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Lessons through Practice - First-time Supervisors Stories

New Professionals and Graduate Students New Professional
September 20, 2022 Teniesea Boston College

As far as I can remember, there wasn't a class around supervising student employees/leaders in my education. The concept of supervision was never a learning outcome on a syllabus. The closest I ever got to it was navigating peer-to-peer relationships in my undergraduate student leadership roles as part of the programming and event planning board and being a returner Resident Assistant (RA) mentoring new RAs. Personally, I found mentors in my peers that held the same positions before me and the student affairs staff that worked to foster meaningful relationships with me and other student leaders.

Under Goals Specifically Related to “Student Learning and Development” according to the ACPA Ethics committee, it says “Provide students opportunities and impetuses to think deeply about what matters to them, where their values, virtues, and beliefs come from, and how that is all relevant in their personal and professional lives.” This goal catalyzes guiding my actions when working with students. These opportunities are going to be provided through my advising and support. My experience in advising and supporting is influenced by advising relationships I had in high school and as an undergraduate in college. Through this journey, I experienced advising styles I liked and didn’t like as a learner. I experienced the most successful advising and supporting approaches when the advisor was prepared to meet me where I was at and adapt their own style. This is how I plan to interact with my students as I pursue a career in student affairs.

One of the biggest challenges I found myself facing this past year was balancing holding the RAs I supervised accountable for not meeting job expectations while they had individual experiences that hindered their ability to meet those expectations. I tried to reflect on my own experience as an RA and the ways I was supervised where I felt supported and the ways I wish I had been supervised. Through this reflection, it directly informed ways that I would evolve in my practice and interactions with my RAs and students.

Recovering from a negative interaction with a student can be hard, especially one you supervise or advise in some way. How do you address the situation, how do you make space to hear their concerns, how do you repair the relationship and move forward? All these questions are difficult to answer and can be very situational to what occurred between you and the student. Was it something between your two personalities or did it relate to holding one another accountable to expectations? Navigating this interpersonal conflict starts with communication and talking about what is coming up for each of you about the situation. What are the facts and what are the feelings? How can you separate them and articulate them to one another in a way that they are listening to listen rather than listening to respond? 

Speaking from my experience as a frustrated student leader, sometimes I would complain about an issue not looking for a solution or reasoning behind it because I already understood why there wasn’t an immediate fix. I just wanted to be heard. Supervisors who gave me space to share and to be heard without critique or challenge are the ones who I had the healthiest relationships with and whom I still connect with today.

When working with students, part of my intention will be to gain a more profound sense of self-awareness and understand their power and impact. Empowerment is a powerful tool that is shared by student affairs practitioners with students and can be used to help students grow and develop in that holistic style. Foster a culture of TAG (Trust, Accountability, and Growth).


Having trust between a supervisor and student is an ongoing dynamic that requires engagement and care from both parties. Initially establishing trust can vary on the student’s understanding of the role, previous experience with supervisors, and social identities they may hold that add a layer of power dynamics beyond the supervisor/supervisee relationship.

Some key steps in cultivating trust from the start of a supervisory relationship are understanding what the student is bringing to the relationship from their knowledge and past experiences. How can you validate these experiences and build something new with them at the same time? Think about what expectations you want to set with them and be open to them setting some with you both inside and outside the lens of the job description. Trust involves the whole person, not just the roles we take on.


Establishing accountability in a student paraprofessional role can be hard especially if the student lacks or has poor self-advocacy and communication skills. Accountability is a critical component of productivity and healthy relationships.

One might ask the question: what are we being accountable to? In this case, I encourage students to be accountable to the job description they signed on to do, accountable to their supervisor, accountable to the population they are serving, and most importantly, accountable to themselves and whatever goals they set out to accomplish by engaging with this position.


Fostering a culture of growth and learning is critical in any aspect of student affairs, especially when working with student leaders. It isn't fair of us to ask them to engage in the learning process to better expand their worldview and understanding if we are also not consistently doing the same. Having a mutual culture of growth can lead to a collaborative working environment in which meaningful and lasting changes can be implemented to positively direct the student experience.

We are always learning, unlearning, and growing as individuals in all practices. A great way to get students thinking about intentionality behind activities is asking primer and reflection questions to inspire thinking in them about the why of things. Asking why can seem simple but all actions should serve a purpose. Whether it's to learn a new skill or build community amongst individuals outlining the why provides the purpose and a goal to strive for.


Assessment of Supervisee

Supervisee Behaviors Exhibited





Lack of confidence or over-confidence

Role confusion


of planning skill

Lack of institutional knowledge/skill

Aggression or passivity

Lack of professional skill

Lack of confidence or over-confidence

Limited skills

Limited self-knowledge

Development/acquisition of new skills

Confusion/possible lack of direction

Issues with: awareness,

competency, autonomy, identity, direction, motivation, authority emotional

Limited clarity of role

Concern that tasks are performed well and that the proper tasks are being done


Understanding of individual and organizational



Ability to produce high quality work

Effective communication

Strong initiative

Good planning and

organizational skills

Ability to work independently

Ability to meet deadlines

Creative problem- solving

Sound ethics

Strong leadership


Strong followership skills

Ability to work well in teams

Interest in professional


Good stewardship of resources

Understanding of big picture

Professional competency

Ability to act on feedback

Lack of confidence or over-confidence

Role confusion


of planning skill

Lack of institutional knowledge/skill


Lack of professional


Tendency to blame/be the victim

Lack of initiative/failure to meet deadlines

Unwillingness to communicate/share


Bullying behaviors towards other

employees or students

Discomfort with accountability

Resistant to providing specific

performance results

Poor work habits

Negative attitude

Lack of ownership of problem behavior

Substance abuse issues

Mental health issues



Pace, Diana; Merkle, Bart; Beachnau, Andy; and Blumreich, Kathleen, "An Applied Model for Supervision in Student Affairs" (2019). Other Scholarly Publications. 2. https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/coe_otherpubs/2

Professional competency areas for student affairs educators - NASPA. (n.d.). Retrieved August 25, 2022, from https://www.naspa.org/images/uploads/main/ACPA_NASPA_Professional_Competencies_FINAL.pdf 

Author: Pat Lovelace, born and raised in the Boston Massachusetts area. Went to undergraduate at Suffolk University in Boston, MA where I fell in love with co-curricular, experiential, and out-of-the-classroom learning. Through various student leader positions, I cultivated a passion for student affairs. Currently pursuing a M.Ed. in Higher Education & Student Affairs at the University of Vermont and have held professional roles in Residential Life at Champlain College and a graduate assistant role in Student Life at UVM currently. Outside of higher education, I love spending time with people and developing meaningful relationships. Love all forms of entertainment, music, movies, television, video games etc. If I could walk everywhere I would and my camera would always be with me.