News - June 28, 2018

Popular teacher is hanging up his earth drill: Peek era comes to an end

Luuk Zegers

After teaching for 41 years, it’s time for a change: Gert Peek plans to travel and go gardening in his vegetable plot. On 5 July 2018, the striking Soil Science teacher will pronounce his final didactic words from the Wadden Sea dyke in Hornhuizen. Resource joined him for one last field trip.

text Luuk Zegers  photos Guy Ackermans

It’s a quarter to eight in the morning on 14 June. Around 35 second-year Soil, Water and Atmosphere students have gathered next to a coach in the car park in front of Gaia. Gert Peek chats to Hydrology lecturer Roel Dijksma, who is setting off with a different group. ‘How many excursions still to go?’ asks Dijksma with a laugh. Peek: ‘Yes, it’s the final countdown.’ Just before eight, Peek and fellow teacher Bart Makaske usher their students onto the coach. At eight o’clock sharp, Peek tells the coach driver, ‘You can go now, Henk!’
The students will be visiting two locations to determine the landscape identity by examining the hydrology, plot division, buildings and other landscape features. Then they will grab the earth drill to investigate the soil characteristics. Peek: ‘We do this throughout the Netherlands, from southern Limburg up to the Wadden Sea dyke and from the east of Limburg to Zeeland. Today we are working in the area round the central rivers.’

becoming a farmer

The first location is a pear orchard in Lienden. Makaske asks the students what they observe in the landscape. Peek – in dark green boots, a fisherman’s hat and a jacket that has clearly been on quite a few excursions itself — stands close by and chews on a blade of grass. He nods approvingly at every correct answer. A little later, the students get down to work, but not before the master has shown them how one last time. ‘This is how you work the drill.’
Peek wanted to be a farmer when he was young. ‘A dairy farmer with cows. But after working as an intern on a livestock farm I realized it’s a very tough life. Getting up at five every morning, working hard all day and then bringing in the hay in the late evening.’ So Peek abandoned the dairy farming idea and enrolled on the Arable Farming programme at the agricultural college in Leeuwarden. One of the modules he took there would eventually become his calling. ‘For the Soil Science course I spent three months mapping the soil in the land consolidation area of Den Ham in Overijssel. I thought then: Yes! This is a fantastic world.’

The teachers joined in with the boozing on field trips. We went to bed completely paralytic.

Thanks to his experience in Overijssel, Peek was able to start work on 16 May 1977 as a field trip assistant at the agricultural university in Wageningen. ‘There were vast numbers of students so the field trips continued throughout the summer. Sometimes we ended up spending a long period in a guesthouse with not much going on in the evenings. So what do you do? Have a booze-up! And the teachers joined in. I spent many an evening boozing until three or four in the morning. Going to bed completely paralytic. But still up again at eight thirty for teaching duties. I couldn’t let the students see I had a hangover.’

Less social contact

There was less pressure on education back then. ‘Now everything has to be ever faster and more efficient. In the past the staff had much more social contact with one another. For example, the entire chair group would have coffee and tea together twice a day. Now we only do that if it’s someone’s birthday.’ Peek sees this as a negative effect of a positive development, because in general he is pleased with the efficiency improvements. ‘People used to take seven years to complete their degrees, and you also had “fun subjects” where you wondered whether they were really necessary.’
Students have also changed over the years. ‘In the past, the students would address the staff after a field trip, sometimes with a gift, often with a round of applause. That was followed by a period with fewer gifts and speeches, in which everyone came and shook your hand personally. In recent years you see more and more students packing up quickly and going home after such an intensive field week without even shaking your hand. Not all students do that by a long way, but it’s a trend and that’s a shame.’ Yet a lot of students came to say goodbye to Peek personally this year. At the end of May, the more senior students organized a leaving do. ‘I liked that. Them saying: see, Gert, we won’t let you just go.’

GERT PEEK - 1953, Hillegom, Netherlands
1972-76 Arable Farming, Leeuwarden Agricultural College
1976-77 National service
1977 Appointment at Wageningen Agricultural University
2000 Teacher of the Year Award
2011 Teacher of the Year Award
2013 Co-author of Landschappen van Nederland [Dutch landscapes]
2015 Excellent Education Prize for Landscape Geography
2016 Excellent Education Prize for Soil 1
2017 Honorary Member of the Dutch Soil Society
2018 Excellent Education Prize for Soil and Landscapes of the Netherlands

Gert Peek started his WUR career as a field trip assistant. He progressed to become a lecturer and coordinator of various soil science subjects. Peek lives in Zetten and is in a relationship but does not live with his partner.

Hanging on his every word

Meanwhile, the students in the orchard are working with their earth drills in groups. As the drill goes deeper, the soil changes. ‘It’s turning sandy,’ says one student. ‘That’s great, that you’re starting to interpret what you see even while you’re drilling,’ says Peek. ‘Try breaking it open. What can you see along the break? Those orange dots? What do they tell you?’ Peek wanders back and forth between the groups, prodding them in the right direction but letting them draw their own conclusions. He is in his element and his enthusiasm is contagious: the students drill hard and assess each clod of earth in a cheerful atmosphere.

