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  • Writer's pictureKeven Bartle

The First Steps: Getting Started with Reflective Supervision

This week I have greatly enjoyed two contracting meetings with headteachers who are going to be entering into a reflective supervision alliance with me. We will be having our first face-to-face sessions at their schools next week as we begin the journey of helping them make sense of their work in leading schools. I can't wait and, more importantly, they are very much looking forward to carving out the time for their own professional development, challenge and support too.

With these colleagues in mind, as well as those I am already working with (who have been in my thoughts all week), I thought it would be worth sharing with you the process for getting started with reflective supervision. These initial steps are exploratory and centred upon you: your hopes, your needs, your queries, and your context.

Step 1: Sensing the Need and Acting

The hackneyed phrase about the longest journey beginning with the first step is well-worn for a reason. It is the hardest one to take for a number of personal, professional and contextual reasons. At the same time, it is only a step, a small foray into the yet-to-be-known.

All the evidence indicates that there is currently a very high need for reflective supervision (or something similar) for headteachers and school leaders. I've written about that many times in previous posts but particularly here, here, and here.

In my work for SSAT, I have recently been delving into recent research on headteacher retention (big news on that soon) and one insight in particular has resonated incredibly strongly with my period of headship. The evidence points to a lack of support for serving heads from governors and trusts as being based on an assumption that the person can, without support, cope with the myriad of challenges thrown at them. This is yet another example of the 'curse of competency': because we contain the anxieties of others so well as school leaders, the world assumes that we are able to contain our own anxieties (including those we have taken on from others).

To pivot that point, one of the biggest challenges for headship and school leadership post-holders is that being assumed to be able to manage with a workload that would floor Alexei Stakhanov (non-historians can google him) can become internalised. We can come to assume that because we handle so many daily crises so well, that we must (surely?) be able to handle our own. And that's without factoring the contextual, systemic factors that militate against thinking we might benefit from the support of others. Better the 'curse of competency' than admit to the 'curse of incompetency' in a world where the word 'inadequate' holds such perils.

In short, the world seems to be our friend in expecting great things from us, but it may actually be an unwitting enemy. And in trying to uphold that ideal self (in part to reassure others) we may become our own unintended worst enemy. For headteachers, in particular, there is usually no line manager and therefore no-one to whom we can unburden ourselves in order to remain balanced, focused and effective. Reflective supervision fills that gap to meet those needs. It isn't navel-gazing and it isn't self-indulgent. It is an eminently solution to the organisational dilemma encapsulated in the question "who contains the container?" If we get that solution right, everyone benefits.

What has struck me about the headteachers I met this week was how paradoxically confidently-uncertain (or uncertainly-confident) they are about their ability to handle the role. And I mean that as the biggest compliment. They are both enjoying their roles and coping with them, but simultaneously aware that what is being asked of them is intense, demanding and incessant, and that, without processing time alongside someone who knows the role, they might not retain that ability to cope and enjoy their jobs. That's a wisdom that I wish I had acquired earlier in my time as a headteacher.

Step 2: Casing the Joint

Once you've worked out that support isn't a luxury for you as a headteacher, but a wise investment in yourself as one of the most important assets for your school community, a world of options opens up. Whether you are looking for a therapist, counsellor, supervisor, coach, or mentor, there is something out there to meet your needs. And usually, this support will come at a tiny fraction of the cost of keeping you in your post and effective.

If you're not sure what form of professional/personal undergirding you are looking for, it is a safe bet to say that every provider will be more than happy to 'meet' with you to describe what support they can offer. They will be able to answer any questions you have and will probably follow that up with a proposal outlining their service and likely costs.

Most of the headteachers and, in the case of peer group supervision, trusts that I am working with have either read these posts or have seen me present at education conferences about why I think reflective supervision is the most relevant form of school leader support. These have then generated enquiries via this website or my social media which have been followed by a no-strings online meeting (usually lasting between 30 and 45 minutes).

Following the discussion, if the headteacher or trust is still interested, I send through materials to fully outline what the work looks like, my experience and qualifications for the work, and a summary of why I believe reflective supervision is necessary and appropriate (alongside costings, of course). I ask the heads to share this information with their Chair of Governors or MAT CEO and offer to meet with that person if it would be helpful to do so. Sometimes that is the case, leading to a rich discussion outlining why looking after their headteacher is such an efficient and effective governance action, and sometimes the printed materials are sufficient and the person responsible for governance is happy to trust the judgment of their headteacher.

Step 3: Mutual Contracting

This is, for me and for those I work with, the most important part of the process. Having had an informal meeting and found out that the headteacher and their responsible body are in agreement, we move onto the meeting where we establish the reflective supervision alliance 'contract'

The word 'contract' in this context suggests a degree of formality which both is and isn't the case. It has formal elements in that it enables me to make clear some key logistical and organisational elements of what the headteacher and their board can expect from me, and what I expect from them in return. But it is also - and most importantly - a chance to find out what needs and wants the reflective supervision seeks to address for the headteacher. And that can vary significantly based on context and experiences.

