• by Siobhan Maclean
  • 01st Sep 2020

Tears and tissues: a virtual experience

I have been a practice educator for 27 years. I love working with students and with newly qualified workers. When the lockdown started, I found myself looking at social media much more than usual and became increasingly concerned about students’ experiences of suspended and cancelled placements. What could I do? When I was asked to work with a small number of students as a practice educator in a virtual capacity I jumped at the opportunity.

I spent hours planning. Working through questions like what opportunities will the students need and what will they get? How will supervision work? What platform will we use? How will direct observations work? I arranged group supervision every week and individual supervision every other week, alternating with practice supervisors. This meant that each student should get supervision twice a week – one group and one individual session. I hoped that this would address some of the issues of potentially isolated learning.

Initially, supervision via a camera felt different. I learnt a lot about how students saw me in supervision because I was faced with looking not only at the student but also at myself! I noticed that I really worked hard on my body language to try and display active listening through a camera. I also noticed that my view of the student’s face was much more in ‘close up’ than it would be if we were in a room together. So, when I asked Jane how she was feeling about something in supervision, I saw the tears before they started to fall. I metaphorically kicked myself. Why on earth had I not thought about how to respond to a student crying in a virtual session? Almost every student I have ever worked with has cried at some point during their placement (not every session and not all the way through a session – clearly that would be a concern), yet I just hadn’t thought through what to do when it happened virtually. I had reflected on the practicalities of virtual working, but not on the emotional aspects.

During my years of acting as a practice educator, when a student cried, I would simply reach into my bag and pull out some tissues. Happy to respond in the moment to the atmosphere, I might sometimes leave the room for a short while to bring back a cup of tea and a biscuit. I had developed a range of strategies. None worked in the virtual world! When Jane started to cry, I panicked. Reflecting in action, the thoughts and questions ran through my head so quickly. What do I do? If I ask Jane if she wants to go and make herself a cup of tea her family will see her crying…. If I just sit quietly will she feel abandoned? How do I stuff a tissue through the screen?

Of course, I didn’t want Jane to see my panic, so I drew on the exaggerated body language that I had noted in myself. I put my pen down and took my glasses off to show that no record was being made of this and moved the laptop closer to me, I think I even tilted my head. I told Jane was ok to cry, and that it was even good to show that she had emotions invested in the situation. I sat for a while. When we had talked a little, I wanted to make sure that Jane felt ok before finishing the session and possibly seeing her family, or going onto another video call, so I pulled out my ‘funny story’ about tears in supervision. Whenever I tell this story to practice educators on training it always raises a smile.

In one supervisory relationship, we had an agreement about the way that we would sit because one wall of the room was completely made of glass and everyone could see in. To make sure that the student wasn’t distracted by what was happening in the team she sat with her back to the wall. When she started to cry in supervision, I reached down into my bag to pull out a tissue, but I couldn’t find any. The tears really started to flow – this was full on crying! I had a scarf round my neck and in a moment, without really thinking, I found myself handing the scarf to the student. She

blew her nose on the scarf and went to give it me back! I told her to keep it. That student is now a senior manager and every now and again she sends me a scarf as a gift. I told Jane the story so that she knew she was not alone.

As time has gone on, other students and newly qualified workers that I work with have cried in virtual sessions. Every single person has apologised! There is no need to apologise for being human. Tears are often cathartic and now more than ever we may need to use supervision to cry.

As Jane’s placement has continued to develop, we talked about whether writing a blog about this experience might be helpful for both practice educators and students who might find themselves in a similar situation. I thought about writing my own reflections when it happened but decided not to without Jane’s consent. The situation from Jane’s perspective follows:

Jane’s view

Supervision has become a revelation to me.

I have had many jobs where supervision was a requirement of the role, but none more important than as a student social worker. Previously, supervision was no longer than half an hour, a box checking exercise as proof they had kept their end of a contractual obligation. A ‘please say all is well’ prayer from the supervisor, a dismissive laugh at none existent CPD, job done and paperwork filed for another year.

I never expected supervision to make me cry.

In mid-March with the whole country in lockdown, my university course went to online lectures and Zoom meetings. The stress was palpable as lecturers and students tried to navigate this new way of learning. For me this meant sitting watching lectures with no interaction. No ability to pose questions or clarify points, all whilst being distracted by home life. There was a shadow hanging over our futures, not just from the pandemic of an invisible virus but the whole future of the course was now uncertain as exams, deadlines and placements were postponed and rearranged.

By end of June, a month and half after placement should have started, I was informed that virtual placement would go ahead. The pandemic meant that many services had ceased making home visits, which raised questions of how we would gain a full rounded experience of placement that enabled us to meet PCF and KSS requirements for the course, portfolio and case analysis. All of my hopes and expectations from the beginning of the year had disappeared into a boiling pot of anxiety, uncertainty and stress.

I landed on my feet with my placement in Adult Mental Health. I had two placement supervisors instead of the usual one, as well as my practice educator. I was given many opportunities to go on home visits and be part of an ongoing workload rather than a wholly virtual placement and I hit the ground running with a visit arranged for the first morning - no pressure!

Supervision came at me from all directions. Real in depth, proper discussions about me, my feelings, my workload, my cases, reflections, piecing theory and practice together - more than once a year! Everyone with the same goal towards improving my practice and making me a better student. It was a complete game changer.

Then suddenly, during one supervision I started crying. I wasn’t expecting it, I had never discussed anything deeper than ‘am I doing what you expect me to be doing’ in supervision. I had not divulged parts of myself or inner monologue about work processes and learning before. In my experience supervision was about being assessed as fulfilling my boss’ expectations and keeping my job. So

when Siobhan asked me a question that gave me pause and I began to cry, I was embarrassed. Quite literally mortified. I thought it would be frowned upon, dismissed as emotional instability and questioning my professionalism and ability to cope under pressure. All the things I had been told by previous line managers if I dared hint at any emotional reaction to scrutiny.

Once Siobhan had virtually mopped me up and put me back together as best she could in the circumstances, I was able to talk it through with her. I still felt bad that I had caught Siobhan unawares because let’s face it, someone suddenly crying can leave you at a loss, (even more so down a Teams Meeting!) So from my perspective, to be told it was normal, expected and safe to do so was just incredible. A completely enlightening experience. With Siobhan I felt listened to – heard and accepted. And that is all I would ask of a supervisor or manager in future – be present, read the situation and be kind. Above all else be kind, because tears are neither weakness nor unprofessional.