Cross cultural supervision

Consideration of our own and other’s cultural needs and bias in practice and supervision is an important factor in ensuring students, supervisors and clients experience placement as a culturally safe learning space. In this section we will explore the challenges, opportunities and insights into designing in cultural considerations into your supervision.

Supervision of students from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds

It is an exciting time at QUT with the number of Indigenous students enrolled in social work and human service students growing each year. This growth will translate into placement experiences for Indigenous students in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous agencies. This in turn will see more students who identify as Indigenous qualifying as social workers and human services workers.

In social work and human service education the practicum plays a key educative role allowing all students (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) opportunity to explore and develop an appreciation and respect for the Indigenous history and culturally appropriateand social work and human service approaches. Our aim as field and University educators is to nurture in our students a sense confidence and identity that will allow them to make a difference to their own and others lives.

The AASW acknowledges that Australian social work and human services has contributed to Indigenous discrimination and disadvantage, past and present. It is important that as practitioners, educators and supervisors, we take the time to challenge our own ways of thinking about Indigenous history and context. How do our assumptions and attitudes impact on our ability to foster a culturally safe and challenging learning environment for the students we supervise and the people they work with and for. For guidance visit The AASW Code of Ethics Linked to another web site.

The SWISS project team have spoken to supervisors about their experiences of supervising an Indigenous student on placement. Here are some of their responses.

“I was so scared when I had my first student who was Indigenous. I was so keen not to be insensitive that I came across badly – over friendly and too accommodating. The student didn’t know how to take me. As a protective mechanism she kept away from me as much as she could and I was so embarrassed I avoided her. It wasn’t until years later that I met her through work and apologised and we had a good laugh. She just thought I was weird.”

“I didn’t think our organisation was racist until James came on board as a student. It took a while but gradually he pointed out how the little things we do are confronting and culturally inappropriate. With his help we challenged our thinking as a team. He came as a student but in the end he was our teacher.”

“I’m a social worker with a Indigenous health agency. All students who come here have their view of the world challenged. Just because you are Indigenous doesn’t mean you understand what it is like for a homeless black fella. Everyone who comes has to spend time getting their head sorted out and they have to learn and taste Indigenous disadvantage if they are to survive.”

“My last student came to placement with the weight of the world on her shoulders. As if doing a University degree isn’t pressure enough she has family obligations and is juggling money to pay the bills. Even with all that she didn’t miss a beat on placement.”

“It took a while for our student to lighten up but now he trusts us there is no stopping him. To think we thought he was shy!”

Students recall:

“It was shame going to placement. I was so nervous and shy. I remember them sticking me in a corner and doing filing because my supervisor wasn’t about. I didn’t know what to do. After a couple of days I just want to go back. But my supervisor came back and we had a talk with the University and everything got sorted. I ended up having a great experience.”

“My first placement was with an Indigenous community development organisation and I worked mostly with the young people. My second placement was Child Safety and that’s when I really learnt about myself as an Indigenous social worker in a main stream institiution and what I stand for. The challenges of working with Murri families in that environment – it tears your heart out.”

“I was a student but in both my placements in mainstream organisations I was really an Indigenous advocate or educationalist. Both organisations and my supervisors were so keen to understand and engage with Indigenous ways of working. It was good but I found I was educating the other staff rather than working with clients.”

Placement is an opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander students to explore and be challenged in ways that will build resolve and strengthen their sense of professional identify.

In designing your supervision environment, consider the strategies already suggested in this website to build a strong and meaningful supervision experience for your student. Some other ways that supervisors and students have identified as helpful in ensuring that the placement experiance trully cuturally sesitive are:

  • Peer supervision: For some students interviewed peer supervision or group supervision was a positive addition to the one-on-one supervision. They found the experience to be safe and they trusted the other students. There was a sense of empowerment as they had to self-organise and manage the meetings.
  • Story telling: Using stories and narrative is a way help Indigenous students unpack and explore a practice scenario was suggested as a useful for both student and supervisor.
  • Taking time: Taking time to build relationship and trust was seen as very helpful and rewarding. A safe and trusting environment helps students to open up to feedback and advice.
  • Role clarification: A number of students raised concern that because they were Indigenous the mainstream staff just assumed that they were experts in working with Indigenous families or advising the staff of Indigenous ways. Do not assume that the student is comfortable or confident to be placed in this role.
  • Get support: If you are having issues or are unsure about your approach talk to us at the University – either through your Liaison Visitor, Field Education Unit. We can always link you and your student into other supports such as the QUT Oodergoo Unit. To find out more about the Oodergoo Unit please visit the QUT Oodergoo Unit website Linked to another web site.

