Although some traditionalists might put more faith in conclusions derived from “hard and fast” experimental designs, case studies seem to be an appropriate tool for studying clinical supervision. While the quantitative studies, like standardized achievement tests, provide a snapshot of the process after it has been completed, the qualitative case studies, like student portfolios, help us to see in great detail how the process unfolds over time.
By examining the structures and activities common to the following six case studies of clinical supervision, we have identified the conditions that maximize its benefits for teachers. It should be noted that all of these cases focus on the effects of clinical supervision on teachers, not on student achievement. The causal chain from supervisor behavior to teacher behavior to student behavior is a long one with many intervening variables. To date, no study, either quantitative or qualitative, has demonstrated the impact of clinical supervision alone on student achievement.
The Kilbourn Study. In the first study, Brent Kilbourn, a college instructor, describes his supervision of Linda, a first-year biology teacher (1982). Kilbourn and Linda worked together for three months, completing four full cycles of clinical supervision (preconference, observation, and postconference). Before the supervision began, they met three times to ensure that both partners understood the process and were committed to it.
At Linda's request, the process focused on her perceived problems in classroom discipline. She felt that her general education students were not capable of meeting her expectations for them either behaviorally or intellectually. As she saw it, they had short attention spans, were ill-prepared for class, and behaved inappropriately.
Through the data collected during classroom observations and interpreted jointly during postconferences, Linda began to see that she was not holding students accountable for performing intellectually. She often answered her own questions, allowed students to make superficial assertions, and constantly repeated student statements so that students did not have to listen to what their peers said. Consequently, she monopolized classroom interactions and worked much harder than the students did.
When confronted with this portrait of her teaching behavior, Linda began to change. She purposefully waited for students to provide answers to her questions, she routinely probed for additional information when students responded, and she asked students to relate their comments to those of other students. In short, she stopped doing the work of learning for the students. As a result, her thinking about her students changed dramatically. As she said, “I guess it was my fault all along—my technique. I was thinking they were incapable, and here I was holding them back myself.”
In analyzing the success of the process, Kilbourn cites three features of clinical supervision:
- autonomy—the goal is for the teacher to become more self-directed and analytical;
- evidence—the evidence for change in behavior arises from the observational data; and
- continuity—the process unfolds over time.
The Robison Study. In the second case study, Jeffrey Robison describes his work as a peer supervisor with Lisa, a third-year social science teacher (1984). After several introductory meetings, the two completed nine cycles of clinical supervision within an academic year, focusing on Lisa's use of questioning strategies during instruction.
As a result of the clinical supervision, Lisa changed her questioning behavior in three ways: She began to use wait time more effectively, she began to distribute questions to students more evenly, and she planned her questioning strategies more thoroughly before instruction began. In return, the number of students who participated in discussions increased dramatically. Lisa began to feel more in control of the instructional process and to be more aware of the events that were taking place in her classroom.
Two additional aspects of this case study are noteworthy. First, data collection initially focused on student behavior during instruction rather than on teacher behavior in an attempt to minimize the threat of observation for the teacher. Second, Robison notes that postconferences did not become fully productive until six cycles of clinical supervision had been completed.
The McCoombe Study. The third case study is written by Murray McCoombe, an elementary teacher, about the clinical supervision process he engaged in with his principal, Laurie (1984). The two worked together for an academic year, completing approximately two cycles of clinical supervision per month. In this case, the teacher was concerned that if he knew the exact focus of the supervisor's observation beforehand, he might unconsciously put on a show. To accommodate this concern but remain true to the teacher-driven principles of clinical supervision, McCoombe specified four areas of concern early in the supervision process. Then for each cycle, his supervisor chose one of the four areas to focus on. As in the Robison study, the first few observations focused primarily on student behavior.
As a result of the clinical supervision process, McCoombe changed the difficulty of assignments that he gave, the amount of time he expected students to stay on task independently, the types of questions he asked, his patterns of interaction with individual students, the way his room was organized, and the amount of pre-instructional planning he did. He summed up his changes in thinking in the following way:
During these conferences I found myself amazed, flattered, concerned, and amused, but never embarrassed.... After 10 years in the classroom, I felt I was a good teacher. This process was refining my style to make me better.... I soon became aware that I was not putting as much thought into my teaching as I might have. This is something we all experience, both new and seasoned teachers.
