Every field has gaps between what is and what could be. Those are the gaps between the reality on the ground and what, ideally, could be, in order to foster maximum positive change and growth. When it comes to leadership education – the field nearest and dearest to our Wexner hearts – there are few, if any areas of our work where that gap is wider than in the practice of supervision (a subset of professional learning).
To be sure, this isn’t only in the Jewish communal world. Across a wide array of sectors such as the arts, engineering, law, sports, finance, and many more, thousands move into management positions and suddenly need to supervise, never having been taught how to do it.
I got to see the scope and the nature of this gap under a magnifying glass when I taught Professional Learning (which included supervision) to Jewish education graduate students. The incredulity and dissonance that the course surfaced in them came on so hard and fast that I finally brought a bell to class. I asked the students to ring the bell whenever they experienced some version of, “No way, really?” or “Nah, that’s just not possible.”
Better they should have a place to protest boldly now, I figured, rather than in the field when they would be responsible for supporting people’s growth, livelihoods, and career trajectories.
The bell rang persistently. At first.
As the non-profit Support Center’s supervision course syllabus puts it, “Many leaders and managers supervise staff by the seat of their pants or based on the management styles and characteristics of leaders they admire, or based on what they did not like in their own supervision.”
How many exactly? Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s been studied (but someone should). As far as I can tell, among five major career tracks in North American Jewish communal life – academic, cantorial, education, non-profit management, and rabbinical – supervision is only consistently part of the required course of study for educators (and variably part of the preparation among Jewish non-profit management degree programs).
This should strike us as very odd. Given that rabbis tend to serve as the heads of congregations and other kinds of institutions, they are therefore responsible for supervising, be it directly or by supervising those who supervise others. It has always been so strange to me that supervision, something that proves utterly crucial for organizational wide growth, improvement, and achievement, not to mention for building healthy workplace cultures that enjoy high rates of employee retention, is absent from courses of rabbinical study across the major American Jewish seminaries.
Of course, it is not only rabbis who are expected to magically grow supervision skills and capacities upon being hired. This story is echoed in society at large, where education remains one of the only sectors in which supervision is taught to its professionals. Leaders who have not studied or practiced supervision ascend to management roles with supervisory responsibilities across every kind of Jewish and secular organization. Sadly, it has been my consistent experience that a majority have also not, themselves, gotten to enjoy and benefit from the blessing that is effective supervision.
Instead of at least acknowledging how absurd it is to treat this supremely important and complex work as so prosaic that anyone can intuit it, the cultures of workplaces have long accepted it as ordinary and possible for leaders to just figure it out on the job.
Turns out, this hasn’t been working out so well.
Focusing in on the state of Jewish communal workplaces in the U.S., not only are we moving in the wrong direction (fewer professionals today report participating in professional development, being compensated for their time, or receiving a stipend to cover the costs), we are also emphasizing on the wrong kind of learning: professional development is typically equated with the one-off workshop (or conference or retreat or webinar), instead of focusing on sustained learning that is embedded in the lived, daily life of a work culture. To be sure, many kinds of outside experiences can be nourishing and informative, but all the research findings about what makes professional learning most effective point to on site learning integrated into the fabric of a team’s way of doing work as holding the greatest potential for an organization to realize its highest and mission-driven aspirations.
Add to this troubling picture these latest findings about cross-team learning and interaction. Leading Edge’s 2021 Fifth Annual Employee Experience Survey, Are Jewish Organizations Great Places to Work? Results from the Fifth Annual Employee Experience Survey reports that while employees do report a high level of satisfaction with cooperation within their immediate teams and departments, there is a major dive in the satisfaction scores when it comes to cooperation between teams and across departments. This score has also seen a downward trend since 2019. Overall, the report contends that “favorable scores for interdepartmental support, as well as open and honest two-way communication in the organization overall, remain lackluster (p.42).”
What is at stake couldn’t be greater. As one panelist on a recent Prizmah podcast about professional development put it succinctly, “We need to grow our professionals; if we are not doing that, how can we expect our institutions to grow?”
How Did We Get Here?
