Choosing a supervisor when your work involves helping people can be a difficult decision to make. Professional supervision is a great way for school chaplains and youth workers to keep their practice fresh and sharpen their skills and knowledge.

Sometimes a workplace will require you to access professional supervision, either onsite or of your own choice. I like being able to choose my own because it makes me feel safer in sharing some of those less pleasant thoughts and feelings that can rattle around inside me when my job is to care for people and help them make their own lives better. Having had to choose a few supervisors during my career, I thought it might be helpful for some readers to know what qualities I look for when choosing a professional supervisor. If you stick around, I’ve also got a checklist you can print out when you’re on the hunt for a new one.

If you're a youth worker or school chaplain, here are 10 qualities to look for when choosing your next professional supervisor.

Professional supervision is not counselling

In my article on what professional supervision is, I wrote about the importance of supervision being a structured reflection process on your practice and your use of theory, rather than a counselling session.

There are some aspects of supervision that are like counselling. It needs to take place in a safe environment where you can share your personal thoughts and feelings about something without that information getting back to your workplace, your colleagues or your clients. You want to be able to talk about ugly thoughts or things that didn’t go well and then go back to work and smile at everyone.

Supervision is also about exploring your thoughts and feelings, just like counselling can be about. But as Peter Hawkins and Robin Shohet put it in their book Supervision in the Helping Professions (2012; Open University Press), supervision is primarily about learning and unlearning skills and theory, reflecting on practice, drawing on another perspective to strategically develop as a youth worker and building up your own resilience and coping skills.

These should be the focus of a supervision session, not exploring how you’ve been going and unpacking endless personal issues; that’s counselling.

The 10 qualities to look for when choosing a professional supervisor

Finding a supervisor can be a tricky process if the choice is up to you, particularly if there’s not a lot of choice where you live. Having worked in regional Queensland for a couple of years, I would suggest if you have to choose between a good quality supervisor you access by phone or Skype or a someone you don’t really feel comfortable with that is more easy to access, I’d choose the distant supervisor every time.

This is a relationship you’re entering into, just like the sorts of relationships the young people you work with are building with you. It needs to be a relationship that doesn’t just let you “tick the box” but should be helping you sharpen your skills, push you to think about why you’re doing some things and what you could do differently, gets you looking ahead as well as behind, and lets you leave with a clearer sense of the path ahead.

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So, here’s the 10 things I now look for when choosing a professional supervisor:

  1. Good qualifications and experience. As I said in my article on professional supervision, you should look for a supervisor that has more qualifications than you, and hopefully more experience too, but that can be hard if you’ve been working for 20 years in one particular field. This isn’t easy to get right, so while I’ve made it the first point, don’t let it overshadow the importance of all the others as well.
  2. An understanding that supervision is different to counselling. As I pointed out earlier in this article, it’s important to find a supervisor who can do supervision, rather than counselling. Supervision is focused on your practice, whereas counselling is focused on you and your relationships. There is a crossover, but a supervisor should have a priority to focus on that practice first.
  3. Being able to see a situation or issue from a number of different perspectives. The beauty of professional supervision is you have someone else looking at your context and experiences, without the emotions that you experience as part of that. They can often see things from both your perspective, and that of your boss, or a young person or parent, that you’re no longer able to see as clearly. The very best supervisors help you to explore these different perspectives as part of the process of debriefing an event, and then help you work out a way forward based on that.
  4. Generosity in their imparting of knowledge. There’s nothing worse than seeing a supervisor who uses lots of big words to explain theory and leaves you to go home and figure out what they were talking about. The supervisors I have found most helpful have been the ones who send me out the door with a new piece of theory or knowledge to put into practice when I get back to work, and a bit of an eagerness to find out some more about that topic.
  5. An ethical approach to their own practice. Often in youth work or other helping professionals the ethics in a situation can conflict or not be all that clear. You need to be able to lay these on the table and trust that as you work through them with your supervisor they can see the ethical issues from a different perspective and help you choose the right pathway forward.
  6. An understanding of my work context. They might not know the inner workings of the organisation I work for, but it’s great if they have some knowledge of the field and can appreciate the complexities that come with that. There’s no benefit in getting professional supervision from someone who mostly works with adults if you’re always working with kids, unless they make some effort to understand your context and the challenges that arise in it.
  7. They use my time wisely. The best supervision I have had has been when my supervisor has a clear plan for each session and has prepped well for their session so we can start almost from where we left off last time. It’s not always like that, but when you’re giving up an hour of your own time, which is when most of my supervision has had to take place, you want to feel like the investment has been worth it. If you have to spend the first 15 minutes of your hour long session explaining your context again, I don’t think that’s a good way of showing that you’re valued.
  8. They’re more interested in my agenda rather than their own. I have had supervisors that give me homework to do before I turn up, and sometimes that can be very stressful when you’re feeling overwhelmed or approaching burnout. There’s always a reflection process involved in preparing for supervision, even if it’s a “what am I going to talk about today?” wondering, but even if there’s no formal preparation process, I like it when the supervisor if flexible enough to go where I need to go as the session unfolds. I like them to have a plan for the session, but I also like to be pause in that plan if something comes up that needs a little more unpacking.
  9. Some sort of personal connection. As I said, this is a relationship, albeit a professional one, so there needs to be some sort of personal connecting that enables you to honestly and openly talk about your thoughts and feelings, particularly when they are ugly or don’t portray you in the best light. I like to have a supervisor who is down to earth, acknowledges that we can’t get it right all the time and can share their own failings now and then. Having a professional supervisor that wields too much power or authority isn’t a good thing either. I think it’s important to feel more like two colleagues sharing a coffee rather than a trip to the principal’s office when you were in primary school.
  10. A decent sense of humour and a hospitable nature. Speaking of coffee, there’s something nice about being offered a drink during supervision, don’t you think? It makes it a little less clinical and a little more personal. I also like someone who can have a bit of a laugh and doesn’t take themselves too seriously. Let’s face it, if you’re giving up an hour of your time, it’s nice to leave feeling joyful than like you’ve just spend the time at the doctor’s surgery.

Professional supervision should be one of the best investments you make into your practice, so if you’re not getting that at the moment, or looking for a supervisor, use these qualities to help you make a good decision that will hopefully help you stay in the game much longer and enjoy the journey as well.

If you’re wanting a checklist to work through, including some questions to ask when looking for a supervisor, print out this handy Finding a Professional Supervisor Guide to get you started. And if  you are looking for a professional supervisor, or haven’t quite found one you’re happy with, you might like to take a look at my professional supervision service, or you can fill in this form and I’ll try and point you in the right direction.

Do you think there are some qualities of a professional supervisor I’ve missed? I’d love you to share your thoughts below if you do.

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