With the majority of sign language interpreters being freelance practitioners, working mostly in isolation, we rarely have opportunities to offload or explore issues arising from our work in any meaningful way. In my experience, when we do offload, it tends to be either to people close to us personally, who have no understanding of what we do or why we are not leaving work issues at work, or trusted colleagues who may feel obliged to offer support by validating our thinking and actions because they may not want, or know how, to challenge us and encourage further exploration of the issue.
With professional supervision not being mandatory in our profession, many interpreters’ experience of it relates to line management supervision, if they happen to have been part of an employed, in-house interpreting team. Supervision in this context often prioritises the day-to-day business of the team, with opportunities for support and development only incorporated into sessions if time allows and, even then, will usually be led by suggestions from the line manager, rather than involving any kind of guided reflection.
Finding myself as a freelance interpreter and a member of a peer group with other interpreters where the focus was very much on socialising and support, rather than professionalism and challenge, I took responsibility for my own development, which included attending workshops run by 360 Supervision. On seeing a Diploma in Supervision advertised by the same provider, although I did not understand fully what professional supervision would entail, my interest was piqued as I knew that I wanted to engage in it in some way. When the suggestion to my peer group that we might benefit from facilitation and more structure to our sessions was met with a lukewarm reception, that was the incentive I needed to apply for the Diploma course – still not really knowing what it would mean. Read on...
It had not occurred to me to find my own supervisor but, thankfully, this was a pre-requisite of joining the course and a random encounter resulted in me making contact with one of the graduates from the first cohort of the Diploma in Supervision course who was happy to take me on.
When considering what my image of successful supervision might be, I was aware of a desire for support, challenge and space to reflect on and explore my practice further, but had assumed that my supervisor would simply give me the benefit of her experience as an interpreter and offer solutions, or a range of options for me to consider, regarding any issues I was struggling with. As it turned out, supervision was going to require me to give a lot more of myself than I had anticipated…and the Diploma course even more so!
As far as supervision goes, I had thought about the ‘what’, but not considered the ‘how’, so the process of supervision was very different from my expectations. I arrived for my first session with plenty of content: two direct questions that I just wanted the ‘right’ answers for; a skills issue (an occasional mental block with understanding fingerspellings, that I had previously taken to a mentor); and a couple of scenarios for discussion.
What actually happened was that both questions were directed straight back to me and I explored options and came up with solutions I felt comfortable with. Rather than focusing on the actual fingerspelling skill - my mentor had suggested getting hold of skills development DVDs, watching online clips and getting myself booked onto a one-day course covering this issue – my supervisor, picking up on the word “occasional” in my description of the issue, identified it was not a skills issue and, instead, focused on me, asked me to monitor the occasions when the mental block happens and do a ‘body check’ – ask myself, “How am I today? Am I tired or stressed?” etc. That, right there, for me was the difference between mentoring and supervision.
Regarding the scenarios, I was challenged every time I stated, as fact, what somebody present was thinking about me or feeling at the time, as well as experiencing a ‘funnelling technique’, where my supervisor picked up on key words and phrases I was unconsciously repeating, followed by probing questions to open me up and get to the real heart of the matter. It was so strange hearing my own words come back at me in the form of a challenge, but crucial in encouraging me to identify how I wanted to address the situation. Even though there were some strong challenges, it was done in a non-judgemental way with a balance of support and challenge from a person who held authority in the session but was not authoritarian. Supervision appeared to be about support, accountability and also have an educative function.
All of the above in my first hour of professional supervision, which was followed by some serious reflection on how I had managed to do without this for two years as a freelancer!