By: Sara Davis, Katie Higgins, Cindy A. Hunter, Karim, and Julia Solow
Having mingled over pastries and coffee, 26 field agency supervisors settled into their chairs and looked expectantly at five baccalaureate pre-field social work seniors. The students had chosen to orchestrate the bi-annual workshop offered to all partner agencies as a macro class project. The workshop started as planned, with no agenda, no set session limits, and no guest speakers. There was a method to this apparent madness. It was based on a process for leading meetings called Open Space Technology (http://www.openspaceworld.org). An adaptation of the technique was used with both field supervisors and field students, to let them explore what it takes to confront challenges in field supervision.
Following the Open Space model, a student facilitator introduced the workshop’s broad theme: “Fielding Challenges, Finding Strengths.” She then gestured toward an expanse of white wall marked into an empty grid representing time blocks and meeting spaces for the sessions that any supervisor could propose. This was the “open space” agenda that any supervisor who so desired could fill in with his or her own group discussion topic by grabbing a marker and writing it down on one of the many blank papers at the front of the room.
The room was quiet at first as the supervisors digested the instructions. Then, they sprang to life. It turns out that there were plenty of challenges for which supervisors could help one another, from how to deal with students’ unprofessional behavior to how to balance their time between work responsibilities and student supervision.
At the workshop’s closing, the supervisors expressed high satisfaction with their accomplishments and agreed that just one thing had been missing: the field students’ perspective. Thus, a second Open Space workshop was born, in which 15 field students reflected on their own experiences and challenges with field supervisors. Advice from supervisors and students was posted for everyone’s use on the field Web site. The following are the many ideas, issues, and suggestions culled from the collective wisdom of current supervisors, peers, and, perhaps, future supervisors.
Five major challenges emerged as themes from the supervisor perspective. They spoke animatedly about how to:
- set expectations with students
- prepare students to move from in-class theories to agency realities
- critique and evaluate challenging students
- nurture student growth, and
- create field supervisor-field student symbiosis.
The field supervisors left the workshop with a long list of tips on how to confront each of these challenges and, in turn, promote an effective supervision experience.
Supervisors encouraged one another to meet with students at the very beginning of placement to review a list of expectations represented by the field practicum evaluation. This meeting is a dialogue, not a monologue. Students should be asked to share their own thoughts on how their skills will work with these expectations. Such feedback, paired with ongoing observations on the student’s capabilities, will help the supervisor set firm, yet realistic expectations regarding what the student can handle. Expectations should also be clear and specific, especially given the relative “newness” of the situation. Workshop contributors stressed how important it is to realize that supervisors should not expect students to take on roles similar to agency workers until around mid-semester, when they typically acclimate to the experience.
Moving From Textbook Theories to Agency Realities
Many traditional students have never had a full-time agency position prior to their field experience. Supervisors can support a student’s adjustment to out-of-class agency realities by giving students a project early in the orientation period that encourages them to discover some of what they need to know about the agency. For example, the business element of social service agencies is a subject field students may find foreign. Whereas the business world touts that “the customer is always right,” the social service world does not always assume that the client is right. Social workers are there to help the client get on the right path, but not to meet their clients’ every need or demand. Both supervisors and professors should educate their students on this facet of social service work.
Agency functioning is just one part of the social service maze that field students must learn to navigate. Supervisors should also help their students learn how to interact with real clients. They may do this by role-playing with students or by allowing the interns to shadow experienced social workers. The field supervisors agreed upon the need to reinforce with students that, no matter how much they prepare, unexpected situations will come up. Surprises are to be expected when one works in the complex world of human services. Further, one’s field placement is a place to learn one’s strengths and weaknesses. When students beat themselves up over a mistake, their supervisors can emphasize that nobody is perfect. Everyone has room for positive development.
Critiques and Evaluations with Challenging Students
The evaluation process starts at the very beginning of a student’s relationship with the supervisor. When a field student is interviewed for a placement, supervisors can ask questions such as, “What is your understanding of supervision and the benefits?” and “How well do you take to criticism?” These questions can help supervisors understand the student’s feelings and attitudes toward supervision. Supervisors can confront those who respond with a negative or flawed interpretation of supervision, and try to educate them on the positive benefits supervision can bestow when students are open to the process. At this point, they can set the tone for an open, honest atmosphere, in which both supervisors and students can comfortably give each other feedback.
Another way to prepare students for evaluation is to recommend that they review their evaluation forms before their placements begin. Students need to know what skills they will be judged on so they are not in shock when evaluation time arrives. Similarly, it is a field supervisor’s responsibility to address an issue immediately as it arises. It is unfair to the field student, agency, and clients to wait until an evaluation meeting to address major issues with the student’s performance. Effective interventions can empower challenging students. Many supervisors expressed the need for interventions to be done with the student, not to the student. Students need to understand the reasons behind an intervention, have their perspectives heard, and play a key role in their intervention for true change to occur. The final, collaborative plan should include multiple, realistic intervention strategies to get the student on the right track.
