Reflections of a supervision educator

Liz Beddoe

This post isn’t on research about supervision as such but I will mention some in passing. It was promoted by an interesting discussion on supervision in Twitter last week. And that discussion was prompted by contributors talking about reflective practice.

I have been educating social workers and other professionals in supervision for about 20 years. I started more or less by accident when my friend and co-researcher Allyson Davys asked me to join her in facilitating some supervisor training for probation officers. This was a hugely challenging experience as while both of us were experienced supervisors we hadn’t had much training ourselves other than short day courses of an in-service nature. That was the norm at the time and probably is still the common experience for many social workers who become supervisors. One day you are an ‘ordinary’ practitioner and the next day meant to be an expert, or at least that’s how it feels.

To prepare to teach these courses to practitioners we first went hunting for literature. We were surprised at the lack of material which clearly identified skills for supervision. The literature seemed instead to focus on the rationale for supervision, the state of supervision during a period of rapid change and development and critique of “models” of supervision that were about functions rather than process. We were pleased over the next few years to find four books which sustained us and remain excellent sources for supervision (see the references below). Later we wrote our own book as no single text had everything we wanted in it for our teaching (Davys and Beddoe, 2010). Once it was published of course we noticed what else we should have included. There will be a new book in 2015.

There is now a large literature for supervision both in books and academic journals. There still seems to be a bit of a gap in terms of exploring ‘what works’ in teaching supervision skills. Milne, Sheikh, Pattison and Wilkinson (2011) undertook a systematic review of 11 studies and among the top 15 methods for training supervisors found the following: feedback; educational role-play; modelling (live/video demonstration) ; teaching (verbal instruction); written assignments; behavioural rehearsal; guided reading; discussion; educational assessment and direct observation (p.63). I now lead a postgraduate university programme in professional supervision (taught to varied professionals from health and social services professions) and we use all these methods in our teaching.

Four particular things make our courses effective (we have consistent positive course evaluations and graduates refer new students): 1) we teach a structured reflective learning process as a model of supervision (Davys & Beddoe, 2010); 2) we provide a strong research base for students’ development; 3) our programme is interprofessional and so taken-for-granted disciplinary assumptions get challenged, and 4) we require students to bring videos for self/peer/lecturer feedback and formal assessment. The latter activity means that over my twenty years I have probably seen at least 500 supervision videos.

In the Twitter discussion I was asked about my emotions when watching the videos. Well first of all I want to acknowledge the courage of students in bringing their work in to be critiqued. This isn’t easy and for experienced practitioners it is often the first time they have been “watched” for years. The students range from practitioners with only three or four years of practice through to seasoned professionals. Some students hold clinical doctorates and have practiced as psychotherapists, some are nurses/allied health professionals who are really new to supervision (often advocates for supervision where colleagues may be sceptical) and haven’t always had the interpersonal interviewing /counselling skills training of the majority of students. So it’s exposing and anxiety provoking.

My feelings when watching would include all of these at times (in alphabetical order!): awed, admiring, bored, cynical, dejected; doubtful, empathic, fascinated, gloomy, horrified, impressed, jubilant……right through to satisfied, squirmy, tired, uncomfortable, upbeat, virtuous, weary, wondering, zealous!

What do I see that produces those positive states of mind? Empathic, clever, sensitive and brave supervisors who are willing to challenge: “I wonder what stopped you just then from asking about…” “I wonder if you noticed how you drew back when I asked …”, “What in your worldview or experience sits behind that assumption you just seemed to make?” Supervisors able to give lovely feedback in-the-moment.

What creates those not-so-happy states: probably supervisors who miss fantastic learning moments, supervisors who fail to give the generous feedback needed even when the opportunity is staring them in the face, mostly supervisors who aren’t brave enough to try a new way of supervising, who stick with “how was your week?” or “what’s on top?” and then wallow in unstructured story-telling. This latter I call ‘narrative drift’. Where the story is told, embellished, augmented and allowed to dominate the time without any small ‘c’ and definitely no ‘big-C’ critical reflection. Nothing much changes, no great ideas emerge, little is learned and both parties have a bit of a high from the narrative sugar-hit called ‘venting’. Assumptions go unchallenged and practice unchanged. Ten minutes later they have probably both forgotten all about it.

After more than 500 videos how do I feel overall? Satisfied – there are wonderful creative, talented supervisors, and new supervisors who are really keen to develop. To my students I tip my hat to their courage and commitment. It is after all a privilege to be allowed glimpses of their practice worlds.

We can do better and we do need more research. But yes I do feel that supervision is in good heart.


Bond, M., & Holland, S. (1998). Skills of clinical supervision for nurses. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Brown, A., & Bourne, I. (1996). The social work supervisor. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Davys, A., & Beddoe, L. (2010). Best practice in supervision: A guide for the helping professions. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Hawkins, P., & Shohet, R. (1989). Supervision in the helping professions. Maidenhead, Berkshire: Open University Press.
Hughes, L., & Pengelly, P. (1997). Staff supervision in a turbulent environment – Managing process and task in front-line services. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Milne, D. L., Sheikh, A. I., Pattison, S., & Wilkinson, A. (2011). Evidence-based training for clinical supervisors: A systematic review of 11 controlled studies. The Clinical Supervisor, 30(1), 53 – 71.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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