High Road Low Road
by Allan Barsky, Ph.D., MSW, JD
When student interns and other new social workers are making decisions about where to work, one of the most important factors to consider is the quality of field supervision (sometimes called field education or field instruction). Ideally, you will have a supervisor who not only excels as a practitioner, but one who possesses a high level of competence (skills, knowledge, and ethics) as a field supervisor. Ideally, you will have a supervisor who is always available and always ready to provide you with the support that you need to provide services in a competent manner and to facilitate your professional development. And ideally, you will have a positive relationship with your supervisor, based on mutual respect and trust.
So, what happens when the reality departs from these ideals? The following scenarios present a range of issues that may arise and offer suggestions for how to proceed. A word of caution: when problems arise in supervision, there is an interactive effect—the supervisor’s behaviors affect you, and your behaviors affect the supervisor. The two of you are also part of greater systems, including the host agency, your clients, and your social work program. As we know from systems theory, problems often occur in the interactions between people—accordingly, be careful about laying blame on your supervisor or any other individual.
SCENARIO 1: Randi has recently started her field placement in an agency that serves people who are transitioning from prison back to the community. Randi’s supervisor, Trish, assigns 10 clients to Randi. Randi is excited to have clients, but also fears that she is not ready for all the responsibility. Further, she is very anxious about working with this population, particularly those who have committed violent crimes. Randi asks Trish if she can observe Trish as she conducts some interviews first, so she can get a better sense of what will be expected of her. Trish tells Randi that she was supposed to be prepared for field in her practice courses. Randi thinks that Trish is being negligent in providing appropriate supervision, but Randi is also afraid to confront Trish. Randi feels caught in a double bind. If she talks with Trish about her concerns, Trish may become defensive or angry, putting Randi’s whole field placement at risk. If she does not talk with Trish, she feels she may fall flat on her face. Randi decides to speak with her faculty field advisor for help. If Randi came to you for assistance, how would you advise her?
If you take Randi’s story at face value, you might conclude that Trish is not providing supervision in a competent or professional manner. Although Randi’s story relates her perceptions, remember that you have heard just one side of the story. Yes, it is important to listen to Randi’s concerns and demonstrate empathy for her situation. It is also important to assess the situation further, to determine what is truly occurring in the student-supervisor relationship. Perhaps Trish has provided sufficient supervision, and perhaps her expectations for Randi are reasonable. Perhaps Trish is stressed from working in an under-resourced agency and does not have the time she needs to provide additional supervision. Perhaps Randi’s BSW program has not prepared her sufficiently. Or perhaps Randi has anxiety issues, so she is projecting the problem on her supervisor to protect herself. The point of assessing the situation is not to lay blame, but to determine responsibility for future action.
Many student-supervisor concerns can be managed through improved communication and planning. The faculty-field liaison can help Randi develop plans to ensure that Trish is providing sufficient support. The liaison can also ensure that Randi is taking sufficient responsibility for her role in the field education process. It is only when matters cannot be managed informally that more formal complaint processes or dispute resolution procedures need to be initiated. In other words, if you have a concern about a supervisor, try to work it out informally with the supervisor, and if necessary with the faculty field liaison. Focus on the concerns, such as the need for support, direction, information, or observation. When initiating concern-solving discussions, avoid labels such as unethical, negligent, irresponsible, or lazy. Randi’s first instinct was right: she did not want to say something that would make her supervisor feel defensive or angry. There are ways to approach ethics concerns in a more amicable manner.
SCENARIO 2: Bill’s supervisor Amy works from a psychodynamic perspective. During a supervisory session, Bill explains how he felt very angry when he observed one of his clients berating her daughter. Amy says it would be helpful to explore the source of Bill’s countertransference. She asks about Bill’s relationship with his mother. Bill feels the questions are too personal. From his perspective, Amy is crossing a professional boundary. Supervision is starting to feel like therapy. As with Randi’s situation, Bill does not want to rankle his supervisor. So, how can he respond to Amy in a professional, constructive manner?
One option is to ask questions in a nonthreatening manner. Rather than state, “You’re not supposed to ask personal questions,” or “You’re crossing my personal boundaries,” Bill might humbly enquire, “Where are you going with these questions?” As a student, Bill is in the position of learner. Asking questions fits with this role. “I’m not sure about the supervision process. This is my first field placement. If I’m feeling the questions are too personal, what am I supposed to say?” If Bill conveys a genuine interest in wanting to know about the supervisory process, Amy is more likely to respond in a positive manner. If they do not resolve the concerns about supervision versus therapy, then Bill may engage his faculty field liaison for assistance. As in the first case, it is better to work through issues informally rather than initiate formal complaints. That does not mean avoiding issues or passively accepting inappropriate supervision.
SCENARIO 3: Rosario is tardy for three of her first four days of field work. Rosario has a three-month-old baby, and her babysitter keeps showing up late. Rosario’s supervisor, Marc, contacts Rosario’s faculty field liaison asking for Rosario’s placement to be terminated because of the student’s “obvious lack of professionalism.” In this situation, the supervisor may have a legitimate concern. Still, going directly to the liaison without trying to assess and resolve the situation with Rosario may have been premature. The liaison contacts Rosario to discuss the situation. How do you think Rosario should respond?
Rosario’s first inclination may be to defend herself: “I am very responsible. The problem is my babysitter. Marc didn’t even ask why I was late.” Unfortunately, her very statement of responsibility shows lack of responsibility. To accept responsibility, she might say, “I know I have been late to work and I know this behavior is unacceptable [pause for response]. I have a commitment to my agency and my clients to be on time. I apologize for the inconvenience I have caused. To show my sincerity, I want to present a plan to make up for the missed time and to ensure that I am not late again.” By starting with the concerns of the supervisor and clients, Rosario demonstrates responsibility. She may need help from the supervisor, for instance, varying her work times to make it easier to obtain reliable babysitting. Still, Rosario is more likely to win favor if she holds herself accountable.
As you read these scenarios, it may appear that I am holding students to a higher standard than I am holding field supervisors. If I were writing for an audience of supervisors, however, I would ask them to take the high road, and to perform at the highest standards of practice, even if their students are not. The bottom line, for students and field instructors alike: please maintain professional ethics at the highest levels even if (and perhaps especially when) the other person is not.
Dr. Allan Barsky is Professor of Social Work at Florida Atlantic University and Chair of the National Ethics Committee of the National Association of Social Workers. He is the author of Ethics and Values in Social Work (Oxford University Press), Conflict Resolution for the Helping Professions (Brooks/Cole), and Clinicians in Court (Guilford Press). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the view of any of the organizations with which Dr. Barsky is affiliated.