Nurturing Student Growth
Among the supervisors, there was a sincere concern for the professional and personal growth of their field students. Supervisors advised one another to have an open conversation about the students’ interests, field placement learning objectives, and future goals. Whereas such conversations often lead to assignments that cater to the students’ interests, other times they indicate a mismatch between the students’ interests and their placement agencies. In such a situation, supervisors may remind students of the varied possibilities in social work, the transferability of generalist skills, and the importance of being open to experiences that may not appear initially interesting. Supervisors try to match the students’ interests and skills but, at some point, the students need to be nudged beyond what they think they can do. Participants suggested that supervisors start their students with simple assignments, gradually increasing their complexity as the student adjusts to agency life. Sheltering students sets them up for failure, as it prevents them from having a realistic experience. Supervisors can promote a more authentic experience by treating their field students as colleagues.
Field Supervisor-Field Student Symbiosis
Adding the tasks of supervision to the many other duties of a professional may result in work overload. The supervisors brainstormed means to create a mutually beneficial relationship among themselves, their agencies, and their field students. Sending field students to work at a sister agency for a few hours per week, having students interview other agency workers, and assigning students to meaningful long-term projects that they could work on independently were suggested efforts that would benefit the student and give time to the field supervisor.
From Field Students
The field students contributed a different perspective on ways to make supervisory relationships successful. Students who felt they had experienced effective relationships with their supervisors discussed how they learned from criticism, grew from experiences, improved their professional skills, and adjusted to experimenting with various approaches to a challenge. Students also spoke about difficulties with supervisors, yet even those who encountered such situations acknowledged how constant supervision bettered their social work experience and prepared them to enter the workforce. Interestingly, many of the field students’ suggestions correlated directly to points made by field supervisors’ in the first workshop.
Students shared many tips and suggestions on getting the best experience from practicum supervision. First, the field students echoed the supervisors’ comments as they discussed the need to acknowledge one’s strengths and weaknesses. This helps students know what they are and are not comfortable with task- and subject-wise. Further, knowing one’s competence level helps field students maintain their professionalism as they communicate their boundaries to supervisors or agency workers.
Next, the students encouraged future field students to be familiar with evaluation content before the first day of their placements. This awareness will motivate field students to put forth their best effort throughout their field experience and work diligently on objectives established in their social work curriculum.
Third, field students expressed how crucial it is to develop professional relationships with their supervisors, and to meet with them on a weekly basis to maintain a level of mutual understanding. Solid relationships with both supervisors and other agency workers can help students learn new skills, grow as professionals, and not feel nervous or stupid when they need to ask a question. Further, developing relationships with multiple agency workers prevents students from relying solely on their supervisors when they need help.
Last, field students pointed out that students must realize that each individual practices differently in a situation. Everyone has a unique personal style, and will, as a result, approach a situation differently from the next person. Field students should adjust to this reality, acknowledging that textbook practice is relative to the situation, the agency, and the workers involved. At the same time, no matter what the field students’ practice approach is, they will occasionally make mistakes. The field students stressed that it is essential to learn from these errors if one hopes to grow from the placement experience.
If supervisors start setting firm, realistic expectations; if they make the placement into a true outside-the-textbook learning experience; if they critique and intervene collaboratively and balance time wisely; what do future social workers gain? If field students are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, if they are comfortable with agency professionals, if they learn from their inevitable mishaps and are open to evaluation, what do they gain? Or, perhaps the question should be: what does society gain? Positive, growth-oriented field supervisor-field student relationships will contribute strong, competent social workers to our communities. Ultimately, the field supervisor and field student workshops are not for us, but for the people we will work with in the future.
- How students can best use supervision
- Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses.
- Know what you will be evaluated on beforehand.
- Clarify importance of weekly supervision meetings.
- Realize that practice is relative.
- Don’t be afraid to ask co-workers and supervisors questions.
- Avoid nonprofessional behaviors (i.e., texting, gossiping, inappropriate clothing).
- Challenge yourself but know your limits.
- Utilize other professionals within the agency if you need help.
- Mistakes are part of the process—learn from them.
Sara L. Davis, BSW, studied social work and family studies at James Madison University and is hoping to do international social work focusing on community development. Katie Higgins, BSW, would like to work with children and their families in her social work career. Cindy A. Hunter, MSW, directs field placement at James Madison University and is an “Open Space” convert. Karim, BSW, studied social work at James Madison University with intentions of working with refugees and displaced people in the future. Julia Solow, BSW, is excited to spend a year of service with Americorps and aspires to do social work with Spanish speakers at the community level in the not-too-distant future.