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Be more penguin

20 March 2019

Gillian RuchGillian Ruch

Our experiences of the Practice Supervisor Development Programme to date suggest that it is having a significant impact on how the participants are ‘finding their feet’ and developing more secure footings in their new roles. Indeed, they are learning to ‘be more Practice Supervisor' and as the Practice Supervisors are beginning to authentically embody new identities they are also learning how to be supportive of each other.

I’m writing this on my return journey from a work-related trip to Norway. A few days before the trip I had slipped on an icy stretch of pavement near my home and so wondered how I would cope in snowy Oslo. Hearing my concern my colleague and Practice Supervisor Development Programme (PSDP) co-facilitator, who had recently broken her ankle falling down some stairs and was receiving physiotherapy for it, passed on advice she had been given – that in wintry conditions we need to walk ‘more like a penguin’. Well you can imagine the number of YouTube clips of penguins that have been exchanged since this advice was dispensed! My favourite to date being this one: https://youtu.be/hfkppNc_8rM.

Whilst telling this story to my Norwegian colleagues, they told me about a current controversy in Norway about young children in pre-school settings being made to wear spike attachments over their winter boots to prevent them from slipping over. The controversy about this practice, I was told, is that given Norwegians learn to walk in snowy conditions from their first steps, they consequently develop walking styles and reflexes that recognise how to respond when they slip. Indeed, quite independently, on the same day, in the course of a conversation with a coffee shop barista from the Philippines, he offered the same observation to me – Norwegians know how to walk in icy conditions.

So what has this got to do with the PSDP you may well ask? As one of two facilitators delivering the programme to the first South East cohort, I have had the privilege to work with Practice Supervisors from a wide range of local authorities, varying in size, practice approaches and Ofsted ratings. A golden thread running through the PSDP is a commitment to relationship-based, reflective approaches to professional development, which offer safe experiential spaces to explore all aspects of the Practice Supervisor role and identity. As facilitators, therefore, we have placed importance on modelling ourselves behaviours and practices that are congruent with the Practice Supervisor role and in our sessions we find ourselves making frequent mentions to parallel processes, i.e. that how we relate to each other and manage ourselves in the PSDP sessions has close parallels with the dynamics and relationships between Practice Supervisors, supervisees and practice supervisors teams. For the PSDP team members responsible for devising the curriculum, this pedagogic practice of parallel process and experience-led learning and development has been a paramount consideration in its design and content.

For those reading this blog who are less familiar with the structure of the programme, it is delivered over five whole days with days one and two, and three and four, delivered over two day residential blocks. It has been a pleasure as facilitators to be able to spend time altogether with participants, within and out with the ‘official’ sessions and to be part of an emergent community of practice as group members talk together in sessions and over breakfast, lunch and dinner. We have learnt to be with each other personally and professionally, mirroring the personal and professional dimensions of the practice supervisor role. As a Practice Supervisor, we suggest, it is not possible to separate out personal histories and life experiences from how the role of Practice Supervisor is taken up and enacted in everyday practice. So one of the programmes core aims to create ‘communities of practice’ is beginning to be realised.

One of the exercises participants undertook on day one was to draw a lifeline that explores their journey into social work and particularly how their experiences of power and authority in their personal and professional lives has influenced how they exercise these qualities in their new role. The exercise proved to be an insightful experience, reminding them of their personal trajectories into the Practice Supervisor role and importantly the values that have been and remain integral to their life choices. Furthermore, the exercise undoubtedly forged bonds as people dared to honestly share their stories. When asked what they would be taking away from the first two days to ‘try out’ in their work settings, several participants said that they would introduce the lifeline exercise into supervision to help them get to know their supervisees better.

So, coming full circle, our experiences of the PSDP to date suggest that it is having a significant impact on how the participants are ‘finding their feet’ and developing more secure footings in their new roles. Indeed, they are learning to ‘be more Practice Supervisor’. And as the Practice Supervisors are beginning to authentically embody these new identities they are also learning how to be supportive of each other. Having discovered that the collective term for a group of penguins on land is a ‘waddle’ (for information, on the ocean the equivalent term is ‘a raft’), might we re-phrase the PSDP aim mentioned earlier – the creation of ‘communities of practice’ – to the creation of ‘waddles of Practice Supervisors’?


About the author

Gillian Ruch is a facilitator for the Practice Supervisor Development Programme and Professor of Social Work and works in the Department of Social Work and Social Care at the University of Sussex.

Twitter: @SussexCSWIR


Practice Supervisor Development Programme

Research in Practice, together with consortium partners, are delivering a national Practice Supervisor Development Programme (PSDP) funded by the Department for Education. The programme aims to provide high-quality continuous professional development for up to 1,000 newly-appointed Practice Supervisors. These are social workers taking up their first role in which they are responsible for supporting and developing the practice of others and who have been in their role for less than twelve months. Currently over 300 Practice Supervisors have taken part.

The PSDP is now entering its second phase with an additional places available for Practice Supervisors. Senior colleagues in local authorities are invited to nominate participants who would benefit from being part of this programme.

The wholly not-for-profit consortium led by Research in Practice includes: The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation TrustUniversity of Sussex and Goldsmiths, University of London. The consortium will work with a number of skilled ‘local delivery partners’ comprising universities, Teaching Partnerships and trusted CPD providers in every region.

Find out more about the PSDP.

Frequently asked questions about the PSDP.     

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