Early childhood centers that have been reopening since early summer have a word of warning for schools: Don’t forget to make time for supportive supervision.
More than ever, educators isolated in their classrooms or behind their laptops need support. The early childhood field has a unique model of supervision, rooted in relationships and collaboration, that day schools could implement to their benefit. This article will demonstrate how the model functions and will argue that the unique benefits of reflective supervision are tailor-made for our time.
Reflective supervision developed in the field of infant mental health and is a kindred spirit to Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. Just as Palmer instructs that teachers project the condition of their own souls onto their students, this model invites teachers to work with their supervisors to “hold a mirror to the soul.” Through entering what Palmer calls the “tangles of teaching” with a supervisor, the teacher is strengthened and brings that wholeness to his or her work with students.
In this way, reflective supervision acts as a “parallel process,” meaning that the quality and characteristics of the session (relational, reflective and co-constructed) model the ways that teachers engage with children and families. The parallel process, an interlocking set of gears between supervisor, teacher, and children and families, relies on the idea that “as we are nurtured, so we are enabled to nurture” (Sherryl Scott Heller and Linda Gilkerson, A Practical Guide to Reflective Supervision).
A reflective supervision session, scheduled in advance and taking place for 20 to 60 minutes at least twice a month, is a supportive and collaborative opportunity for teachers and supervisors to talk about the teacher’s work and challenges. In these sessions, teachers have agency to determine how the time will be spent, with supervisors prepared to ask questions of their own. The approach is generally summed up in three words: collaboration, reflection and regularity. Another way to explain this is to make clear what reflective supervision is not: It is not a therapy or venting session, it is not evaluative, and it is not for curriculum planning. Any one of these items may feature in a small way in the session, but these are not the purposes.
For a closer look at what really makes these sessions tick, this year we engaged 15 Jewish early childhood educators in a research project to learn how teachers experienced reflective supervision. Their reflections taught us that supervisors foster an environment that is emotionally attuned to the teacher, engage in a shared dialogue and a language of encouragement and inquiry, and, through these processes, positively impact teachers’ sense of self-efficacy.
SETTING THE ENVIRONMENT
According to teachers, a reflective supervisor cultivates an enjoyable and relaxed environment where they feel heard, respected, appreciated and seen. Within this safe space, the educator knows that this time is sacred; in the words of one teacher, “This is my time with the supervisor and it really is.” As the relationship progresses, that level of knowing enables the supervisor to “know my growth, and see it, and remind me of it when I tend to forget where I came from.”
The environment is intentionally focused on engendering growth in the context of a collaborative relationship built around trust, honesty and consistency. The supervisor’s emotional responsiveness sets the tone for generating innovative perspectives and solutions together.
This is achieved through supervisor behaviors characterized by “supportive listening,” investing in teachers’ ideas and interest, recognizing teachers’ agency and suspending judgment.
One teacher highlighted how her supervisor “makes it very much focused on you.” The “focus” on the individual participant signals an important insight into educational leadership: the central role of attunement. The attunement a teacher experiences with their supervisor, then, reflects and models the attunement that a teacher employs with students and families. Online engagement will put the attunement of educators to the test this year, challenging its implementation at a time when it remains critical to the wellbeing and learning of all members of the school community. Naming the centrality of and modeling attunement is a critical reflective step for all educators, now and always.
BEING A SUPERVISOR OF VALOR
What does the supervisor do in these sessions? According to teachers, they are not telling the teachers what to do. Rather, they are advising, affirming, approving, asking questions, asking teachers about their own growth, celebrating successes, challenging the educator, checking in on the educator as a person, cheering on the educator, coaching, commenting rather than criticizing, expressing confidence in the teacher, empathizing, encouraging,
enhancing, expressing concern, guiding, listening, making practical suggestions, offering advice and new perspective, praising, reassuring and understanding, and validating. Educators describe a particularly trusting method of being challenged by their supervisors: suggestions and advice are offered, and when educators are, in their words, pushed, it is to take initiative. As one educator explained, “She pushes me just enough to make me want to do better, but is not overwhelming.”
THE MAGIC OF THE DIALOGUE
These regular, comfortable sessions, in which supervisors engage in dozens of leadership actions, catalyze a metamorphosis in the teachers, giving birth to new ways of thinking and doing. (See Tables 1-3 for examples of how the behaviors of each participant contribute to the advancement of the conversation.) One teacher shared the importance of having a “sounding board,” making clear that through shared power and partnership, the supervisor “never made me feel like she was above me; [rather,] the reflective supervision gave me room to reframe the challenge I was experiencing.” These sessions elicit teachers’ concerns, interests, feelings and needs. Through this experience, supervisors adjust to consider what practices and approaches would best support the co-created goals of the session (Rebecca Parlakian, Look, Listen, and Learn: Reflective Supervision and Relationship-Based Work). The dialogue, within the context of collaboration and authentic care, produces new insights that teachers apply to their work. As another teacher shared, “I think it is eye- opening. It’s pushed me… she gave me some good ideas to build upon.”