The Deadly Cards Linked to another web site is an innovative way to generate discussion on culture in your supervision sessions with students and staff

Supervision with students from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CaLD) backgrounds

This section explores the context of supervising a student who has different cultural or language background to that of the supervisor. Australian society is diverse and internationally connected. This is reflected in the diversity of students studying social work and human services at QUT.

Gai Harrison from University of Queensland social work department has been investigating best practice approaches to fostering inclusive placements. You might be interested in reading her article:

SWISS spoke to supervisors about their experiences of supervising students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Supervisors tell us that supervising a student in this context presents both as a challenge and an opportunity to learn. All agree that placement is an opportunity for students to develop their professional identity and as supervisors they are committed to helping students from diverse background achieve this.

Supervisors recall:

Supervising Annie was 50% frustration and 50% pure joy. Frustrating because she was so polite she would nod and say yes to anything I said. I spent the whole placement wondering if she actually got what I was talking about. Pure joy because I learnt so much about her life and her dreams. I wish I had known more about how to work with her to help her grow as a social worker.

Lhi is a young slip of a thing that has a weight of expectation on her from her parents. The sacrifices they have made to get her into an Australian University are amazing. She is resilient and hard working and determined to do well in placement. I didn’t have the heart on so many occasions to pull her up on things like I would have done with other students. I don’t know if that was of benefit to her professional learning or not.

I am an Indian social worker working in a mainstream organization. It is interesting the way white student relate to me. Even though I was his supervisor when a difficult issue arose he went to my colleague. He just assumed that I would not know.

My student was more interested in partying and having fun with her friends than doing placement. I understand she comes from a very strict Malaysian family. Just before placement began she moved in with a friend’s family to be closer to placement. I think placement coincided with her finding her freedom. She has matured as a person whilst on placement. I’m not sure she matured as a social worker. I passed her but there is not a day goes by that I don’t wonder if I just let someone into the profession that was not ready.

My student is very religious. We have had to make concessions for him practicing prayer. At first we all thought it was funny “a bit over the top” but as we have got to know him we can see that prayer is a major part of his life and does not distract from his capacity to be a good social worker. He’s learnt from placement but so have we.

  • Supervisors spoke of the tendency to respond to cultural and language diversity by either being too hard or too soft on students; or designing placement experiences based on an assumption of what they think the student is capable of, rather than evidence.
  • Supervisor’ normal ways of engaging/teaching or supporting students in placement might be challenged. One supervisor recalled: “My way of supervision is to talk and explore with my students – it’s hard when you are working with a student who struggles with English. Talking doesn’t make sense so I had to find another way of working with her”.
  • Supervisors wanted to know ‘more’ about how to work cross culturally and a genuine concern to be effective in working with the student.

Being a student from another cultural background, language or religious orientation puts another layer of complexity on to the placement and supervision experience. The following are comments from students in relation to this.

It is so different here in Australia. At home I know and understand everything very clearly here the language, customs and attitudes are quite different. I have learnt a lot to take back home.

My supervisor speaks so quickly. I cannot keep up. I feel like a failure and so tired as I have to concentrate to understand.

My supervisor is very busy and I am happy just to fit in where ever. I understand everything very well but I am quiet out of respect.

I am an Australian born Vietnamese student. I love the way people see my face and assume that I can’t understand English. I must admit I do use it to my advantage at times.

I had two supervisors in my first placement. One was very strict and concerned that I was not doing things rights. She was [Asian] and I felt like I had to work so much harder to prove myself. The other was more interested in who I was and how I was going and supporting me to do things. Both had advantages.

