By: Mitzi A. Lowe, PhD, MSW
I have been in my placement for several weeks and have only met with my assigned field instructor once. My field instructor has me going out on calls with two different agency staff members. They have been really helpful in assisting me with learning about the organization’s purpose and structure, but they both have a degree in criminology and I don’t feel that I am getting the social work perspective. I also don’t have a clue how my performance is going to be communicated to my field instructor—the person responsible for my field evaluation.
In the situation described above, the agency has chosen to have more than one field supervisor oversee the daily activities of the social work intern. Agencies have different reasons for assigning students to multiple supervisors. For example, budget cuts in human service programs often result in a shortage of social workers willing to supervise social work student interns. Financial constraints of agencies result in increased case loads and responsibilities with little incentive for employees to participate in the educational process of future social workers. These conditions result in fewer field supervisors being available to supervise students. Conditions such as these create the need for social work interns and field supervisors to negotiate innovative strategies for adequate supervision. What is Team Supervision?
In response to systemic barriers, some field placement sites have begun using team supervision. Team supervision arrangements involve two or more field instructors working jointly to ensure that a student receives adequate internship supervision. Often such arrangements involve a multi-disciplinary approach with a lead field instructor with an MSW as required by the Council on Social Work Education. Under this arrangement, the field instructor and other workers in the agency collaborate to provide supervision to social work interns.
In a team supervision arrangement, field supervisors may represent different fields of practice. It is common for a conflict to arise between professionals from different educational backgrounds, and this may become particularly evident when addressing the learning needs of a student intern. As an intern assigned to multiple site supervisors with little experience in team supervision, you may find that clashes in values and confusion about what should guide the learning process may impede the integration of classroom knowledge and real life experiences for you. The supervision team’s ability to communicate clearly affects the success of your learning experience. As part of a team’s development, a plan for communication must be developed and understood by all.
In a team supervision model of field instruction, arriving at shared meaning can become quite complex. Time constraints and relational dynamics that accompany the different educational backgrounds and values of field supervisors present obstacles to the development of on-going collaboration and good communication. For example, social workers have a commitment to social justice, cultural competence, and the strengths perspective, in contrast to the traditional medical model approach. These differences can sometimes present challenges to effective team supervision, and can result in role conflict between the task supervisor and field instructor that can have a negative impact on the student learning process. As a student intern, it is crucial for you to develop relationships with the whole supervision team. No matter where you are placed—a school, a community-based organization, a hospital, a county agency—you are about to become a member of a team. Sharing expectations at this juncture is an excellent way to begin establishing clear and realistic roles for the supervision process. The team supervision approach has the potential to broaden and enhance your exposure to a multidisciplinary approach in the human services.
Social work programs, agency partners, and student interns need to explore several issues before using team supervision. At a minimum, several important elements must not be overlooked: 1) adequate training and preparation, 2) early planning, 3) precise policies and procedures, 4) regularly scheduled supervision meetings, and 5) strong faculty liaison support. Team supervision should not be considered when supervisors face serious time constraints, as these time constraints pose major problems for adequate coordination and communication.
10 Tips for a Successful Experience
If you find yourself in an agency that appears to be taking a team approach to supervision, utilize these ten tips to ensure a successful experience:
- Discuss team supervision arrangements the first week of field placement, during the learning agreement phase.
- Take the initiative to meet members of the team and discuss the role each member will play in your supervision.
- Establish within the learning agreement clear roles and expectations of each supervisor that are agreed upon by all parties.
- Develop mutual understanding and agreement about performance measures and how those will be shared and communicated among members of the supervisory team. For example, how will feedback from each member of the team inform the evaluation process? What procedures have been established to ensure open communication about your progress?
- Meet regularly with the team.
- Develop an appreciation for different perspectives, and discuss this with your team.
- Seek support from your faculty liaison to provide training to the agency on team supervision.
- Find out if training includes specific content on the roles and responsibilities of supervisors and methods of effective team supervision.
- Discuss with your team clear guidelines for your final evaluation.
- Always be direct, open, and honest about your expectations and what you hope to get out of your field placement assignment.
Both strengths and problems can abound in team supervision practicum arrangements. Under the right circumstances, team supervision practicum arrangements can be very successful, and provide “breadth” to the student learning experience. A clear strength is the diversity in styles and skills among the supervisors. Having access to multiple perspectives is one of the most frequently reported and valued elements of a team supervision arrangement. This value, however, depends upon whether other aspects—such as a good working relationship among the supervisors and clarity of the supervision roles and responsibilities—were also in place. Without these, the multiple perspectives became more likely to result in confusion, disagreement, or lack of coordinated assignments, and, therefore, to be seen not as strengths, but rather as problems.
The team approach to field education supervision has the potential to become a viable means of offering sound supervision, given the appropriate circumstances. Time constraints and workload concerns of field instructors are not appropriate reasons for engaging in a team supervision practicum arrangement. On the other hand, when team supervision is approached as a viable idea that is theoretically valuable and desirable, the outcome is an environment that values multiple viewpoints and interdisciplinary learning. Further development of this model will provide field education a framework for using team supervision and enhance future social workers’ ability to work collaboratively across disciplines.
Mitzi A. Lowe, Ph.D., MSW, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work Education at California State University, Fresno, where she is currently the Director of Field Education. She received her doctoral degree in educational policy studies and evaluation from the University of Kentucky. She is current President of the Board of Focus Forward, a nonprofit that supports innovative programs and services for incarcerated youth. Dr. Lowe is also a former counselor and student affairs administrator.
This article appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. For permission to reprint, please contact Linda Grobman . Copyright 2006 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved.