She is committed and friendly and her classes are dynamic and sometimes a little bit wacky. Students are crazy about Jessica Duncan, the Teacher of the Year 2017. She knows exactly how to get students involved in the class and give them a taste of ‘the best job in the world’.
Photos: Guy Ackermans
When she returned to her workplace after the Teacher of the Year Award ceremony, it was obvious that her colleagues knew she had won. Next to the lift in the hall stood a coat rack/ umbrella stand adorned with numerous photos of her and the text: ‘Jessica Duncan Teacher (and sweetie) of the Year 2017’. Her office was decorated with streamers and ticker-tape. ‘Super-nice’, but a bit overwhelming as well.
The assistant professor of Rural Sociology is over the moon about her prize. In fact, she has been walking on air ever since she heard she was among the 16 best teachers. Her inbox is still filling up with congratulatory emails, she has met all sorts of interesting people and last Friday morning her students treated her to apple pie.
It is a big achievement for Jessica to have won: she has only worked at Wageningen University for three years, and had not been nominated or longlisted before. She is modest about it: of course she is honoured, but it does feel a bit strange too. She doesn’t teach alone. Her wacky approach to teaching, which students love so much, would not be possible without the support of her colleagues. They teach as a team, try to introduce new things together, and always discuss what is going well and what could be improved on next year. So, yes, it does feel a bit funny to be singled out for a prize.
Duncan, from Canada, coordinates three courses (two of which won her the Education Prize last year) and teaches on three others, from different degree programmes. She also teaches two courses for PhD students. Getting knowledge across to diverse groups from different academic backgrounds is tricky because the students cannot all go into the subject in the same depth. But she makes sure she draws all the students into her classes, even those at the back who sit staring at their mobile phones. She spends a lot of time preparing her classes. An awful lot of time. After all, there is always room for improvement: every year you can find better articles, think up better exercises and activities and make better slides.
Her classes are always dynamic. Partly because she has a spontaneous, sparkling personality and brings a lot of energy into the classroom. But also because students do not sit still much during the class. Duncan literally gets her students moving: forming new groups all the time, getting them to stretch, doing memory games or pub quizzes (only without the beer). Is that wacky? The fact is that even in the best-case scenario, the best, most committed student – the one who loves coming to class, who prepares for the class beforehand and who studies the notes afterwards – will only remember 20 percent of what you said two weeks later. And one month later, 10 percent. That means that if you stand in front of the class and just tell your story, you are wasting 80 percent of your energy. That is why Duncan and her colleagues are always looking for ways of transferring knowledge and making sure students will retain in. Which leads her to use some unusual methods.
What never ceases to amaze her is that students will do anything. As long as she is up-front and fair, and says, ‘Guys, I’m trying something new, and if it doesn’t work I’ll do it differently next time,’ she can get them to do almost anything: making farm animal noises to relax in the middle of a lecture that’s tough going, or asking culinary quiz questions when attention is flagging. She provides a safe environment for her students and that makes a lot of things possible.
Besides the more standard courses, Duncan sometimes gives a capita selecta, taking a small group of students to a conference of the world food organization FAO in Rome, so they can see with their own eyes how negotiations about food security are conducted at the global level. That is nice for her because she gets the chance to teach her research field, nice for the people at the FAO to see that they are interesting enough to be studied, and nice for the students to see for themselves how food policy is made.
In the jury report, Duncan is praised for her efforts to let students sample ‘the real world’. She gives priority to enabling students to really see where policy is made. She talks about it during lectures, she reconstructs debates with students, but the fun really starts when they get to see it for real, complete with headsets for the live translations. She is currently working with the International Land Coalition, with the aim of organizing a trip to Indonesia to take part in the Global Land Forum. If she manages to get funding, she wants to take a group of 10 students there in 2018.
And to think that it was never her dream to become a teacher. As a young student she wanted to become a lawyer. Because in Canada, if you are a smart, confident young women, people tend to say, ‘You should become a lawyer’. But in her first year she took a sociology course which changed her life. From that moment on, she wanted to be a researcher. And since teaching was part of the deal, she made the best of it. It can be scary, standing in front of a class, and as a young woman it can be hard to give off an aura of natural authority. The first classes she taught, while doing her Master’s, were ‘horrible’, really, ‘the worst’. Now she gets tremendous energy from teaching, but there are still days when she is completely exhausted. Luckily she has a very nice mentor; Bettina Bock is ‘the greatest’, and she can always go to Dirk Roep and Han Wiskerke for help too.
Duncan is the second woman to win the prize, and that says something. There’s room for improvement on the gender front in Wageningen. That a woman has now won the Teacher of the Year Award shows woman students that an academic career is possible. She knows that woman students are diffident or can be put off by the thought of an academic career. And it is ‘overwhelming’. But it is also ‘amazing’. Her work involved reading great articles, constantly meeting interesting people, travelling around the world. She is never bored. And now, as Teacher of the Year, she gets a chance to put all this in a positive light and show women that this opportunity is there for them. She really does have the best job in the world.