History of SSP

By Claire Allphin, MSW, PhD

From Viewpoint November/December 2006

In 1984, we accepted our first students to the training program for supervisors we call the Supervision Study Program(SSP). We called the students Supervision Study Program Supervisors (SSP Supervisors) and the faculty Supervision Study Program Consultants (SSP Consultants). For the sake of simplicity I will refer to students and teachers.

As one of the founders of the SSP (others were Hilde Burton, Linda Cozzarelli, Ann Smith, Joanne Wile), I would like to tell you about some of our experiences. The description and examples are fairly typical of both teachers and students in the program, but I will also be describing how I, as teacher, have learned in this process.

Here is a brief description of how the program was originally set up: A committee chaired by one of the teachers in the program and consisting of teachers and students in the program, as well as some staff therapists, made policy for the program. Eventually, the committee included faculty members, the executive director, and other interested TPI members. Prospective students submit applications and are interviewed by a Selection Committee. A two-year (changed to a one-year commitment in 2017) commitment is required of each student. Each student has weekly individual meetings with a teacher and participates in a bi-monthly group meeting with one or two teachers. The teaching includes presentations by students and teachers of their work with supervisees and discussions of readings about the supervisory process.

The faculty meets once a month in a study group to discuss problems and issues in their work with students. We seek to support the integration of theory and practice, to enhance self-awareness, and to promote the development of a sense of personal authority in relation to the development of a professional self.

There were three crucial factors in setting up this program: 1) psychotherapy and supervision need to be differentiated from one another, and this is difficult; 2) deintegration needs to occur for learning to take place; and 3) attention needs to be given to the fact that all parts of the organization are connected to each other, so when something happens in one part, all parts are affected; the program will be affected by events in the larger institute, and visa versa.

Some of our most powerful learning experiences have come out of humiliating experiences from which both teachers and students have grown. I believe this is in part related to the fact that the idea for the program was conceived by a graduate of the Institute’s post-graduate training program, who had been turned down when she applied to become a supervisor. She was a well known therapist in the community who was respected by supervisors in the clinic, but it was clear in her interview that she did not have enough experience as a supervisor to supervise in the clinic. As she suffered from this rejection, she conceived of the idea of a program for training supervisors and discussed it with some of the supervisors in the clinic who then began a two-year process of developing and implementing what is now the Supervision Study Program.

It appears that this constructive use of a distressing initial experience is reflected throughout the program. Self-awareness and creativity have often come through facing feelings that have been precipitated by painful experiences. When students in the program suffer the realization of their deficits, they are challenged to grow in self-awareness and competence.

Any of this may occur when a student is not selected by a member of the community seeking supervision or consultation. Instead, another student is chosen, not infrequently one who is in the same group as the rejected student. Acknowledging the pain of the rejection is usually difficult and brings up issues about the rejected person’s competence. In one case, the rejected student came to understand that her desperation to have someone to supervise had kept her from being as clear and direct as she usually is with people. She was being especially “nice” to the prospective supervisee, who shared that impression of her with the student who was selected. This was difficult for all members of the group, but it helped everyone understand certain dynamics of the rejected student when she felt under pressure to perform well.

In another example, a student felt uncomfortable because the therapist he was supervising presented a clinical problem which the student had never dealt with himself. The supervisee was finding the student helpful with the case, but the student felt he was misrepresenting himself because he had not had direct experience with the type of patient being discussed. He reluctantly told his teacher about these feelings and in their discussion the teacher helped him to see that his greater overall experience in doing clinical work gave him a useful perspective on the case. He was outside the therapy relationship and therefore able to see with more clarity what was occurring in the process. This discussion helped the student to use himself more fully, not feeling he had to hold himself back because he did not have the same experience the supervisee had. More importantly, admitting to the teacher that he felt incompetent seemed to result in a strengthening of his sense of competence and professional authority. Allowing himself to be vulnerable in this way resulted in his learning about a new aspect of the teaching process.

When teachers present their vulnerable selves in the faculty study group, members of the group usually work with the material presented to understand the situation, not only on a one-to-one level but also in relation to the overall program as well as in relation to the Institute as a whole. Problems in the learning situation are used creatively and constructively to understand the teaching/learning process and to find new ways of functioning. On the whole, when problems occur neither the teacher nor the learner feels devalued. Problems are seen as avenues for further learning.

