience.
In conclusion, mechanisms to support recruitment and retention for headteachers are much needed. Damian Hinds argued recently that teachers should view themselves alongside their medical colleagues, a profession where practitioners are routinely offered supervision by their employers as part of their CPD (DfE, 2019). If there is to be greater parity, a question for reflection is whether it is reasonable to expect school leaders to continue wrestling with the onerous requirements of their jobs without the connecting, containing and challenging spaces they need.
Department for Education (DfE) (2019) Damian Hinds’ speech at the 2019 NAHT conference. Available at: gov.uk/government/speeches/damian-hinds-speech-at-the-2019-naht-conference (accessed 24 March 2019).
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