At least in the United States, contemporary supervision practices have been shaped and informed by at least five main models that span over a century, each one animated by the social and cultural realities of the day. Beginning with the “inspection” model of the 19th and early 20th century (which was actually about evaluation, not supervision), through the models of scientific management, human relations management of the 1930s and 40s, to the neo-scientific model of the 1960s, the legacy and effects of all of four are cumulative. Today, we continue to see aspects of them all across virtually every industry.
While each of these first four “traditional” models introduces a different emphasis for supervision, they all have one thing in common: power rests entirely with the supervisor. The supervisor-supervisee relationship remains unidirectional. These models were predominantly focused on providing judgments – telling someone what they’re doing wrong or right – which breeds dependence. Conversely, a focus on learning breeds independence and interdependence, which are the lifeblood of inquiry, experimentation, innovation, creativity, which happen to be critical agents of change for organizations, communities, and society.
Then, in the 1970s, as society was increasingly interrogating power dynamics of all kinds, a fundamentally new paradigm for supervision emerges, called clinical supervision. As you can tell from the chart below, this shift influences every aspect of a supervision paradigm.
Contrasting “Clinical” and “Traditional” Supervision Paradigms
|Core Characteristics||“Clinical” Supervision||“Traditional” Supervision|
|Aim||To improve – help Supervisee to grow, learn, develop
To provide Supervisee with formative or in-process ongoing feedback, to collaboratively learn new insights about excellence and quality of the craft, and to increase the Supervisee’s ability to self-assess accurately
|To evaluate – to make decisions about employee status, e.g., renew contract, termination, raises, etc.
To provide summative or end-of-process assessment
|Basis||Observations, recorded data||Evaluator’s rating|
|Focus||Specific learning goals co-determined by Supervisor and Supervisee||Procedural norms/overarching pre-determined criteria|
|Frequency||Based on need and rhythm of Supervisee’s work||Based on policy|
|Philosophy||Promotes independence and inter-dependence||Promotes dependence|
|Who holds the power?||Shared
(motivation for growth, initiating conversations, setting of agendas and creation of learning goals, etc., shared between Supervisor and Supervisee)
|Supervisor alone initiates and executes|
For over a century, employers and employees had accepted that supervision was a one-way, top-down task, with learning rarely entering the conversation as a purpose of supervision. For the first time, then, clinical supervision came to frame the process as a two-way, collaborative effort between a supervisee and their supervisor, for learning about and improving their craft and work together.
Five decades later, we don’t really hear the name clinical supervision anymore. However, the best supervision – along with the more recent boom we are seeing of the related but not identical practices of coaching and mentoring – are direct heirs to the 50-year young idea that the supervisory relationship, at its best, is a process defined by cooperation and partnering for professional growth of the supervisee. In short, it is defined by shared power.
To be sure, the supervisor can and ought to bring expertise, experience, and wisdom to the relationship, but they are shared in the context of ongoing cycles of iterative joint inquiries. More specifically, the goal of a supervisor is to work in attuned ways with each team member to sustain and release the unique talents of a particular supervisee. There are no templates for supervising “an employee,” only principles and strategies for attuning facilitation of growth to each individual. There is no such thing as the average employee. So, supervision needs to be both developmental (attuning the process to the individual’s stage of their career and life) and differentiated (attuning the process to the individual’s work needs, learning needs, style, and personality, etc.).
What About Evaluation?
While we can problematize the earlier four models for limiting potential for employee growth, learning, and empowerment, some aspects of so-called “traditional supervision” remain vital to running organizations effectively and fairly: most notably, evaluation. Evaluation should of course be related to the supervisory process, but it also represents a different process, with distinct purposes. We could feature a whole separate issue of WexnerLEADS on the topic of evaluation, and maybe we should. When the lines between the processes of supervision and evaluation become fuzzy, trust is undermined and the ultimate potential for growth of the institution and of the team member are diminished. In short, supervisors may also serve as evaluators (they almost always have to in smaller organizations), but they must be consistently transparent with the supervisee about which is taking place when, by whom, and how.
When the Bell Stops Ringing
About two thirds of the way into that course I taught on Professional Learning, I noticed the students’ focus had shifted. They had become less preoccupied with how many hours this work would take and had become absorbed by a deeper and much more productive kind of challenge: how professionals often shield themselves when they are seen.
