In the spring of 2023, I received very happy news: Students of psychology at the University of Twente had selected me as one of the best and most motivating teachers. As my teaching career only started in November 2021, I was very happy to receive this honor. A nice ceremony was organized to celebrate all the best teachers of my faculty, Behavioral, Management, and Social Sciences. I didn’t know yet that from this event I would end up in a much larger one, when eventually winning Winning the Teacher of the Year Award.
I was invited to write a motivational letter as to why I should be selected to participate in the final for the University of Twente Educational Award (UTEA), to compete for the title of the “Docent van het jaar”. Reasons were not difficult to invent: Motivation to continue becoming an excellent teacher, chances to meet other inspiring teachers and learn from them. It turned out that my letter was in the top four, so there I was -in the finals competing for the UTEA award.
The rules were clear: Prepare a mini lecture of 15 minutes on any topic and present it to the audience and the jury, both consisting of students and teachers from different disciplines around the university. I wanted to go for a combination of my most important research topics -climate change, sense of agency, and environmental storytelling. I combined them to a lecture on “Agency and storytelling in the times of the climate crisis”. At this point, my ambition and determination had really woken up. How amazing would it be winning the teacher of the year award? Surely a recognition that could open new career opportunities and bring me in contact with others interested in high quality teaching.
In June, it was time to give the lecture. The other finalists -Ipek Seyran Topan, Erik Faber, and Ruud Jacobs- gave all amazing lectures that I observed in awe. Inspiring ways to activate the audience, creatively designed power points, clever use of humor to create a bond with the listeners. When the results of the combined jury and audience vote were announced, I believe my jaw dropped down to the floor. I was happy to hear from the jury feedback that they appreciated exactly those very things onto which I had put plenty of attention when designing and delivering my sample lecture: Offering the right amount of content at the right abstraction level, considering the time limit and the heterogeneous audience, making visually pleasing slides that support learning, and keeping my voice use clear, calm, and varied.
Winning the award was a nice confidence boost and a motivator to keep thinking on how to contribute to even better teaching in psychology. But the journey didn’t stop at the moment of receiving the award. The real honor was being invited to a meet and greet with the Rector Magnificus of the University of Twente, Tom Veldkamp, and to the subsequent festive Opening of the Academic New Year ceremony this September.
Being interviewed on stage in the fully packed Wilminktheater, in front of not only the whole university management and seniors but also the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Robbert Dijkgraaf, was very exciting and will surely be a treasured memory for the rest of my career. Here is a recording of my interview from YouTube, discussing me winning the teacher of the year award:
In the YouTube video below, you can see snippets from the whole Opening of the Academic New Year ceremony. It’s very effective audiovisual storytelling, in my opinion. Or am I the only one watching this and becoming slightly teary-eyed?
The everyday life of a university professor is often quite an intensive mixture of research and educational duties. Only a fracture of the work of a teacher is evident to the students. The hours it takes to prepare a lecture or a workshop, the time taken to read, feedback, and correct assignments and theses, the participation in courses to learn new teaching skills -all that is largely invisible. So is all the responding to the emails, “the backstage coaching”- support and answers provided outside of educational meetings, for example when a student panicking with their thesis asks for some extra coaching. Having all that work rewarded is extremely satisfying and I wish all the hard working and ambitious teachers in all levels of education would receive the respect they deserve.
More than once I’ve been asked to explain why I think I won the award. I was even invited to come to the opening event of the new Learning and Teaching Lab at the University of Twente to talk about this. How awkward for a Finn who comes from a culture highly appreciating humbleness -don’t make a show of yourself, just do your job as well as you can, that is the motto of most Finns. However, taking a moment to reflect on how I teach is always a good idea. As I explain in the video above, for me teaching has a lot to do with emotional awareness. I try to look for my own excitement and inspiration for a topic when preparing for an educational event. I try to help my students find their own genuine curiosity and eagerness to learn while creating a safe learning environment. Nobody learns if they feel threatened or in any manner at unease in the space being provided for them. Just being kind, avoiding unnecessary authoritarianism, and meeting students at an eye level, as the smart individuals they are, goes a long way. Of course, one important way of respecting the students and your own work is trying to design educational events that give the students real substance. They can tell the difference between quickly composed power point shows on a topic the teacher doesn’t really care about and a learning event carefully designed to inspire high cognitive effort and further learning.
It’s obvious how being awarded makes a person feel seen and gives a sense of all the hard work paying off. Winning the Teacher of the Year Award was nice, but the real rewards are won in the real life contexts. For teachers, they come in the form of thankful words from students and colleagues, little compliments dropped in the corridors when getting a cup of coffee (“I really liked the way you spoke about creating a safe learning environment in that teacher meeting”) and relieved expressions of emotion when a nervous student gets the hang of their research method during a thesis supervision session (“Now I feel that I understood what to do next, thanks for taking the time to explain!”). It’s important to keep rewarding each other (and ourselves!) with those little words and actions in the everyday life signaling “I see you. Keep up the good work!”.
For those interested to learn more about how I see teaching, you can check for example this blog post.