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Taking on the supervising role



In this module we explore the expectations of supervision/mentoring. We ask you to examine your workplace and your own work as a resource. We introduce some of the issues that may arise during supervision and discuss how to deal with them. As your student/trainee will be following a formal course of study we also suggest ways in which your role relates to other sources of support available to the student/trainee.


Module outcomes

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By the end of this module you will be able to:

  • Identify the expectations of supervision
  • Understand your workplace
  • Deal with issues arising from supervision (such as confidentiality and failure to engage with the supervision process)
  • Understand how the supervisor's role relates to other forms of student support.

Your experience of supervision

Related modules

Planning your first session with your student is covered in the module 'Planning and delivering professional supervision'.

As you prepare for your role as a professional supervisor/mentor, it makes good sense to consider what expectations you have of professional supervision. This activity will help you to think about this in more detail.


Think about your own expectations of the supervision process. Use My Learning Journal to answer some key questions, then click on View our thoughts. You may choose to record your initial expectations of professional supervision and compare them with the reality of professional supervision as it develops in practice.

View our thoughts

Our expectations of new experiences can have a powerful influence on how they work out in practice. You should find it useful to explore your aims and expectations of supervision, just as you would in planning any new piece of work. It would also be useful to briefly share your expectations with your student, who will be thinking about their own expectations of professional supervision as part of their study on their course. This can form part of your first supervision session together.


Good supervision in practice

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Your own experience of being supervised, mentored or coached is the factor most likely to influence your beliefs and attitudes to supervision and good supervision practice.

Listen to the audio clip where Alison, a professional supervisor who works with young people, reflects on her formative experience as a supervisor.


Think about your own experience of supervision and what potential impact is has on your work as a supervisor. Open My Learning Journal and use the reflective questions in My Notes to help you explore this further.

If you have already saved My Learning Journal, as described in module 1, please open it now. If you have not yet set up your own journal, click on the link below and save the document to your computer.

You may wish to look at this checklist of the important elements of good practice and use it as the basis for your reflections on your own practice. As you read it through, can you think of anything that you would like to add? Or remove? Record your thoughts in My Learning Journal.


Understanding your workplace

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Many people hold the view that the 'busyness' of their work environment and the constant emergencies and 'rush' is in some way down to their own working practices: that 'It should not be like this'. In fact it is often, at least partially, a very common feature of work and a very valuable resource to help students/trainees work through the real implications of the working day.

Understanding real working days as a resource is much more useful than dealing with what working days should be like in an ideal world, and we are now going to explore how analysing a real work environment can provide a resource to students/trainees.


Describe a recent day's work experience. What were your plans, hopes and timetable for the day? What actually happened? If the two were different, in your experience is this a frequent occurrence?

As you think about this, consider how the work patterns of external agencies, the local conditions (such as weather), the availability of resources, the availability of staff and the needs of other organisations may affect the intended or normal running order of the day. In short, what impinges on your day to alter what you originally planned to do?

Open My Learning Journal and record your thoughts in the section 'A recent day's work experience'.

You can read more about how the contingencies in the workplace can provide opportunities for learning in your supervision sessions in this background paper.

View our thoughts

Daily work is a combination of the expected and unexpected. There are always formal guidelines and expectations of what should happen and then there is the reality. There isn't always a huge overlap between the two.

Clearly some professions are more subject to the unexpected as an everyday occurrence than others as a way of working. For example, police and road rescue services, Accident and Emergency wards, and some property maintenance and social work services are actually predicated on handling the unexpected.

Nearly everyone can cite examples of how a day in which they hoped to be on top of things turned quite quickly into fire fighting. Often people think that this is their fault or, at least, that they didn't handle it very well. But it's important not to see this as a solely individual problem. Frequently it is a structural problem within a whole unit or an organisation, often emerging from lack of resources, lack of planning or from understaffing. Such circumstances can be incredibly useful and provide education about the authentic context that your trainee/employee will frequently encounter.


What do you take for granted?

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Your first experiences at work

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Think back to your own first experiences in your current work. Were you made to feel inferior, useless, in the way? Were you helped to become a useful colleague? What were the experiences you now consider to have been influential in your development? Who or what produced these? Did you feel intimidated by the environment?

Open My Learning Journal and turn to the section 'My first experiences at work'. Make a note of your answers to these questions.

View our thoughts

People working in a new environment, particularly where they feel they are being judged, often use words like 'anxiety', 'dread', feeling like a 'spare part', a 'burden', needing to apologise. Some trainees / employees report being told 'I have no time to deal with you'. It is no mean feat to overcome such feelings and experiences. It takes a great deal of nerve to live with the unfamiliar while being bombarded with new experiences.

Even experienced practitioners returning for some form of advanced training, or wanting to retrain, may have such experiences and feel they 'know nothing' when moving to a new environment. It can be a worrying, unfriendly experience with everyone else very 'busy'.