I also got a lot of help understanding things from my Liaison person. She translated some concepts for me so that I could understand and was not a burden to my supervisor.

Social Work and Human Service practitioners work with diversity and difference everyday of their practice. The cultural tools and understandings we take into practice should be reflected in the way we design our approach to student supervision. Here are some suggestions to support your efforts.

Ethically social workers have a responsibility to undertake culturally competent, safe and sensitive practice. Take time to read the AASW Code of Ethics to identify the ethical considerations underpinning culturally sensitive practice and supervision by visiting The AASW Code of Ethics Linked to another web site.

Take time to reflect on your own cultural competence and comfort zone. What areas do you need to fine tune or delete. How do you understand your own cultural power and position within the dominate culture? How is this position and understanding affecting the way you approach and engage with diversity and difference in practice and supervision? Your cultural lens should be sharp at all times.

Work with your student to create a culturally safe space where you both feel safe to share respect, meaning and knowledge and learning together.

Challenge your default supervision approach to allow new ways to explore and look at the world through the eyes of your students ‘lived experience’. Explore the use of storytelling to share experiences and understandings.

If language is an issue, explores ways to communicate. One supervisor enlisted the help of a co-worker, with the same cultural background as the student, to help clarify and support when needed. Be mindful of confidentiality if you take up this option.

In negotiating placement, set up the expectation that it is good to ‘clarify’ or ask questions to gain understanding and avoid misinterpretation.

Look at the environment, is it culturally friendly?

Monitor how others in the Agency are dealing with and interacting with your student. Try to avoid the student being isolated or feared.

Be genuine and gentle with yourself and your student. The swirl of diversity can be confronting and exhausting.

Build your cultural competence by prioritizing opportunities to engage in cultural awareness training and/ or support. The CSU Guide to supervision in social work field education, Section 3 steps through topics such as Understanding Diversity and Engaging with Difference. The readings and exercises are a great place to start exploring and refreshing your cultural practice.

A guide to supervision in social work field education (PDF file, 4.7MB)

If you are concerned about how your student is travelling personally or professionally through their placement. Speak to them about your concerns and or connect with your University Liaison Visitor or talk to the FEU directly about your concerns. It is best to do this at the first signs of discomfort /unease so that issues can be attended to early and the learning maximized. Our aim is for no suprises at the end of placement.


My name is Deb Duthie. I work at the Oodgeroo Unit at QUT as a lecturer and student academic support/ academic advisor. Previously I worked down at social and human services and taught up there for 10 years. I also coordinated the placement there especially for the human service students. So I understand placement stuff.

What we do up here in the Oodgeroo Unit is primarily student support so they have a culturally safe space to come to whenever they are on campus. If they have any issues with either personal or student issues we can support them with that.

I think we need more and more indigenous social workers and human students mainly because there are a lot of issues in the indigenous community. Lots of research will tell you that indigenous people prefer to access indigenous agencies with indigenous social workers and human service workers as opposed to accessing mainstream services. The reasoning behind that is that indigenous feel far more comfortable working with indigenous workers because indigenous people where they are coming from. So indigenous workers can sit down and its culturally safe space for them.

I think it can be a assumption that indigenous and Torres Strait Islander students want to work with community. I worked in the domestic violence and homelessness sectors for a number of years. That was with a range of clients, refugees, asylum seekers, international people, indigenous people who accessed the service. I think you get a range of experiences when you work with a range of different people not specifically the indigenous community. Just because you are indigenous doesn't mean you automatically want to work in Community.

One thing Agencies should be aware of is racism aspect and discrimination. That is one of the fears our students have because they are going into a non-indigenous space. The possibility of experiencing of racism from clients but also beware of your own practices within agencies and how you work with indigenous people.

In terms of practice frameworks our students may have a different way of working with clients. There is an indigenous social work framework that Lyn has written about that is a resource that you can have. So it might be instead of coming from a mainstream framework the students might come from an indigenous framework. This framework that can be used with any client they don't need to be indigenous clients. Just to be aware that we may do things differently or in a different way or a more communicative way instead of dealing upfront with assessment.