The Potash Study. In the fourth study, Larry Potash presents his work as a principal in clinical supervision with Steve, a 15-year physics teacher (1987). Potash had been Steve's principal for more than 10 years prior to beginning clinical supervision, using a traditional once-a-year teacher evaluation. Both parties felt that supervision was a perfunctory process that did not shed any light on the teaching-learning process. In the clinical supervision process, however, the two partners worked together for a semester, completing five supervision cycles and noting significant changes in Steve's behavior.
The process focused on Steve's first-period physics class, which he described as unresponsive. During the process, Potash and Steve developed and tested several hypotheses to explain the students' reluctance to participate. Steve came to believe that his own behavior was primarily responsible for their reluctance, and he began making greater use of wait time, asking more open-ended questions, praising legitimate attempts at answering questions, and refraining from criticizing students for incorrect answers. The data collected demonstrated a marked increase in student participation. Steve summed up the impact of the clinical supervision in the following way:
It clearly demonstrated to me that my teaching behaviors are harder to change than I had thought they were, and it reminded me of the complexity of the teaching role. It has stimulated me to ask even more questions about my teaching and to continue to struggle with what it means to be an effective teacher.
The Grimmett and Creehan Study. In the fifth study, Peter Grimmett and Patricia Creehan present a case study describing the work of Margaret, a principal, with Barry, a 6th grade teacher with 20 years of teaching experience (1990). Margaret and Barry worked together in the clinical supervision process during two academic years, focusing on two issues of classroom management. The first concerned a pattern of unequal participation by students in which one group of students was enthusiastic and involved while a second group was passive and quiet. The second issue concerned “dead time,” what to do when the major tasks of the lesson had been accomplished but instructional time still remained.
The case study demonstrates how the teacher addressed the second issue by developing a new perspective on the need to supply additional activities at the end of lessons. At the same time, the study illustrates how the process failed to help the teacher resolve the first issue. The principal insisted on framing the issue of unequal student participation as one of teacher proximity to students, and she focused on rearranging student seats and classroom furniture. The teacher wanted to frame the issue in terms of different levels of mathematical ability within the class. As a result of the principal's failure to attend to the teacher's perspective, the two partners simply talked past each other with no collaborative reflection.
Grimmett and Creehan conclude that at least two conditions are essential for helping teachers to engage in productive reflection: (1) a collegial and supportive relationship, and (2) allowing the teacher to name the problems to address during conferences and then exploring those problems collaboratively with the teacher.
The Bureau Study. The final case study documents the work of Ed Bureau, a principal, with Pam, an elementary teacher of 22 years (1992). The two worked together in the clinical supervision process over a two-year period, during which Pam made dramatic changes in her thinking about teaching in three key areas: student needs, curriculum, and classroom management.
Pam shifted from seeing her students as a group to seeing them as individuals with unique needs. She refocused her teaching from controlling external behavior to helping individual students meet their needs. Her views on curriculum became more process-oriented, and she began to see cross-curricular themes as the way to reshape the entire instructional program. In classroom management, she began to articulate a belief in students' responsibility for their own behavior and to see the teacher's role as that of facilitator rather than controller.
A unique ingredient of this study was the periodic use of collaborative writing by both teacher and supervisor to summarize and reflect on the process.
Factors Facilitating Change
The six case studies reviewed differ in many respects. They include teachers from different levels of K–12 education with varying numbers of years of experience. In the studies by McCoombe, Potash, Grimmett and Creehan, and Bureau, principals acted as the supervisor. In the Robison study, the supervisor was a peer, and in Kilbourn's study, the supervisor was an instructor from higher education. The cases were written from different perspectives: four were written by the supervisors, one by the teacher (McCoombe), and one by a pair of external observers (Grimmett and Creehan). Despite these differences, the cases promote a common conclusion: clinical supervision under certain conditions can lead to powerful changes in teachers' thinking about instruction and instructional behavior.
Five commonalities that seemed to facilitate changes in teacher thinking and behavior were:
- the development of a collegial relationship in which the teacher feels safe and supported;
- teacher control over the products of supervision;
- continuity in the supervisory process over time;
- focused, descriptive records of actual teaching and learning events as the basis for reflection; and
- reflection by both the teacher and supervisor as the heart of the process of postconferencing.