Educational leader Kevin Ryan captured this best when he pronounced teaching “adults’ second most private social activity.”
That’s how private (and isolating) teaching is, and it helps us understand how private and isolating other kinds of work can feel, too.
This fear of being seen is an unfortunate phenomenon that brings me immeasurable professional sadness, especially because we know that people love and need to be seen, heard, and experienced. Indeed, professionals of all kinds are increasingly reaching out to executive coaches, mentors, and collegial confidants in the field, in part because of this basic human need (and right, I would argue) to be seen.
However, in most work settings, being seen and regularly noticed in your work – having what you do and how you do it mirrored back to you – is still quite countercultural. So, the same people who crave being seen by those outside of their organizations can have very mixed feelings – or plain dread – about being seen within their workplaces. I’ve heard some describe it as unnerving (when it’s from a supervisor) or creepy (when it’s from a colleague). It is as if they are somehow being professionally “stalked,” instead of respectfully and deservedly witnessed, their work and thought honored.
So, when asked to make their work and thinking more “public” they can feel threatened and even insulted. Tragically, what starts out feeling like a need for privacy or autonomy, too often transforms into isolation from others on the team. At that point, you can create all the open workspaces and hold all staff meetings you want, but you effectively have cubicles around each guarded employee.
Effective supervision accounts for this and helps us move through and beyond it.
If you have experienced it, you know that once you have tasted the best versions of being seen – receiving regular, specific and timely feedback (by which I do not mean here, guidance or assessment, which are both important, too, but rather, reflecting back what is seen and experienced) – you know what it is to crave it. You know what it is to value being seen for your growth and come to yearn for and request it regularly from trusted, respected supervisors and colleagues.
Supervision in Action
Effective supervision generally entails dedicating one hour per week to each supervisee upon first being hired, which can eventually become one hour every 3-6 weeks, and as needed. This always makes me think of the pretty astounding statistic from NASA, that their rockets use 85% of the mission’s total fuel during take-off. Getting launched does take disproportionate energy and resources, but it is infinitely worthwhile given what a relationship focused on true learning can yield. Sure, you could save all that fuel. But then you haven’t launched. Metaphorically, that’s the equivalent of our organizations puttering around Cape Canaveral. So, if this sounds intensive in the beginning, it should.
But what goes on during all those weekly meetings?
The word supervision conjures up so many different feelings for people, and they don’t tend to be good feelings. When people hear the word supervision, by and large, they tend to think of being assessed or reviewed, but not of engaging in a mutually rewarding learning experience. When I hear the word supervision, I think of ongoing iterative cycles comprised of three core steps that hinge on being seen:
- a pre-observation session
- an observation (supervisor observes some pre-determined sample of the supervisee’s work or of them in action in real time), and
- a post-observation session
Supervisory observation requires a certain kind of seeing and being seen and a certain kind of analyzing and recording of thinking that are made visible.
Since the supervision process is predicated on creating shared understandings and meanings of the supervisee’s work and all that is transpiring, audio, visual, or other artifacts become critical core “texts.” The process of choosing what to observe and how to interpret it must be transparent to ensure that insights and conclusions are not based merely on subjective judgments of the supervisor; rather, on jointly created, co-authored texts. Whenever differences invariably surface between how the supervisor and supervisee read the texts, that’s to be expected, and becomes opportunity for closer examination, learning, and growth.
There are critical skills which the supervisor develops and practices over time, to be able to serve as a generative and trustworthy observer. Yet, an array of familiar factors mitigates our ability and our desire as supervisors – and as supervisees – to be observers.
These can include, for example, the sheer pace of action (too many things are happening, way too fast), a lack of criteria or lenses for what to look for (how to discern what is relevant), and of course, our own past experiences can conflate what we see with what we interpret. Even in the face of all of these hurdles, the time and energy spent in striving to become a better observer returns in spades. For excellent observation – seeing and being seen – can account for no less than the difference between a toxic versus a supportive learning environment, between growth trajectories versus rehearsals of the same static or counter-productive patterns, between trusting versus suspicious or fearful cultures.
