The Art and Science of Supervision

There are good and poor supervisors. The best supervisors have good positive personal qualities and follow the proper roles that make them good supervisors. Many books on supervision have reported surveys about the characteristics of good supervisors. Usually these have some characteristics in common and others are different.

I read a story about Doran and Gloria McCarty, who took a group of students to Belize on an overseas project. One Sunday morning they spoke at meetings in the city and in the afternoon went into the rural area for an afternoon service. Because of the distance, road conditions, and having to take two ferries each way, they were late returning to Belize City that evening where Gloria was scheduled to sing. She had only one copy of the music and had no time to reproduce another. A local member assured Gloria that the pianist would be able to play the song if she would go through it with her once. Gloria was skeptical. After a brief rehearsal on only a portion of the music, Gloria took the songbook and the pianist played the song perfectly.

The pianist playing was a beautiful example of the art of music. Since she did not have a copy of the music, she could not exercise the science of music, but rather she demonstrated incredibly the art of music. We refer to it as “playing by ear.” The art of music represents the natural gifts a person possesses. The science of music refers to the music structure and the laborious hours of practice required.

The art of supervision refers to people who are especially good at building relationships and understanding human behavior without specialized supervisory training. Their sensitivity enables them to discover and deal with issues. Supervision as an art is done through intuition. Intuitive supervisors follow their hunches.

The science of supervision offers supervisors training in diagnosing issues and assisting supervisees in dealing with issues. Since supervision is a human enterprise, a person should utilize all of his/her abilities in the art of supervision. Yet the supervisor’s perceptions, even if generally correct, are not always accurate. They need a system to check out their perceptions.

The science of supervision offers a way to check those perceptions, a scientific backup. A medical doctor may have the uncanny ability to diagnose a condition, but no one would want a physician to operate until he/she had passed the necessary tests. Through good supervision training, the supervisor will gain a heightened sense of the art of supervision and have at his/her disposal the tools of the science of supervision.

Regardless of the helpfulness of science, there is always the subjective element in supervision. Value judgments have to be made. This is important because people cannot be transformed into things to be quantified. There are some qualities of supervisors that help them to become effective. McCarty points out these twelve characteristics:

  1. Faith: which reflects the image of God
  2. Health: emotionally and spiritually
  3. Care: the essence of the support system, there is no reason not to care
  4. Courage: facing hard tasks and issues rather than avoiding them
  5. Growth: if it doesn’t grow it is diseased or dead
  6. Authority: using the wrong type in the wrong situation
  7. Preparedness: the supervisor needs training to be good at it
  8. Insight: inner vision to understand what’s happening
  9. Communication: listen and hear, clarify
  10. Flexibility: meet the demands of the situation
  11. Perspective: keep the whole situation in mind, not just while in the trenches
  12. Relational: we work with people, don’t forget it
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