Professional supervision in schools

Supervision for Includive Education Practitioners

How many of us have experienced those tough weeks where internal and external demands make us feel vulnerable – personally and professionally – and our wellbeing feels shaky?

These kinds of emotions have prompted me to give more thought to the need for personal and professional support for inclusive education (IE) practitioners in South Africa, and why this is more important now than ever before.

IE practitioners are those leaders, teachers, classroom assistants and supportive therapists in inclusive schools who are at the forefront of supporting some of the most ‘at-risk’ students in our schools.

However, unlike most, if not all, of the professions concerned with the education and wider wellbeing of children and young people – such as social work, educational psychology, speech therapy, nursing, occupational therapy and counselling – there is no formal tradition of professional supervision for IE practitioners in schools.

Professional supervision is often mandated by the professional bodies of therapists and clinicians and is considered a component of high-quality work because it means making time to think strategically about practice and roles, and it has a positive impact on the support offered by them.

So, can we develop the same kind of guidance, resources and training to establish safe and effective IE professional supervision in schools? Or, more importantly, what does professional supervision for IE practitioners look like within the South African government’s broader definition of IE, which is linked to democratising and transforming education in South Africa based on social justice?

We need to create an accountable and supportive process

Research has shown that inter-professional supervision can enhance the outcomes of working within a multi-disciplinary team. Within the context of inclusive education, professional supervision should provide the IE practitioner with regular opportunities to discuss their work with someone who has significant experience and qualifications.

IE professional supervision should also be an accountable process that supports and develops the knowledge, skills and values of the IE practitioner, with the purpose of improving the quality of their work to achieve agreed outcomes. IE professional supervision should therefore include supervision, mentoring and coaching, and it should be ongoing throughout our careers.

Why is professional supervision needed for IE practitioners, and why more so now than ever before? A 2021 survey conducted by United States (US) research corporation RAND found that record numbers of teachers were seriously contemplating leaving the profession if they had not already done so.

When we factor in the additional pressures of supporting students with additional learning needs, the statistics for global IE practitioner attrition will likely be higher. A 2019 US study of 363 special education teachers across 34 states found a statistically significant relationship between job dissatisfaction and teacher burnout.

However, the study authors also found that supervision, both in content and structure, incorporates all the elements associated with greater job satisfaction. In the United Kingdom (UK), three small-scale studies of supervision in schools for special education needs coordinators reported very positive findings from participants.

Inclusive education practitioners

The benefits of receiving regular IE professional supervision include:

Supporting the wellbeing of IE practitioners:

Unfortunately, at the time of writing this article, no statistics were available for South African educators, but 2019 statistics from the UK indicate that 19.4% of teachers reported experiencing moderate to severe levels of depression on the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9), compared with a general population prevalence of 8–10%.

Supervision should support the emotional wellbeing of IE practitioners by allowing them to address elements of their practice that are of direct concern to them, and give them an opportunity to address the emotional impact of their work.

Professional development and inclusive practice:

The complexities of leading and supporting students with additional learning support has increased as our student populations have become more diverse. Supervision will, therefore, assist in the development of IE leadership theories, identifying the training needs of IE practitioners, increasing the mastery of IE strategies, systems, and techniques; and in developing practitioners’ personal characteristics.

Positive space for professional learning: Supervision develops a culture of positive feedback and provides opportunities for IE practitioners to ask questions and address concerns, increasing their objectivity by challenging fixed views and offering different perspectives, thereby setting realistic outcomes for individual cases and families.

During supervision, IE practitioners can receive assistance with problem-solving through professional and expert advice to address specific or unique concerns, share the responsibility of decisions, and support difficult decisions, thereby mitigating risks.

Supervision of inclusion practitioners

Receive help with the collaborative development of proposed student work schemes:

Collaborative decision-making and problem-solving are at the core of inclusive education; however, in South African inclusive schools with one-person departments, IE practitioner isolation can occur, and collaboration becomes challenging.

Professional supervision will encourage collaboration, and can even hold IE practitioners accountable for collaboration, thereby discussing methods of bringing colleagues, parents, and supportive therapists on board.

I am curious to know how many South African IE practitioners and leaders have received professional supervision. I haven’t, so I don’t have an ideal model of how it could work, but I believe that professional supervision for IE practitioners should be carefully designed, well supported, and framed on being a positive and enabling experience.

It should provide practitioners with an opportunity to reflect on their inclusive practices by reviewing and evaluating their work and learning through continued professional discourse. And it should be driven by shared expectations and an agreement on specific areas of focus.

I’d like to open this discussion and find out how other IE practitioners feel about supervision and how IE leaders and practitioners are supported in their schools.

The questions that arise are, where do we go for IE professional supervision? And can this supervision be extended to the general teaching population who also experience challenges presented by an increasingly diverse student population?