At the deepest level, observation lies at the heart of effective supervision because it allows for the calibration of the supervisor’s and supervisee’s realities and perceptions (which also means no surprises in the evaluation process). Divergent realities and perceptions are typically the locus of clashes, mistrust, armoring up, and even outright resentment, in models of supervision where the power is less shared, where the channels of communication are less open and clear, and where the process is anchored in unilateral judgment instead of observation.
Naming the Gap
There is no doubt in my mind that we can bridge this pervasive gap. Yes, we will need to figure out how to start teaching supervision in creative and tailored ways to the array of folks who need it, pre-service and in-service. But that’s all quite doable.
What we can’t do is begin bridging until we acknowledge there is a gap. That may be our bigger adaptive obstacle.
What are some of the “is” vs. “could be” tensions that you have experienced or observed when it comes to professional learning? What will it take to finally reject that it is ordinary and possible for leaders to just figure this all out on the job? What will it take for us to name this gap, and discuss these questions freely? I’m honestly not sure.
But once we do come to see and appreciate that effective supervision is something that every employee and every organization needs and deserves, I am confident there will be an explosion of potential and hardly a height to which we can’t soar.
Some Suggested Resources about Supervision and Professional Learning
All Things PLC: https://www.allthingsplc.info
Blythe, Tina and David Allen and Barbara Schieffelin Powell (1999) Looking Together at Student Work. New York, New York: Teachers College Press.
Brown Easton, Lois E. (2011) Professional Learning Communities by Design: Putting the Learning Back Into PLCs. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin (a SAGE Company). 2011.
Brown Easton, Lois E., ed. (2004) Powerful Designs for Professional Learning. Oxford, OH:
Cooper, James M. (1984) Ch. 4 “Observation Skills,” in Developing Skills for Instructional
Supervision. United Kingdom: Longman Group.
Coyle, Daniel (2018) The Culture Code. New York: Bantam Books.
Good, Thomas L. and Jere E. Brophy (1978) Ch.3 “Seeing in Classrooms,” in Looking in
Classrooms. New York: Harper and Row.
DuFour, Richard, Robert Eaker, Rebecca DuFour, editors. (2005) On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
DuFour, Richard and Robert Eaker (1998) Professional Learning Communities at Work.
Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.
Marzano, Robert J., Tony Frontier, and David Livingston (2011) Effective Supervision. Alexandria, VA: ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development).
Pajak, Edward (2000) Approaches to Clinical Supervision: Alternatives for Improving
Instruction. Norwood, MA., 2nd edition.
Rabin, Elliot. Interview with Tammy Anagnostis, Maccabee Avishur, Arielle Levites, Suzanne Mishkin, and Flora Musleah. Prizmah Podcasts. Prizmah Center for Jewish Day Schools. https://prizmah.podbean.com/e/research-encounter-teacher-learning-and-growth/. December 15, 2021.
Raider-Roth, Miriam (2021) “Enclaves for Learning: Playgrounds to Dream and Act.” eJewish Philanthropy. Dec. 10, 2021.
Ritchart, Ron and Mark Church (2020) The Power of Making Thinking Visible: Practices to Engage and Empower All Learners. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.
I am indebted to Dr. Michael Zeldin, professor emeritus of Jewish education at HUC-JIR, from whom I learned not only the significance of the arc of the history of supervision, or the deep, soulful, and mutually gratifying process of effective supervision, but who also demonstrated a hundred times daily, over several decades, how the gap between what is and what could be, can be bridged.
 The term “clinic,” here, is intended to refer to a context for learning and growth that occurs through face-to-face interactions, co-exploration, and hands-on practice, with timely and specific feedback, somewhat akin to a “soccer clinic.”
 In his book, The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle identifies several remarkable exceptions to this rule, including Pixar, the San Antonio Spurs, the Upright Citizen’s Brigade comedy troupe, and Navy SEALs Team Six. Coyle dissects each of those cultures for the precise and often micro-social mechanisms by which their leaders create wildly successful teams, by normalizing practices of regular and multi-directional feedback.
Get To Know The Author
WGF/DS Alum Dr. Tali Zelkowicz (Class 15) is Director of Curriculum and Research at The Wexner Foundation, where she supports educational initiatives across the suite of the Foundation’s seven leadership programs.