A testimonial from dr. G. van der Ree

Supervising Student-led seminars has been a beautiful, but also challenging experience to me. It is a profound joy to work together with students who are intrinsically motivated to learn and create their own teaching environment. It is stunning to see how they are able to teach themselves in courses they themselves have never been taught in. And it is inspiring to see how deep, transformative, and wholesome their learning is in these seminars.

For me, the challenge has been around the question: what do I do when they are teaching themselves? What is my role and place in that process? If teaching is, as German philosopher Martin Heidegger has it, ‘letting learn’, what do I then do to let them learn to be their own teacher?

In the course of supervising several of these seminars, I have started to discover three main principles that guide me in this challenge:

Hold the space. As a supervisor, I am a space holder for their learning process. What happens within that space is to a large extent their own choice. But I hold the focus, the attention, the tone, as well as the outside boundaries of that learning space. That means that I try to keep it clean from distractions, from loss of focus, so that the attention remains on the learning process. This takes the form of questions like: “Yes you can do twelve site visits during your course, but do you have enough time and space for reflecting on what you learned from that?”, or “would it be an idea to have a half-way reflection on what we have been learning so far?”, or: “do you have enough tools to make an academic classroom really interactive?”

Hold the process. I have to remind myself constantly that the students are doing something that they have not been trained for or even know how to do. And as a result, they are often far out of their comfort zone. In such a context, they can easily get out of their depth. They can get overwhelmed, or group dynamics in their team can take unhealthy directions. It is my role to keep an eye on these dynamics, and intervene if necessary; not from a place of authority and power, but as a coach who is part of the journey.

Hold the safety. It is not easy for students to tilt the teacher-student dynamics to one where the students become the teachers. Much of their socialisation, as well as the logic of our institution, is based on power hierarchies, logics of reward and punishment, and a competitive culture within classrooms. Those do not simply vanish when they are left to ‘teach themselves', and that can easily lead to an unsafe learning environment. They may need a new language, skills, and experiences to make an alternative classroom setting that is both challenging and safe, a place where you dare to open up while still remaining productive. I take it to be my role to help them create that safety by helping them to become vulnerable and open to one another, to respect boundaries, and work with consent as a core principle. And that starts with me being vulnerable first since I am the person in the room with the most power.

Holding the space, the process, and the safety is not easy for me. It needs constant attention to the processes that are taking place in the background. It requires me to step down from my usual position of power and engage with the students from a place of openness, curiosity, and care. And it asks that I learn when to let the process go, and when to intervene (and if I intervene, how to intervene). I do not know how to do this ‘right’. I often feel inadequate, clumsy, and puzzled. I am learning while they are learning. I am learning through their teaching.