In each of the six case studies, the supervisor and teacher worked at developing a collegial relationship marked by deference, reciprocity, trust, and respect for the contributions that each partner could make to the process. Deference refers to a manner of acting and speaking in which the supervisor's actions clearly indicate that the supervision is not a challenge to the teacher's professional competence and self-esteem. Rather, the process is intended to examine the efficacy of the teacher's practices (Little 1982).
Reciprocity comprises three components: (1) equality of efforts by both partners; (2) a sense of humility in the face of the complexity of the task and the limits of one's own understanding; and (3) mutual vulnerability (Little 1982). The teacher is vulnerable as one whose practice is laid open to examination, and unlike traditional forms of supervision, the supervisor is also vulnerable. The supervisor must adhere to the principles that undergird clinical supervision and follow through on the commitment to collect particular types of information.
What is remarkable in these six case studies is that despite the variety of organizational roles that the supervisors played, they all were able to develop a collegial relationship with the teacher. In developing collegiality, the qualities of the relationship appeared to be more important than the organizational roles of the participants.
Teachers Control the Products
Although the supervisors maintained control over the supervisory process, ensuring that the interactions were consistent with the values of clinical supervision, they gave the teachers control over the products of supervision. In each of the six case studies, the teachers decided which aspects of the teaching-learning process would be observed and then reflected on during postconferences. The teachers also retained final control over decisions about their teaching practices. Three studies provide evidence of the ineffectiveness of trying to force the teacher to attend to issues that are important only to the supervisor.
In the Kilbourn study, the supervisor tried to focus on why the teacher conducted experiments with her students in the hope of pointing out that unsuccessful experiments can be learning experiences. The teacher, however, who was not concerned with this issue, showed no understanding of the point that the supervisor wanted to make, and instead focused on the lack of equipment available for experiments. Recognizing midstream that he was moving away from issues that were important to the teacher, the supervisor refocused the conference on the teacher's issues.
In the Robison study, the supervisor tried to get the teacher to move about the room more freely. At the supervisor's request, the teacher agreed to work on this, but did so halfheartedly. After a few weeks, the teacher's movements reverted back to the original patterns. Robison sums up this episode:
Above all it impressed upon me the fact that the agendas must be those of the teacher. Moreover, it does demonstrate that change can occur as a result of a stimulus outside the teacher, but the change was short-lived.
As seen earlier in the Grimmett and Creehan study, the principal tried to force her agenda on the teacher when discussing what might be done about unequal student participation. As a result, no collaboration, reflection, or change came about.
Continuity Over Time
The process of supervision in these six cases was marked by frequent teacher-supervisor interactions over extended periods of time, lasting anywhere from three months to two academic years. In five of the cases, the partners met with each other on either a weekly or biweekly basis. (In the Grimmett and Creehan study, it is not clear how frequently the supervisor and teacher interacted.) These time frames allowed the partners to meet several times before actual observations began, thus giving them time to ensure common understandings of the process and mutual commitment. Collegiality and trust could begin to develop before beginning the observations, the most threatening aspect of the experience for teachers. Evidence suggests that continuity is also important because in some of the cases, it took several cycles of clinical supervision or coaching before postconferences became productive and teachers were willing to examine those aspects of their teaching in which they felt most vulnerable (Kilbourn 1982, Robison 1984, Nolan and Hillkirk 1991). A strong time commitment from both parties seems critical if clinical supervision is to result in significant changes in teacher behavior and thinking.
Focused Data for Reflection
In contrast to traditional models of teacher supervision and evaluation—in which the supervisor presents the teacher with global judgments concerning the effectiveness of the teacher's practices—the supervisors in all six cases provided the teachers with descriptive observational data focused on interactions of concern to the teacher. Evidence for needed changes could thus arise directly from the data. By collecting data on the same issues over long periods of time, the partners could develop an in-depth understanding of a few key areas of interest. All of the cycles could attend to the same major issues, such as classroom management, questioning, or student needs, rather than jumping from topic to topic.
This continuity of focus over time seemed to facilitate changes in teacher thinking. Although in many of the cases, behavioral changes appeared rather early in the process, the changes in thinking about teaching seemed to occur only after longer periods of examining the same issue.
