Tilling the Soil for Planting: The First Few Weeks of Supervisingby Viki Matson
The first few weeks of a supervisory relationship are crucial to setting the tone for the remainder of the experience. If you are like me, we tend to get impatient for the good stuff – those times when we can really dig deeply into questions of theology and practice – when we feel like we are making a difference in the life of someone who is venturing onto a path that for us is well worn with time and love.
Even though it might feel like not much is happening in the early weeks, let me remind you of how central these weeks are, and perhaps remind you of some best practices that will get your supervisory relationship off to a good start.
First and most obviously, it is important to show up. Signal to the student early on how important this time is, and keep your supervisory appointment. Use these early weeks as an occasion to get acquainted with the student. Using your best pastoral sensibilities, invite them to make themselves known to you. Listen, listen, listen. Ask artful questions. Gently probe and prompt. Begin to get a sense of your student’s personality, humor, stories, and keep track of the questions they are living with. Find out the ways Divinity School is both deeply satisfying and deeply challenging. Invite their trust, and demonstrate by your faithful presence and listening, that their trust in you is well placed.
I also find it helpful in these early weeks to do what we can to reduce anxiety. Our pedagogical philosophy is that the best learning happens when students feel safe. Model for them a kind of supervision (there is an art to this) that communicates love more than judgment, conversation more than critique, and mutual growth more than an expert/novice relationship. Let your time together be marked by a kind of sighing your way into a comfortable way of being together in which the threads of trust are gradually strengthened.
It can be appropriate, in these early weeks, especially, to let yourself be known. Each supervisory relationship has its own character, and there are countless right ways to do it. I would invite you to consider to what extent it would be appropriate, even helpful, to share something of yourself in this relationship. Often these relationships have a quality of collegiality, an unexpected gift to be celebrated. Being mindful of the power differential that is undoubtedly present, be wise and intentional about letting yourself be known. Model self-awareness.
And finally, consider getting out of the office. Take a walk. Get a latte. Meet for lunch. These small efforts signal to the student that you place a high premium on this time. They experience you acting in ways that tells them (as well as other folk) that this regular weekly time is important.
I think of these early weeks of supervision as rather like the early stages of planting a garden. We might walk around the yard a time or two, sleuthing out the place that is just right. We might pore over seed catalogs and even sketch out some rough draft plans. We might begin to make sure we have all the tools we need for this work. And of course we plant some seeds. The fruits (and vegetables!0 we are sure to experience in the coming months would not be possible without this early work.