If you’re a supervisor, you’ve probably faced this.
Walk into supervision, and the supervisee looks at you, expectantly, awaiting you to start the ball rolling.
You think to yourself:
I thought you were supposed to take charge of your own supervision!
Or you might be a supervisee (the one being supervised).
You walk into the supervision, with an agenda in hand. It seems enough.
But at the end of the supervision, you leave thinking… I didn’t seem to address everything I wanted to address! How do I make the best of each supervision?
Or it leaves you with a strange taste in your mouth, thinking: hmm… are these topics that I should even be discussing with my supervisor?
To be clear..
Firstly, this will cover individual, 1-1 supervision.
Secondly, I write from the perspective of someone who had his university social work training in the U.K., and later moved to work in Singapore after qualifying. Some of the opinions expressed here may come from different cultures.
But the principles are the same.
Thirdly, this guide is meant for both supervisors and supervisees. In each point, I try to make it relevant to both parties.
With this guide to social work topics for supervision, I hope the checklist of topics gives you (the supervisor and the supervisee) a clearer idea of what to discuss during supervision. Whilst there are different models of supervision, these are topics that are ideal to cover in any session.
The supervision process
As you can see from the diagram, in supervision, there are 4 main parts in the process.
During the pre-supervision, as the supervisee, there are certain good practices to hold to.
- Send a supervision agenda to the supervisor 72 hours (3 working days) before the actual supervision.
- In the agenda, include the topics you want to cover, with a brief sentence describing the nature of the issue.
- Include relevant attachments.
- For example, if you are talking about difficulties with a client, try including things like the report, the assessment, or the case recording.
- Your supervisor might not have time to read everything, but it’s better to give her a background to the issue.
- Block off the time in your calendar. Ensure that your colleagues and clients know that you are not to be disturbed.
- Clear the diary for the supervision.
- This sounds basic, but you’ve probably had the experience where you’re interrupted whilst discussing something important.
- Book a quiet room/place.
As the supervisor:
- Be clear about the above practices. Some of it sounds basic, but for the newly-qualified social worker, these might not seem common-sense.
- Look through the agenda sent through, and suggest other topics you want to bring up.
- For example, a complaint might come in from another colleague about your supervisee’s attitude.
- Add it to the agenda.
- Find relevant theories/evidence that you want to share.
- Block off your own calendar, your own time, and your own phone calls.
- Prepare yourself mentally, 10 minutes before time, by looking through the agenda.
Most importantly, don’t walk in cold. Don’t wing it.
You might be busy. But winging it does no justice to your supervisee, nor does it do any justice to you.
For supervision to truly work out, it needs to be a shared commitment to work through difficult issues.
The supervision itself
Always follow up.
Don’t leave it to chance.
Write an email summarising the following:
- What was discussed
- What was agreed
- What the actions are moving forward
Doing this ensures there is structure to conversation. Too often, you can have a great session with your supervisor, and then be lost 3 days later.
You forget what was discussed and what you need to do.
Doing this ensures that the supervision is not wasted, but helpful for you moving forward.
Because who likes talking all day, and not doing anything?
The informal supervision
Then there are the coffee-table chats.
Isn’t it amazing how much can be done over an informal chat?
Sometimes, it can be tempting to dismiss this. But as Tulgan argues in his book ’27 Challenges Managers Face’, the basics of management 101 are ensuring that 1-1s are properly structured.
There needs to be structure to the informal chats, however informal you want to leave them to be.
Otherwise, it will be a waste of time.
Basic expectations of both parties
Any supervisory relationship is a relationship. And in any relationship, romantic or not, being clear is vital.
Contract the supervisory relationship. Don’t just leave it to chance.
Be clear about:
- How often you will meet
- How long you will meet
- What is expected before the supervision happens
- Your and your supervisor’s strengths
- Your goals
- Your supervisor’s goals
- What will be discussed
- What will not be discussed
- This adds valuable guardrails to supervision, ensuring that sessions are purposeful and meaningful.
Firstly, I have to admit that I’m not the best colleague you will have.
That’s why in supervision, I always take the chance to raise difficulties I have with my colleagues.
Secondly, I will ask my supervisor what I can do differently, or if I have done well.
Therefore, discussing your relationships with your colleagues with your supervisor will help you to have an objective view towards the difficulties you have. Also, it gives you a chance to know how to iron those kinks out.
Frequency of supervision
Knowing that you have someone whom you can openly share your
difficulties with is important. It gives you a safe place to discuss things. Agreeing
on the frequency of these sessions will make both accountable to how often you will
No organisation is perfect. That’s why discussing the difficulties
you face in the organisation is important. For example, in my previous organisation,
I had difficulties with how opaque the management’s objectives were. I did not
know what their priorities were. It was hard for me to decide what my own priorities
When you discuss this with your supervisor, you get to see
whether this is a problem that only you face or if it’s a prevalent,
Then, you have to think about whether the problem is big enough to cause you to move, or if you want to stay to continue to work things through.
Expectations of you
Knowing what’s expected of you is the bare minimum of any
employee. It is important to clarify this in your first few interactions with
your supervisor. Meeting those expectations is necessary for you to pass your
probation, and to do a good job.
After knowing the expectations of you, you can start making
your plan. You can start thinking about:
- Where you want to go
- How to get there
- The obstacles you will encounter
- How to overcome those obstacles
Expectations of your supervisor
When you first meet your supervisor, you will likely not
know what he/she is like. But you know what you are like (I hope!) Thus, you
will know what works and does not work for you. When I was working in the UK,
it was hard for me to understand the British politeness. I got into a lot of
trouble thinking that something said politely to me was only a suggestion,
rather than an imperative to do something.
Thus, I realised I needed to be clear to my future supervisor what I wanted of him. I wanted things said plainly to me. Furthermore, I wanted to know whether I needed to do something. Most importantly, I wanted honest feedback.
Lately, I have been working with a teenage girl who has been regularly playing truant at school. She goes to school once or twice a week. I have tried to engage her whole family by bringing her brother for outings and dinners, inviting her along. Despite my best efforts to engage her whole family, she has ignored my calls and messages. It has been hard for me not to take these rejections personally.
Later, discussing this with my supervisor helped me see that I might be more concerned about her truancy than her mother or herself were. Why was I so invested in the outcome? How do I deal with difficult clients?
When you discuss difficult cases with your supervisor, it
helps you to see what you might not see through your own biases. You also start
to think of new ways forward.
We are not superhuman. But sometimes, we behave like we are.
We take on case after case, project after project, thinking that we can
It’s no wonder that social work experiences so much more
attrition compared to other sectors. Therefore, discussing what you can and cannot
manage is important to help your supervisor to see what you can and cannot do.
What’s working well
In our quest to resolve problems in our work, we tend to
focus more on the problem. But it might be helpful to look at what’s working
well too! Seeing what has succeeded for you helps your supervisor to see how we
can take some of the factors behind your success to apply with your struggles.
When I went through my first placement, my grandmother passed away. She was someone whom I had loved dearly. It affected me on my placement. Consequently, I was unable to concentrate, and I started being quite rough with my colleagues. When my supervisor noticed that something was wrong, she agreed to give me a week off to grieve and recover.
Therefore, discussing your wellbeing with your supervisor is essential. Don’t keep everything within you, thinking that you have to put on a strong front. Honestly, it is only when you see your weaknesses that you can begin to know your strength.
Being vulnerable really helps, as Brene Brown explains in her Ted talk.
Finally, these social work topics for supervision are merely guidelines. What’s more important is that you are honest with your supervisor about your struggles and successes.