In our time together I:
explain | listen | express my feelings | am finding my place
prioritize what I want to discuss | can be honest
My supervisor helps me:
think | hone | navigate | face challenges | solve problems
make sense of things | develop as an educator | find my voice
see the big picture | see a different perspective
find my passion so that I can focus there | improve my communication with team
know where to find resources
touch base | find clarity | plan and reflect | engage with honesty
get to our why | put a plan in place | talk through things
go deeper in talking about our students | talk about the meaning of a child’s words
MAKING TEACHERS MORE CONFIDENT
Teachers report that the supervisory relationship plays a central role in impacting their self-confidence. Numerous studies have demonstrated that teachers’ beliefs in themselves impact their effectiveness. The early years in a person’s career are particularly vulnerable, and the steep learning curve can make or break the educator’s decision to stay in the field for the long haul. The supervisor’s role seems to be that of buffer or scaffold, helping the educator through challenges.
As a teacher poignantly reflected: “I don’t think I would have the courage or stamina—the motivation maybe— if it weren’t for my meetings.” This stamina and commitment rely on the enhancement of positive feelings about oneself as a teacher through the reflective supervision experience. As the supervisor “valued my thoughts,” the teacher felt an increase in confidence and left meetings feeling inspired.
LEADING THIS YEAR
The emotional reality facing teachers, children and families offers school leaders an opportunity to more fully actualize a vision of leadership that is as attuned to social-emotional development and as collaborative as are the classroom environments that schools promote.
Leadership that is attuned to social- emotional development. The population returning to us has, to varying degrees, experienced trauma. As one school leader recently told us, “Another week— another teacher calling me to say she won’t come back.” The same is true as school leaders take last-minute calls from families withdrawing from school out of fear of contracting Covid. Amanda Moreno, who directs the Social Emotional Learning Initiative at Chicago’s Erikson Institute, talks about trauma and stress by explaining that “all of us have limited cognitive space. If that is being taken up by lots of things, there won’t be room available for things like learning.”
This is what is happening in the minds of the human beings who are returning to schools this fall. Moreno warns that all the talk about resilience over the last decade has falsely convinced us to stand far back from those we care about. Instead, she cites recent brain research that suggests that resilience is not about sitting back and expecting children and staff to bounce back. Instead, resilience is the result produced when caring adults soften the landing for others, especially those who are under stress.
While it might feel challenging to take on a new practice and implement it perfectly right now, it is important to remember that at the core of its relational design is the potential for mismatch or mistakes in the process. Prior to Covid-19, participants informed us that even when “I wished [the session] were longer,” “sometimes it gets canceled,” or “she doesn’t seem eager to meet,” reflective supervision remained a transformative method for growth due the overall level of attunement between supervisor and educator. As within all relationships, missteps happen, and it is not plausible to be fully receptive to and aware of someone’s needs at all times. Yet, like Winnicott’s notion of the “good-enough parent,” imperfect but genuine care and support are enough to foster growth.
Leadership that is collaborative. Supervision, like social-constructivist learning, should not be a didactic exercise. Just as the sages suggested that a blade of grass grows through encouragement, so do children, and so too do their teachers. Reflective supervision, then, illustrates the idea that leaders are nurturers and, in a riff on Heschel, positions leaders as midwife to the birth of an educator’s reflective stance. Furthermore, this process is not unidirectional. That is, leaders themselves can grow in their practice as they embody a more collaborative approach, seeing their leadership role as that of host rather than hero, a shift that leadership science has been advocating for decades. Overall, this means that a supervisor’s leadership in relation to teachers has a powerful impact on student learning, and that this classroom learning, in turn, has the potential to impact the overall culture of the school community.
Early this summer, Alex Pomson and Frayda Gonshor Cohen wrote that “the beating heart…of day school education” is its “relational core.” These wise words are only as true as the calendar of a school leader reveals. When sacred time on the calendar is devoted to one-on-one reflective, collaborative conversation with each and every member of the teaching team, school leaders have the potential to radiate healing and improve teaching throughout the school. This year those sessions may take place via Zoom, in well- ventilated offices or at a picnic table on a quieter part of the campus.
At this time of great stress, when schools may feel compelled to streamline programming, establishing open-hearted, relational and effective supervision practices is among the most positive investments school leaders can make. From the perspective of one veteran teacher, the reflective supervision adopted by her school is “probably the single best thing I’ve done as a teacher.”