What's So Special About the SSP?

This article was written by a 2009 graduate of the Supervision Study Program. It appeared in the May-June issue of Viewpoint.

By Nancy Ulmer, M.S.W., LCSW

In the last decade there has been an explosion of seminars, training programs, and continuing education programs concerning clinical supervision. Many of them are less time consuming, less intense, and perhaps less expensive than the Supervision Study Program—so, why choose the SSP?

The format of the SSP, involving weekly one-to-one consultation with a senior consultant, a weekly reading/clinical case group, and a monthly weekend morning didactic presentation, is in fact not particularly unique. However, my experience in the SSP was truly remarkable—I would describe it as the most satisfying learning experience of my 25-year career. So, at six months out from my graduation last October, I asked myself, “What is so special about the SSP?”

Although difficult to articulate, I realized that for me, three key ingredients make the SSP special. They are (1) the larger Institute culture, (2) the high caliber of the supervising faculty, and (3) the commitment of the program to the individual learner. These elements infuse the program structure and blend together to provide a lively and fertile learning medium. They set the stage for deep learning, and for the possibility of transforming change in the participant.

The Institute’s founding principles of belief in and respect for the unconscious, commitment to genuine and responsive relatedness, and striving for clinical and instructional excellence, are integral to the character of the SSP. It was out of these principles that the SSP emerged. My own experience bore this out. On an unconscious level I felt held by all these values and had a sense of trust that my consultants did as well. Trust enabled me to dive deep and be intensely vulnerable. In turn, my own capacity to provide deep and safe spaces for my supervisees and consultees increased.

The quality of my own individual and group consultants, as well as the faculty who provided special didactic sessions, was outstanding. All conveyed deep and thoughtful reflection and instruction. My individual consultant has been trained by some of the most important clinicians/authors in the field. Several of the SSP faculty themselves have written seminal books, articles and papers; I had the privilege of studying works authored by several of them. My peers and I eagerly digested these materials. Being able to discuss these works with the authors themselves was stimulating and enriching. In my peer supervision group this material became a valuable launching point for significant explorations of our own experiences. Just as important, it inspired and challenged us to consider our own thinking and writing.

On a deeper level, beneath the Institute values and culture, and within the excellence of the faculty circle, is the commitment to the individual learner, the person developing into a supervisor. I experienced very individualized attention, which meant that my weaknesses as well as my strengths were acknowledged. This happened over time and developing relationships with faculty. I experienced both the terror and relief of being seen. In a parallel process, the clinicians with whom I worked began to show themselves to me more and more, and my own vision improved so that I could see them more clearly. As someone took my professional growth so seriously, I, in turn, more thoughtfully and carefully considered those clinicians studying with me.

So, what exactly was the individual SSP learning experience for me and my cohorts? What actually happened to us during our two years of study and training? Some of the more difficult and very real challenges we faced were a client suicide, the “mysterious death” of a client, supervisees who chose not work with us for unknown reasons, difficult issues of race and class, the ending of a training program where our supervisees were placed, and how to keep working when we experienced deaths close to us in our personal lives. In each of these cases we struggled with the “teach vs. treat” approach and sought our consultants’ and peer’s counsel. We examined parallel processes and scrutinized our individual material. The main touchstone questions we revisited time and again were “What is the opportunity for learning in this situation? How is the client/therapist pair best served? How are we using ourselves?” We each had our own personal learning edges and the SSP experience helped us make good progress in addressing them. Individually and together we learned to accept and make use of our professional authority, settle into and eventually enjoy of the role of learner, present our work unvarnished, strengthen our professional selves amidst other professional changes, and examine parallel process on an organizational as well as supervisory level. We all agreed that one of the most pleasurable lessons we learned was how to “dream” in our group consultation. In retrospect, I believe that we each received important lessons and learning opportunities we needed to become stronger, more thoughtful supervisors.

In summary, it is impossible to explain exactly what is so special about the SSP, however three particular elements stand out for me. They are the combination of the Institute core values and culture, the truly outstanding SSP faculty, and the commitment to individual learner. For me, the investment of time and resources was very well spent. The SSP is perhaps one of the best-kept clinical training secrets in the Bay Area.