This past year, I had the pleasure of becoming a placement supervisor to Occupational Therapy and Occupational Therapy Assistant students. Yes I said it, the pleasure of … as much as it is an extra role on my plate, I LOVE mentoring placement students.
As a child I always wanted to be a teacher, and I can’t share enough how rewarding it has been to mentor future OT/OTAs. My students share their gratitude and how safe they feel learning with me and it brings me joy to share my knowledge and explore the field WITH them. It is a challenging role however, and often times can be overwhelming to take on especially with the burnout happening in the healthcare system these days.
So I thought it might be interesting to start a conversation about how to be the best supervisor you can be, for the benefits of both students AND therapists. The following notes are from my personal experience; I am by no means a leader in this field or claim that I know it all, I just want to share my learnings! If you have experience as a preceptor and have advice, OR if you’re a student with opinions of what you would and wouldn’t benefit from in placement, please comment below!
In the facility I work in, we are EXTREMELY busy and I can’t guarantee I’ll be doing the same thing every day, so I promote my placement as an advanced placement. This gives students the heads up that I’ll be there whenever they need me, but they need to be comfortable taking on a lot of independence, being a self starter, and learning through trial and error. This has allowed me to truly feel like I can teach and support students despite not having consistency for shadowing opportunities. This also allows students to learn through exploration, which as an OT that works independently, I do every single day.
Here are a few things I try to do to support my students in their placements:
1. Weekly reflection journals – each week my students submit a reflective journal with three “aha” or learning moments from the week. This is their space to reflect on the week (which often flies by at our facility) and analyze how their experiences teach them about themselves as a therapist, how it may relate to their school work (or differ), and how they can take this learning moment into their future practice. Each week I’ll read through the journals and find time to talk through the journals with them or send them comments on the journals with my personal reflections to further the learning experience. This also allows me to see into the students’ minds to see what they’re taking away (or not taking away) and what they may need to further their learning.
2. Occasional student workshops – right now my OTA students are on the same placement schedule as our other students, which means they can join our biweekly student workshops. When my OT students join us, I’ll start running my own OT specific workshops. These are super informal, but allows me to start discussions regarding things I found important to learn in my field of practice. Once my students are comfortable in the placement, I also open up the workshops for students to request topics that they identify as gaps in their knowledge, OR for students who have a special interest related to our placement to do some research and present information on a topic to the group for discussion.
3. Daily check ins – at the end of the day (and during the day of course), I’ll check in with my students to see if they have any questions about the day or if they need to debrief something with me. This was something I felt was missing from my first placement as a student and could have really benefited from to reduce anxiety. This isn’t long, and I often encourage students to come back the next morning with questions if they have them after they reflect on the day on the way home.
4. Introduce and encourage self care and creating a decompression plan as a therapist – one major gap in knowledge that I recognized in my own experience with the OT education was learning about how to take care of myself as a therapist. As OTs, you are often met with a lot of traumatic or upsetting stories from your clients, and have to take in a lot of big emotions. I like to talk to my students about making a decompression plan, so considering how they will leave their workplace and then transition into the rest of their day, so that they can do self care to prevent burnout. I share my example of using my car ride home to review my day after debriefing with my team, and then at a certain point of the drive (either stopping to get coffee or gas or groceries), I put on a podcast to shift my mindset. This allows me to turn off my OT brain and enjoy my evening or complete the household/non OT tasks I need to do. I also try to emphasize the idea of scheduling self care time just like we schedule our work days, so that we are not leaving ourselves on the back burner as an “if we have time” part of the day.
5. Providing optional readings and various professional development tips – as I am new to being a preceptor, I am still building my article library, but I also have a little book library that I offer to my students if they want to read outside of placement. I recognize that I have a hard time reading educational pieces (especially when I was in school), so this is not mandatory for my placement students. I offer them books to look at and titles of podcasts to listen to and the opportunity to chat about them if they like. This opens up the conversation about research you can do to learn as an OT that is not article based. We also talk about the importance of searching for free workshops after school, as well as asking OTs to do informational interviews so you can figure out where you might want to go with your career!
It is absolutely killing me that I don’t have a perfect number of 5 things, so I had to mention that before I add the last piece
6. Providing strong feedback, encouragement and open conversation – one of the simplest things I’ve gotten positive feedback for from students is “Kristina you are such a supportive preceptor”. This shocked me to be honest as I always feel like I’m scrambling to be a good preceptor, and that I’m not doing enough for my students. I always try to give feedback as soon as possible and ensure that students know this is a safe space for learning. My students facilitate group activities during their placement, and I have them fill out an activity planner which goes in detail about their task analysis, how they are making modifications for inclusive programming and what skills they’re working on. With this they get time for detailed feedback conversations and I provide them with broad ideas to get them thinking using that universal design concept. Ensuring that my students know they can come to me and have open conversation about placement and learning, but also about their concerns and struggles, has helped a lot of them feel comfortable with trial and error. It has also allowed them the space to learn that we don’t practice as OTs in silos – that when personal issues are causing emotional or mental challenges, that is a part of us and it’s ok to advocate for yourself. This has made a huge difference in my students’ ability to ask for help and also to feel confident sharing the support they might need.
At the end of the day, from my experience as a student and a student preceptor, most students just need someone to believe in them. I tell my students to remember that we will be colleagues in the future, so I just want them to be successful and will do all I can to pass along my knowledge. I try to paint the picture that as an OT, you don’t just graduate and become all knowing- I am always playing that detective role trying to figure out what my client needs and what additional learning I can do to better support them. I give them the hints of setting up informational interviews with OTs to see what roles are out there, and to make an OT network that they can ask support from. Most importantly for me, I try to teach that imposter syndrome is NORMAL and that they will be able to work through it and feel confident in their role.
I absolutely love being a preceptor/supervisor, and am constantly looking to learn what other people do to support their students! It is such a rewarding experience but also a BIG addition to your OT role! If you have suggestions on what you do, or questions or worries about being a supervisor, LET’S CHAT ❤️