An example of this process occurred when a teacher, with some feelings of shame, asked the faculty for help with her student. The student had spent her last hour criticizing the teacher about how little she seemed to know about theory, and how unresponsive she had been to questions the student had presented about her supervisees. The teacher felt humiliated and then angry, since she had, in her view, been quite responsive. As the group discussed the situation it became apparent that a parallel process was occurring in which the student’s supervisee had been criticizing the student for similar reasons. Both student and teacher were so immersed in what was going on between them neither had thought about the parallel process. The teacher felt blamed and ineffectual in the same way the student felt which was also parallel to how the therapist felt with the patient.

This interaction with the faculty group helped to clarify the dynamics in all three relationships. The teacher felt heard and not devalued for feeling ineffectual. Learning took place via the teacher’s willingness to discuss a problem about which she felt helpless and incompetent. When individuals acknowledge feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty, these feelings are not as likely to be projected onto others in the organization who may then be scapegoated as inadequate or inferior.

An understanding of the process of deintegration that I mentioned above has been helpful in valuing upsetting experiences in the teaching/learning process. The concept, which was developed by Michael Fordham, who was a Jungian analyst in London, refers to the breaking apart of a sense of cohesion in order for something new to enter a person. Then there follows a reintegration that includes the new material and which may also include a transformation from an old way of being and the development of greater self-awareness.

An example of deintegration and reintegration occurred when the student mentioned above, who had been critical and devaluing of the teacher in a session talked the next time as though she had not been critical the week before. When the teacher mentioned the previous meeting and talked about the parallel process, the student acknowledged that she had experienced a kind of breaking apart that resulted in her learning something new about herself and about her work with her supervisee. She had understood more about the case that was being described by her supervisee as a result of what she had experienced with the teacher.

The monthly faculty meetings did not begin until the end of the first year of the program. At that point I felt we needed to talk to each other about the difficulties we were having. My own way of learning is to present my most difficult problems and vulnerabilities for scrutiny, so I decided to ask my student if she would permit me to tape record and then transcribe one of our sessions. She gave me permission and I spent about ten hours on this project. For the first meeting of the faculty I sent out copies of the transcript and asked people to come prepared to be critical of my work with the student so we could begin to look at the problems and differences among us in our teaching styles. I wanted us to examine ourselves as teachers rather than to focus on the students. At the meeting hardly anyone spoke about the transcript. I was upset and puzzled and asked people for feedback, but did not get much, if any.

The group went on meeting approximately every three months and eventually monthly with no further mention of the transcript. Members of the group took turns presenting examples of their work with students. Most often the teacher was having a problem with which he or she wanted help. There was an openness in the group and the faculty were presenting problems they were having as teachers, rather than seeing the problems as residing solely in the students.

Many of us felt good about the process, which included anxieties and disagreements among us about the students and about the way the program was operating. We did, however, have difficulty addressing how we felt about each others’ work. It was hard, for example, to openly address someone’s competence, though we might gossip about each other’s work outside of meetings. We eventually had a crisis in the program that brought up concerns some of us had about the necessity to be more direct with one another and to provide some specific program for faculty development. For example, we began reading articles on supervision in the faculty group.

In thinking about this situation, I came to believe that my wanting discussion of my transcript at the first meeting was too much to ask of people who did not know each other well enough, and who have difficulty being openly critical of each other. Because the program is staffed by volunteers, there was concern that people would leave if they were offended. Another factor which may have inhibited confrontation is that the majority of members were women, who perhaps experience confrontation about ideas more personally than men do. Our group may therefore have had more difficulty confronting each other with criticisms for fear of losing relationships, which are probably more important in volunteer organizations than in paid work settings. In our organization, members are involved in large measure because they want to have relationships with other professionals. I think the faculty were eventually able to use the example of my openness about myself to be open about themselves.

A crucial issue is how teaching psychotherapy is different from practicing psychotherapy or analysis. When we began the program I believed strongly that there needed to be a clear line between the two processes and I held to that idea no matter what! I believe I put out a transcript so early in the faculty’s life as a group because I was committed to seeing teaching as more different from therapy than it actually is. I do believe students and teachers should not be treated as patients, which means I would not think of them in diagnostic terms, nor would I avoid confrontation as a I might with a patient, especially early in the work. However, this does not mean that students do not have many of the vulnerabilities we see in patients and in ourselves.

For example, in the first meeting of the group of students I was teaching, I challenged one of the members of the group, acting as if feeling and understanding were not necessary in the teaching situation. In my zeal to think that teaching psychotherapy and practicing psychotherapy were completely different and separate, I wounded the student, who was long in recovering sufficiently to go on with her learning. She had not had the chance to get to know me and know that my challenging was meant to help her, not humiliate her.

