Supervision for Teachers

[I first published this on my personal blog while I was completing my MSc in Counselling Psychology]

One of the reasons I left teaching a year ago was the emotional burden of the job. I've already written more than enough words about that decision, so won't bang on about it now. But something has occurred to me about teaching as I've been studying counselling: teachers need, no, deserve supervision.

At the time I left, I felt that although I could talk about the worries, stresses and anxieties (as well as the joys) of teaching, it was safer to keep these bottled up, reined in. Let a little out, I feared, and you risk being overwhelmed. Much better to keep it all under wraps until the next holiday, and then do your best to forget about it.

I've just about finished my counselling training, and feel like I've learnt either a lot or near enough nothing, depending on what day of the week it is. But one thing I have definitely learnt is that, more often than not, the fear of being overwhelmed by the emotional burden of work does not play out. I've learnt this not through theories about personality (lies), but through the process of supervision.

For those who are not familiar with the term, within counselling/psychotherapy supervision refers not to line-manager type stuff, but to the process of unpacking the emotional burden (this seems an unnecessarily negative word; sorry) of working with clients, generally with someone who does not work with you or know your clients. In my case, this means going to someone's house (not just anyone - a counsellor who has a lot of experience) once a fortnight and talking through any worries and anxieties I may have about my counselling work.

It works, and it works because of trust.

Although it's called supervision, and is compulsory for counsellors, it embodies a trust in the individual which ofsted would decry as unaccountable: there is no reporting procedure, no set of standardised descriptions which counsellors must meet, and no mechanism for public humiliation. My supervisor does have a role in ensuring the safety of my clients, and would challenge me if she thought they were at risk (or take her concerns further, if she thought I was reckless in response to her challenges), but the emphasis is on dialogue, not judgement. The expectation is that I, as a counsellor, will be able to work out problems and anxieties in that dialogue, and will be proactive and responsible in self-examination. And I am, because I am trusted, and because I can talk within a safe, confidential space about things I would otherwise bottle up.

I don't want to get into an argument with myself about the rights and wrongs of 'accountability', but it has struck me throughout the year how useful supervision of this kind would be for teachers. Teachers are required, daily, to engage on an intensely human level with incredibly difficult and moving situations. More often than not, even in supportive schools such as those I worked at, the nationally-instilled culture of fear curtails any serious attempts to open up these experiences. There's always another lesson to plan, and this always takes precedence. If you're lucky, like I was, you will have colleagues with whom you can open up your fears of inadequacy, but even then I backed away from really opening up, fearing the fallout from that. If you are not you can be left hopelessly isolated.

One of my plans, once I am fully qualified, is to establish a mechanism whereby teachers can access supervision outside of the systems of accountability, performance management, and professional development. It will be a space where teachers can share their anxieties, puzzlements and troubles without fear of judgement.

With some of the fear lifted, teaching could once again be the rewarding profession it should be; the same challenges and problems and joys and successes, but without the fear and isolation. And, most importantly, a better, more human education for the children we teach.

- Phil