Cats, dogs and pineapples – reflections from the virtual delivery of ‘PSDP: Supervising the Supervisor’

Written: 26/10/2020

By: amy bishop

In: Reflections

Published: 26/10/2020

Author: Jo Williams

Showing our ‘workings out’ again

In August this year, Dez Holmes and I wrote a blog to promote a new strand to the Practice Supervisor Development Programme (PSDP), aimed at the ‘Supervisors of the Supervisors’, i.e. those colleagues who manage the supervisors who previously attended the PSDP, such as team managers and heads of service. As with all new PSDP strands, we worked with a pilot cohort, as part of co-creating this offer to the sector and learning from participant feedback about their experiences. This was particularly important, as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has led us to put together a blend of asynchronous self-directed learning, two days of synchronous face-to-face virtual learning and three virtual individual development sessions. Therefore this provided an opportunity to share our ‘virtual workings out’ with the pilot group and test the effectiveness of the programme pedagogy as well as content.

Orientating relational practice within a virtual space

When we originally embarked on the PSDP journey in 2018, and I learned that we planned to provide the individual development (one-to-one) component of the programme on Zoom, I have to admit, I was initially hesitant. Being an advocate for good quality, reflective and relational, supervision, which embraces the emotional landscape of practice, I was unsure whether a virtual platform would promote the relational component, which is so central to the PSDP and supervision practice itself. We quickly learned, that actually, given the opportunity to access this virtual space, participants frequently took a very deep dive into it. Whilst this insight helped with our confidence in the virtual delivery of the programme, it was clear back in March 2020 that we still had a long way to go as a sector when it came to confidence in the technicalities of working together in a virtual world, both for social workers and facilitators.

In her blog in March 2019, Professor Gillian Ruch reflected on the delivery of the programme in a residential setting, from her facilitator role, that ‘we have learnt to be with each other personally and professionally, mirroring the personal and professional dimensions of the practice supervisor role’. In many ways, we are all discovering that working from home and using virtual platforms, further enhances this aspect of the ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ merging. During the pilot, this included the learning space being extended to a variety of participants’ cats and dogs (and window cleaners!), which aside to occasional disruptions, seemed to bring a therapeutic feel to the cohort experience.  

We were heartened to receive feedback from a participant who shared that her two day experience was ‘as best as an away day can be from my sofa’ and I wondered whether this evident prominence of personal space, enhanced the potential for the cohort to get more deeply in touch with the personal domains of their role, through stepping away from practice within a personal space…and whether the ‘apart’ aspect of  being ‘together-apart’ might have been a catalyst for more profound emotional exploration and courageous connecting? It was certainly rewarding to hear participants hopes for keeping in touch with each other and meeting ‘in person’ in the future, suggesting that our PSDP Community of Practice ethos can still be fruitful in the virtual world.  

Navigating PSDP materials in a virtual learning space

As facilitators, we were humbled by the tenacity of participants to overcome technical and connection challenges, which gave a first-hand glimpse at the efforts social work managers will go to, to connect and commit to learning, even under pandemic circumstances. If this is a flavour of what is currently happening in social work practice in England, then it shows the motivation of our practice supervisors and leaders in a positive light.

As with previous generic PSDP cohorts, this group really valued time away from practice to slow down, think and get back in touch with the emotional aspects of practice. Several of the exercises on the programme draw on psycho-social methods to invite participants to explore and express their feelings and these creative processes were popular with the group. A memorable moment for me, was the imaginative spontaneity of one participant using a pineapple from her fruit bowl to describe her role as a Head of Service (that you need to stand out, have a tough exterior at times, softness in the middle for supporting work with children and families and a solid core of resilience). One of the participants said – ‘I’ve really benefitted from the course and feel I’ve learnt a great deal about myself’. This statement echoed reflections from other participants who expressed how useful it had been to revisit thinking about ‘use of self’ and their own journey to becoming a supervisor.

Frequent opportunities to work together in break-out rooms on the virtual platform, also provided space for participants to share ideas and explore supervision and leadership practice dilemmas. Working in different sized groups across the two days, was valued for the variety added to help participants keep focused and assisted different learning styles. On the whole, we learned that the majority of the activities worked well on a virtual platform and are grateful for the group in helping us to test and adapt these whilst continuing to learn. Feedback from the group was that they had found the learning opportunities provided, to be geared at the right level for their role and that this was unusual in their experience of training. Also, that they had really valued the opportunity to network and learn from each other, reflecting the importance of spending time with peers at their own level.

Concluding reflections…

We should be careful not to make assumptions within the social work sector, about middle managers being too busy to engage in this sort of learning opportunity, or that they may not feel the need to re-visit important issues such as ‘use of self’ in their role and their connection to children and families. In fact, quite the opposite emerged from the virtual training room, with several of the group expressing that they would have benefited from a third day together.

The psychodynamic concept of parallel processis a phenomenon which is reflective of interpersonal relationships and helps to explain how the dynamics within one relationship can play out in another (Dryden and Thorne, 1991). This idea contributes to relationship-based practice i.e. what happens in supervision may play out in practice with families and vice versa. This is something we have considered in programme design and delivery and through our modelling as facilitators on the PSDP. It is arguably even more vital to consider this when working in a virtual space, particularly the opportunity to model ‘imperfection’ and all that comes with ‘being human’ in the ‘social’ part of the social work task, under the current circumstances.

In this continued climate of uncertainty across the world and in social work practice, virtual platforms have a lot to offer reflective processes and it is possible to provide relational, experiential learning opportunities, which may emulate building connections and learning in teams and in supervision. We are hugely grateful for the willingness and enthusiasm of the pilot group, for working with us in developing this strand of the PSDP and helping us to navigate virtual learning territory. It has provided a strong springboard for the rest of the programmes in wave three and we are looking forward to sharing further learning as this emerges in the future.

Jo Williams is the Delivery Lead for the Practice Supervisor Development Programme (PSDP). She works for the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, who are part of the PSDP consortium.

Reference: Dryden, W. and Thorne, B. (1991) Training and Supervision for Counselling in Action, London: Sage

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