The experiences I have described were both painful and humiliating to me, and faculty and students were rightfully critical of me. Facing that I become adamant and insensitive at times when I am trying to get my point of view accepted has been hard, but I know this knowledge effected positive change in me. I also believe the organization changed as a result of this kind of openness among students and faculty in the program. Feeling there is a “right way” and “right answer” is an Achilles heel for some teachers. Unlike situations in therapy or analysis, teaching can put us into the position of expecting a clear unambiguous answer, a position many of us err in as beginners in this work.

As teachers some of us feel we should not be uncertain and anxious. But uncertainty and anxiety are endemic to the teaching of psychotherapy; we seldom have definite answers about psychotherapy or analysis, so how can we presume to always have definite answers for students about how to practice therapy? When what we know is very dependent on what others know and are able to communicate to us, and when our knowledge as teachers of psychotherapy depends on what patients tell our students and what our students tell us, it does not make sense to present ourselves as knowing with absolute certainty.

It has been important for the development of the program to have a theory about the way groups and organizations function. When a teacher is teaching a teacher who is teaching a student who is in some sense teaching a patient, there are several levels and complex relationships operating. Being able to reflect upon the effects of the organization as a whole on the groups and dyads in the program is a rich source of information that helps in understanding the teaching/learning problems that occur.

Tavistock Group Relations Theory postulates a unity in organizations; that is, we are all influencing each other and cannot be separate entities so long as we are part of the same organization. When one teacher is having a problem with a student, the other teachers of the student need to examine their relationships with the student, looking for what difficulties are being expressed in one place and avoided in another. When the process is working ideally, scapegoating can be avoided.

The theory posits that parts of what is occurring in an organization get expressed via thoughts and feelings in individual members. Feelings that occur universally in relationships can impede growth in an organization if members are not able to face, and at times speak about, such feelings—feelings such as envy, abandonment, specialness, competitiveness. When members can talk about these ubiquitous feelings, acting out may be avoided, or at least lessened. Ideally, such feelings are accepted by everyone as part of being human, and people can be direct with one another about them.

According to Tavistock theory, the unconscious processes that occur in groups need to be recognized in order for the group to function as a successful work group. I believe that the SSP has worked to do this, in part because of the founders’ commitment to examining individual problems in the context of examining the organization as a whole, paying attention to unconscious dynamics that routinely occur in groups like ours.

There certainly are differences among members of the program about the value of Tavistock theory, but since some of its founders are committed to the theory, it has been experienced as a viable method of examining and understanding what is occurring in the work of the program.

An example of the larger organization’s effect on the functioning of the SSP is the organization’s need to generate money so it can survive. One effect is that occasionally students who were not qualified have been accepted into the program. Consciousness of the organizational need for the program to succeed helps the Selection Committee to be more discriminating, even if that may mean there are not enough students to form a new group every year.

Another example of the effects of organizational issues on the individual has to do with envy. Envy is ubiquitous in organizations such as The Psychotherapy Institute, an organization in which training occurs and therapists are in competition to be valued as clinicians and supervisors in order to have a sense of self-worth and competence in the work that is so important to us, and to earn a living.

Realization and discussion of envy helped members in one student group to talk about their envy of each other, and how one member did not pursue looking for a new job because of her fear of being envied. It helped another student to become more assertive as the chief supervisor in her organization. She became aware that she was being too nice in order to avoid other supervisors’ envy of her position of authority over them.

The organization has also been impacted by the SSP in that there is more interest in learning about the supervisory process among the supervisors who are on the faculty of the clinic training program even though they have not been involved in the SSP.

Finally, we had difficulty in the early years taking the time necessary to orient teachers who are new to the faculty group. This is an organizational issue that was reflected throughout the Institute. Since we’re volunteers, we often didn’t take as much time as we really needed to work effectively together. When a new teacher came into the group without adequate introduction to how the group functioned, we lost important input from the new person about how he or she experienced the program. And, the new teacher was sometimes unnecessarily injured when other members of the group acted as if he or she should already be familiar with the program. This problem permeated all aspects of the organization. Realization of the problem helped us create a structure for new teachers, which has also taken place in the larger organization. In the SSP we now ask new teachers to come to faculty meetings for a year before teaching and to read the collection of articles about supervision that students read. Awareness of how our group reflects problems in the larger organization facilitates our dealing with problems in our own program more effectively.

In summary, a most important value in the SSP is that teachers and students be willing to examine their own parts in problems and be willing to open themselves to deintegrating experiences that may involve distress and suffering in the service of learning.