This blog post contains my reflections about the overlapping but distinct roles of therapist, teacher, and supervisor. I have been engaged in all three of these professional roles throughout my career and will share how these experiences have intersected and how my experience in these three roles has evolved over time.
My career began in my 20’s with a goal of becoming a therapist, without an accompanying thought about teaching or supervising. As a graduate student, though, I was able to earn additional income by teaching, so it had a more pragmatic focus than my training as a therapist. One of my early lessons in teaching was that I enjoyed and was much more engaged when I taught material that was related to my growing clinical experience and interests. I was also surprised to discover that I was comfortable in the role of teacher, in part because I am an oldest child and being the “expert” is a familiar role and also because my father was a university professor who modeled patience while helping me with homework when I was stuck.
After getting my doctoral degree and becoming licensed, I devoted myself to my psychotherapy practice and didn’t do any academic teaching for more than ten years. My interest in the activity of teaching didn’t diminish, however, and I found opportunities to do trainings and workshops for psychotherapists both because of the professional satisfaction and as a way to enhance my professional profile in a market that was saturated with therapists. I chose topics that were interesting to me in my professional growth and enjoyed the synergy with my clinical practice. As I met challenges with my clients, I researched ways to be a more effective therapist through consultation, continuing education, and reading. In turn, I then shared these insights with others and added my own experiences. I found that giving a training on a particular topic sharpened my thinking because I had to understand the concepts deeply and thoroughly in order to convey them to others. I also came to enjoy responding to questions for the same reason—answering a question required me to clarify what I thought and why.
My joy of teaching has remained while I have been in an academic department for the last five years teaching students in a master’s program. In addition to the aspects of teaching that I found rewarding initially, I also enjoy the challenge of designing classroom experiences and assignments that lead students toward mastery of intellectual concepts and integration of conceptual knowledge with their capacity for self-awareness and insight.
Shortly after becoming licensed, I was asked to supervise doctoral students in a community based agency, which I agreed to do as another way of expanding my professional involvement. As with teaching, I found the role of supervisor to be comfortable, and I modeled my supervisory style after supervisors and mentors who had contributed to my clinical knowledge and growth. Initially, my approach to supervision was to share what I would do with the client being discussed if I were the treating therapist as well as how I would conceptualize the client’s issues and the therapeutic process. A few years into my supervisory experience, it became evident to me that it was less important to help my supervisees do what I would do with their clients and more important to help them identify the optimal way to respond to clinical situations based on their own personalities, preferences, and styles. This shift gave me a different way to use my experience as a therapist, developing my ability to help supervisees conceptualize cases and evaluate their responses to clients.
As I gained experience with my own clients, I came to appreciate the complexity and ambiguity inherent in the therapeutic process and this led me to a recognition that there is rarely, if ever, a single way to think about or intervene in a clinical situation. Instead, there are often alternatives that are likely to be effective in different ways depending on the unique combination of therapist and client in the relationship. My work as a therapist and as a supervisor reflected more openness and flexibility as I became more comfortable with the balance of knowledge and uncertainty in both roles.
I feel privileged to have been engaged simultaneously as a therapist, teacher/trainer, and supervisor for over 30 years. Being able to apply my growing clinical knowledge in these three arenas has strengthened my ability in all of them. It has also allowed me to express different aspects of my personality and interpersonal style in the three professional contexts as I develop relationships with clients, students, and supervisees.
If you have an interest in teaching or supervising, I encourage you to look for opportunities to expand your professional life and hope my comments give you some guidance in how you might share your expertise as a therapist with others.