These experiences are common. If you interview newcomers, they will say much the same kind of thing about most work environments. Underlying their statements is an urgently felt need to know, to fit in, to be seen to be helpful. However, this motivation doesn't necessarily lead to appropriate learning experiences.


Others' first experiences at work

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Think of the student/trainee that you will be supervising. They may or may not already be familiar with the work setting. What will their first experiences in the work environment feel like?

How they feel depends on what sort of person they are, what they know already and what they need to know. Open My Learning Journal and record your answers to some questions about others' first experiences at work.

View our thoughts

Becoming a supervisor/mentor involves understanding and making judgements about the decisions and actions of others within particular contexts. How are fair judgements to be made? What can be used as evidence of real professional development, competence and action?

You will need to tailor your supervision strategies to meet both the demands of realities of practice and ideals of professional behaviour. The problem is that experienced professionals often take for granted the ways they act and think: they no longer notice them. When you become a supervisor/mentor you need to bring to the surface everything you take for granted, so that you can take a fresh look at it. Only then can you challenge old assumptions and behaviours and pass on what is of value to your student/trainee.

A supervisor/mentor also learns to look anew at the work environment as a learning environment. Only when everything is made explicit can students/trainees find their bearings and learn to look, judge and act in the way that professionals do.


Issues arising in supervision

You may, on occasion, have professional concerns as a result of discussions and issues raised in supervision. In most cases, you would address these directly with the student and attempt to resolve them through honest and open discussion. Part of the process of supervision often includes the discussion of difficult issues and professional dilemmas.


Some work areas require a more specialist approach. For example, if you or your student/trainee are working with children or young people, you need to be aware of issues that may apply.

Working with children or young people

On rare occasions, supervision may highlight issues of serious professional misconduct or concerns relating to the safeguarding of children and young people. The Open University takes the view that practitioners who are working with young people, and who are supervising practice with young people, can never commit themselves to absolute confidentiality with information that they receive through carrying out their work.


A student's concerns

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Acting 'with faith'

Did you know

The word 'confidential' comes from the Latin con fid ('with faith'), embodying notions of trust and faithfulness (Woods, 2001).

Relationships conducted 'with faith' are based on certain expectations of how those involved should behave. Without this faith in the supervision process and in each other, learning will be limited.

This is not to say that confidentiality is absolute, and that information discussed in a supervision session can never be shared outside of that context.


Think about your role as a professional supervisor in relation to confidentiality. How would you explore this with the student? Where would you go for support if you were uncertain about a sensitive issue raised during a supervision session?

Open My Learning Journal and record your ideas in the section 'Confidentiality'.


Dealing with emotions

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Offering counselling or therapeutic support to the student is not a part of your role as a professional supervisor. However, when we work with people, there is an important emotional dimension involved. The process of supervision asks students/trainees to think and reflect and this will inevitably lead to you or your student/trainee experiencing emotions. The main problem, whilst doing this, is the need to remain objective.

Students can experience a range of emotions as they progress through their course. They may have strong feelings about:

  • Taking on more of a leadership role in their existing organisation or workplace
  • Taking on new roles in their workplace
  • Establishing their relationships and professional identity in a new context
  • Engaging in supervision, particularly if they are new to the process, or if their previous experience of supervision was unhelpful or negative.


You too are likely to have feelings about your role. Again, it is useful for you both to discuss these issues during sessions, as they are bound to impact on the way that the supervision develops.


Think about how you value and manage emotions in your own practice. How does this affect your practice as a supervisor? Record your thoughts in My Learning Journal, in the section 'Valuing and managing emotions'.


Dealing with difficulties and conflict

At times relationships, including the supervision relationship, get into difficulties which lead to conflict. This may come about as a result of problems in an interpersonal relationship or of differences in approach to professional practice. Not all conflict is destructive. Some issues are best brought out into the open and, if handled constructively, can lead to greater understanding and improved decisions.

How does conflict occur?

This background paper explains the causes of conflict.

Your role as mentor/supervisor may include challenging the trainee/student's thinking and asking difficult questions. Rather than avoid facing up to difficulties, it is important that you both discuss how you will deal with them beforehand. This discussion can take place at the initial contracting stage of the supervision relationship.


Open My Learning Journal and record your thoughts on dealing with difficulties in the section 'Dealing with conflict in relationships'.


Some people find it easier to deal with conflict than others. A useful strategy for dealing with conflict is to think about how you might deal with problems before they occur. Another is to deal honestly with difficulties in relationships as soon as they arise, thus pre-empting crisis and breakdown.


Other forms of support

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Photograph of a list of black checkboxes, the 1st has a red tick in it. A red pencil with a sharp point rests on the paper.
  1. In this section you have learned how to identify the expectations of supervision.
  2. You have learned more about your workplace and the effects of a new work environment.
  3. You have learned how to deal with issues arising from supervision (confidentiality, and failure to engage with the supervision process).
  4. You have learned about the reflective practice approach.
  5. You have discovered how the supervisor's role relates to other forms of student support.

You have now finished the Taking on the supervising role module, click on the exit button to close this window.