The contracting meeting thus sows the seeds for the year ahead. Although the reflective supervision process is responsive to the emergent phenomena of school life, in most cases the kernel of those seeds is revealed (if only partially) at these meetings. They are a privileged insight into what drives headteachers, what they feel might enable and constrain them in their work, and how they might enhance those enablers and limit those blockers going forward. Revisiting these 'contracts' at each subsequent meeting therefore becomes the 'golden thread' giving coherence to the process.

The conclusion of the contracting meeting is the decision about whether or not the headteacher feels that they can work with me, and vice versa. Only then can the work start.

Step 3.5: Subcontracting

As well as working with individual headteachers, I also provide peer group reflective supervision for headteachers or pastoral leaders within trusts. In this instance, the initial contracting meeting is held with the MAT CEO who then holds meetings with the people who will be joining the group to agree with them whether peer group reflective supervision will be of interest to them.

With this kind of work, it remains essential that I am able to speak with (and form a 'contract' with) each person who will be part of the group before we meet together. This takes a similar form to individual contracting meetings but, because the work has already been agreed with the trust, the purpose of these meetings is to form a bridge to the first group session.

In these initial one-to-one meetings I ensure that each person has full awareness of what their CEO has signed them up to. So far, there have been no problems with this. The CEOs I have worked with have fully shared all of the documentation I have sent through and, more importantly, have involved the group members in the decision to pursue a reflective supervision approach. This is an approach I would heartily recommend, as it enables these subcontracting meetings to focus on the needs and wants of the individual. Additionally, because of the peer nature of the work, it enables me to find out more about each person's experience of working and being in groups, including their preferred and unpreferred ways of contributing to them.

Step 4: Getting on with the Work

As you can see, there are a few important steps to help you decide whether or not reflective supervision is for you or for those for whom you are commissioning it. Your (their) work as a headteacher or school leader is too important to leave this to chance. Once we get to this stage, I ask those with whom I work to commit to a year of reflective supervision (either half-termly or monthly depending upon which would provide the appropriate level of support). Fixing a calendar year with between 6 and 10 sessions is important: the work quite simply cannot be done in a couple of sessions and cannot be squeezed into a couple of months. There is enough that is fast-paced and unreflective in the daily expectations of a headteacher or school leader: their/your commitment to their/your professional-personal effectiveness ought not to be added to that list.

In that year, I travel (often quite lengthy distances - I am happy to work with you wherever you are) to provide the supervision at or near your school. There is also the option for online sessions, but so far the face-to-face offer is more appealing and I am a happy traveller. Our work, over 90 minute sessions, provides an iterative exploration of what the headteacher wants to bring to the sessions.

My experience as a recent and long-serving headteacher function mainly in the background: it helps those I work with not to have to keep stopping to explain context. My experience enables me to empathise and understand, and sometimes to share similar incidences to reassure, but never to tell or prescribe how you should be doing your work. Headship and school leadership was, is, and always will be too contextually-specific and idiosyncratic for a prescriptive approach to be effective.

The focus of the work is therefore always about your effectiveness in the role, your professional development over time, and your ability to make sense of and better cope with the work. Those three functions - the normative, formative and restorative - are always intertwined and co-dependent. Headteachers and school leaders are human beings who are, at the same time, developing professionals and we keep sight of the whole package in our work together.

Conclusion: The First Step

The purpose of this post, inspired by the new headteachers I am going to be working with and those with whom I have already established a relationship with, is to nudge you back to step one of your journey into reflective supervision. If you know that coping with the role isn't just something that will happen but is something that needs to be worked at, then get in touch. There are many steps that flow from this first step, none of which commit you to anything other than finding out more. But that first step - the one that is entirely in your power - is the most important one. Take it with confidence and see where it leads you.

Postscript on Contracting for MATs

Contracting for peer supervision in MATs is a complex business. The agreement between the supervisor and trust, between trust and leaders, and then between supervisor and leaders takes time. If any link in that chain fails then the chain is broken. Recently, I have begun working with Raleigh Education Trust headteachers in Nottingham. Phil Willott, the liaison for the trust leadership team, shared these comments about the contracting process between Raleigh Education Trust and Mind Your Head Education Consultancy.

"The contracting meeting held between ourselves (Raleigh Education Trust) and Keven from Mind-Your-Head.Net was an extremely useful and much-needed part of the onboarding process. It allowed both parties to establish a clear and transparent working relationship.

Keven was well-researched and had a good understanding of the organisation’s vision and values, this allowed for a more focused conversation on establishing the partnership and the understanding of the process of supporting our Headteachers.

The model was clearly explained and provided a concise understanding of the theory and practice. Whilst Keven was true to the model and the approach of working, he was understanding, offering flexible solutions to reflect the challenges that school leaders face to ensure the sessions could be accessible/beneficial to all."


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