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The secret to successful supervision

Really. That's the whole secret. While those who hear me say this think it is sort of smart ass remark, I mean it.

I've never taken a class in supervision. But over the last 20 years I have discovered that people who don't need to be supervised are developed as much as selected.

Here are few ideas for creating staff members who don't need supervision:

  • Make sure everyone knows the big picture. The "why" of a project, especially in education, is often overlooked. We in education have the greatest mission in the world: making kids successful. If that is at the root of all our efforts, we naturally do our best. But everyone has to see the link - although sometimes long and nearly invisible - to one's work and its impact on students. (See also The DJ Factor.)
  • Jointly set clear goals, establish time lines and help prioritize work. Then get the hell out of the way. Establish what needs to be done and let others figure out the best way to do it and the parameters under which they are working.
  • Provide resources for success. The supervisor should be the go-to person if your staff needs training, equipment or cooperation from other people.
  • Expect and analyze failures. When you try new (hopefully more efficient or effective) ways of doing things, failures will occur. (If you are not making mistakes you are probably not making anything, as the pundits tell us.) Don't blame a person, figure out what went wrong and how to make a different mistake the next time.
  • Use employee evaluations to help build, not pull down. Personally, I think formal evaluations of staff are worthless unless documenting for dismissal. I have always found good people are very self-aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Use evaluations to help people meet their personal challenges and goals.
  • Run interference. If your people are having problems getting something done because of the actions or inactions of others, intercede. (My nickname is The Plunger in our department.)
  • Meet regularly. Scheduled face to face meetings with a running agenda regarding tasks and projects keeps the lines of communication open and you informed without having to look over people's shoulders.
  • Accept and build areas of expertise. I don't need to know the technical and other special skills of those in my department (thank god). I only want to know the reasons people do what they do in terms I can understand - and can then relay to other non-technical people.
  • Be flexible with schedules. I expect people to work beyond their normal paid hours when we have deadlines or emergencies. I also expect that there will be times people come in late, leave early or need a day off. 9-5 mindsets are a thing of the past. Trust is implicit if you don't want to have to supervise people.

I personally have never liked to be micro-managed and fortunately I haven't been for many, many years.

Isn't there this rule about "do unto others...."?

Any other ideas for creating people you don't have to supervise?

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Reader Comments (8)

Good points Doug....I think the present/future of evaluation is Socratic/question driven. When I did my principal practicum my mentor taugh me how to do observations and post obs meetings 100% question driven. If you make statements, you're either putting yourself in an attack position or in a situation where you aren't going to learn anything. If someone is good at something why wouldn't you want to pick their brain?

How things have in Sconnie you need a principal license to get a tech coordinator license.

December 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Mielke

Doug you certainly have it! And knowing you, you already do this. But in print, you forgot one thing that really sums up everything. As a supervisor, occasionally stop in and say, “thanks for working so hard!” or “I am really glad you are part of our school/dept.” Reply to an email, with only “You’re the best and your students show it!”

These simple and specific words of praise and support are the gentle rain that nourish our teachers and staff, so they can nourish our students. Lead by example. Much easier to do or your students, what you have seen and experienced yourself.
My principal does this. I would do anything for her!

December 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSally mays

I agree wholeheartedly with Sally Mays. I'm amazed at how many people in a supervisory capacity forget how important it is to offer occasional praise and encouragement to those they oversee. There is no more powerful action that can be taken to foster quality future work, sustained professional growth, camaraderie in the workplace, and - ultimately - increased benefits for students. Supervisors are often exposed to an unending round of issues and challenges throughout the day and it can become easy to be influenced in a negative way; however, a savvy supervisor knows that taking a little time for the positive can reap large rewards overall.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Perez

Hi Nathan,

Great points. I expect administrators and teachers (administrators of their classrooms) view themselves as teachers or co-learners. I acknowledged many moons ago that I know very little about anything!

Have a great holiday season!


Hi Sally,

How right you are! Leaving our stated (and sincere) appreciation for jobs well done was a serious oversight! I appreciate your bringing it to my attention. My own actions in this area need improvement!

Have a happy holiday!


Hi Lisa,

Well said and important. Next revision of this, expressions of thanks will be included and I will work on this in my own workplace.

Have a wonderful holiday season!


December 19, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I am trying to image using those ideas in an actual classroom - scary how much they make sense, but trying to convince a group of freshman to "do school" differently could be a huge undertaking.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKenn Gorman

Hi Kenn,

Much of this is built on respect and trust - nothing that is built in a day. Over time, I've found these ideas work with students (perhaps better) as well as adults.

A very merry Christmas to you and yours!


December 22, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Perhaps I am thinking about your points in a different way, but, I think that employees who don't need to be supervised scare supervisors, i.e. they're too independent, and they know that they know that they know. I am one of those employees, and I find that I intimidate my supervisors as a result. I also think that the traits of an employee that needs no supervision are for the most part inherent. There's perhaps some nurture along the way, but, it;s part of who I am.

December 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterteachermrw

Hi teachermrw,

Oh, I know there are supervisors who are scared or intimidated by independent workers. I think they are called micro-managers and we've all encountered them. I wish I knew a way to change such people other than building a long history of trusting interactions. And even that is not enough some times.


December 26, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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