The supervisors also provided the teachers with copies of the data before postconferences were conducted. As a result, both the teacher and the supervisor came to the postconference prepared to offer interpretations and judgments. Sharing data before the postconference was also an important step toward establishing a collegial relationship, allowing the partners to come to the table on more equal footing. In traditional evaluations, the supervisor may end up dominating the conference simply because the supervisor has had more time to reflect on the data than has the teacher.
Reflection By Both Partners
The postconference transcripts of the six cases provide ample evidence that both partners engaged in reflection. Teachers' reflections focused on three key areas:
- the match between their desired practice and the practices that were recorded in the data;
- the match between their thinking about students, both as a group and as individuals, and the actual student behaviors that were recorded; and
- the match between their desired impact and the impact that they actually seemed to have on students.
The cognitive dissonance that arose when teachers did not see a match between their thinking and actual events seemed to be the most powerful impetus to teacher reflection and change.
Supervisors facilitated this reflection by providing the descriptive data and by engaging in behavior that Bureau terms “nudging” (1992). Nudging means encouraging the teacher to look at teaching in a new way by asking questions, offering alternative explanations for events, or advocating experimentation with new practices. The supervisors asked questions to help clarify teacher thinking and to probe for the rationale behind teacher behavior. They offered their own interpretations of the data and made suggestions as to how the partners might test explanations for what was happening. They advocated particular practices and ways of looking at teaching. The teachers retained the final responsibility for decisions about their own teaching behavior, but the supervisor served as a catalyst in helping the teacher to analyze those decisions and behaviors.
The supervisors in these cases also exhibited two other important qualities. First, they were patient enough to allow the teachers to come to their own understanding about what was happening in their classrooms. In some cases, the supervisor had a clear picture of the behaviors and thinking that were causing problems early in the supervisory process; however, instead of dumping these insights on the teacher before the teacher was ready to deal with them, these supervisors used the process to help the teachers to construct their own knowledge. Second, the supervisors reflected extensively on the supervision process and took great pains to ensure that they were being true to the intents and procedures of clinical supervision. When they found discrepancies between their behavior and their beliefs about clinical supervision, they changed their behavior.
These six cases provide evidence that clinical supervision can change teacher thinking and behavior. The five conditions that undergird the process present a coherent set of practices that appear to have a cumulative, positive impact on teacher thinking and behavior. In addition, the supervisors in these six case studies seem to share an unspoken belief that teachers have the capacity and desire to examine their own teaching practice and to make changes. Like teachers who truly believe that students can engage in productive, higher-level thinking, these supervisors allowed the teachers to make their own discoveries about how to better their craft. Perhaps this unspoken belief represents the true spirit of clinical supervision.
Bureau, W. E. (1992). “Seeing Supervision Differently: The Process of Facilitating Change in a Veteran Teacher's Beliefs.” Doctoral diss., University of Pennsylvania.
Grimmett, P. P., and E. P. Creehan. (1990). “Barry: A Case Study of Teacher Reflection in Clinical Supervision.” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 5, 3: 214–235.
Kilbourn, B. (1982). “Linda: A Case Study in Clinical Supervision.” Canadian Journal of Education 3, 1: 1–24.
Little, J. W. (1982). “Norms of Collegiality and Experimentation: Conditions of School Success.” American Educational Research Journal 19, 2: 325–340.
McCoombe, M. (1984). “Clinical Supervision From the Inside.” In Case Studies in Clinical Supervision, edited by W. J. Smyth. Victoria, Australia: Deakin University Press.
Nolan, J. F., and R. K. Hillkirk. (1991). “The Effects of a Reflective Coaching Project for Veteran Teachers.” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 7, 1: 62–76.
Potash, L. (1987). “A Case Study in Clinical Supervision.” Unpublished manuscript, Pennsylvania State University.
Robison, J. (1984). “A Second Pair of Eyes: A Case Study of a Supervisor's View of Clinical Supervision.” In Case Studies in Clinical Supervision, edited by W. J. Smyth. Victoria, Australia: Deakin University Press.
Jim Nolan is Associate Professor of Education at Pennsylvania State University, College of Education, 170 Chambers Building, University Park, PA 16802. Brent Hawkes is an ESL Teacher in the School District of Philadelphia. He can be reached at 3100 Terwood Rd., #A5, Willow Grove, PA 19090. Pam Francis is a Staff Development Specialist in the Central Intermediate Unit of Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, R.D. 1, Box 374, West Decatur, PA 16878-9757.