Gert Peek GA--20180614-FXT26390.jpg

Peek never received any teacher training. ‘I have had people who inspired me. Toine Jongmans was my big role model in how to teach well. Without Toine, I’m not sure I would have become the teacher I am now.’ Jongmans, who is now retired, taught Peek a number of significant didactic lessons. ‘Firstly, have a logical story with a systematic structure. Secondly, use clear-cut examples that tie in with students’ own experiences. That lets you explain complex things simply. Thirdly, show enthusiasm.’ That enthusiasm is one of the principal reasons for the many teaching prizes Peek has won (see inset). Student Jasmine: ‘You remember everything Peek tells you because of his enthusiasm. It’s almost impossible to tune out; you are hanging on his every word. You don’t get that with every teacher.’

Opening the door

Peek prefers to teach first-year and second-year students. ‘All students studying environment sciences have to do the course Soil 1: the basis of soil science. The first question I ask them is: What is a soil? You have 225 students in the room, but all you get is a fearful silence. Soil seems so obvious: you walk on top of it, perhaps you’ll be buried in it. None of them realize at that point that it’s an entire system of processes and properties that influences the quality of life.’

I love showing how important the soil is for life on Earth

‘They really start from scratch,’ continues Peek, clearly enjoying this. ‘I love showing people how important the soil is for the functioning of life on Earth. To get them from level zero to level 10 and open the door to the discipline. It’s so wonderful to see how someone can develop with the knowledge they acquire and how they deal with that knowledge. And if students say after two or three courses “now I get it”, I go home in the evening and pour myself a glass of wine to celebrate.’

Time to move on

His enthusiasm raises the question of whether he is really ready to retire. Emphatically: ‘Yes. I’ve done this for 41 years and I had a wonderful time. But it’s time to move on. As a teacher you are restricted to the WUR holidays: one week at Christmas and four weeks in the summer. I can never go away in the spring, the loveliest time of the year. My vegetable garden hasn’t done anything for 15 years now. I want to travel, I want to work in my garden and above all I want more time for my partner and my social contacts. Because if you put your all into teaching, that is at the expense of your private life to some extent. It was great but this was enough.’

If you put your all into teaching, that’s at the expense of your private life

Cartload of manure

Peek has seen many changes in his 41 years working at WUR. ‘There were a lot of students in the 1970s and 1980s, then numbers plummeted in the 1990s and the early 2000s. It was still the Agricultural University back then and agriculture had a really negative image. If you watched the news, you’d always see a cartload of manure being driven across the field. It was all about soil and groundwater contamination, animal diseases and so on. That had consequences for student numbers. At one point they were even talking about getting rid of Wageningen as a separate university; we were going to become a branch of Utrecht University.’
But there was a change of tack halfway through the 1990s, says Peek. ‘The Agricultural University became Wageningen University, degree programmes were introduced that had less to do with farming, and the campus was built. That had an immense positive effect. And that slogan — For quality of life. Fantastic. I always come back to that in my courses: what does soil science mean for the quality of life? I can tell you that soil science is central to the university’s mission.’
WUR’s renewed popularity does have its downsides, thinks Peek. ‘The rising number of students has led to high workloads. I hope we will become stricter about the quality of the intake. Making sure we get high-quality secondary school students rather than going for as many students as possible.’ Students should also be encouraged to study harder. ‘At present, you can resit as often as you want. I see some colleagues getting demotivated when students take the same exam five times. So a tougher binding study advice and fewer resits.’

I’m doing everything for the last time. It feels like a farewell tour

Tasting the soil

In the pear orchard, the students are discussing their soil analyses with Peek. Makaske has just finished with his groups. What has he learnt from five years working with Peek? ‘A huge amount. How he creates the right atmosphere on site, how he gives the group the feeling they’re about to do something special.’ How does he feel about Peek leaving? ‘It’s the end of an era.’
After a ride in the coach to the second location, Peek gets the students to analyse the soil by tasting it. ‘Just bite on it. Don’t chew, just one bite. What do you taste? Sand? No, not sand? So what is this?’ ‘Clay,’ says one of the students. ‘Greasy clay, right.’ Peek doesn’t taste it himself. ‘The dentist won’t let me. My teeth have worn down after all those years.’
The journey back to campus starts at about twelve thirty. Peek takes out his lunch box. This is the time to grab some food as the coach will be leaving for the second trip at one thirty. It is hard work, but he enjoys it too. ‘I’m doing everything for the last time. It feels like a farewell tour.’
Does he have one more wise lesson for his students? ‘Doing a degree is a choice, you choose this. So get everything you can out of it. And follow your heart. That’s what I did, and the results were all positive for me.’

Earth drilling championship: from pastime to spectacle
In addition to his enthusiastic teaching, Gert Peek is also known for the Earth Drilling Championship, an annual competition in which around 500 students from all over the Netherlands try to drill a hole 1.2 metres deep as fast as possible. ‘In the early 80s, we were in a guesthouse for two weeks during a field trip. One evening, I proposed a competition: drilling as deep a hole as possible for a crate of beer. That competition continued until the end of the 80s. The deepest hole was 11.05 metres.’ In the early 90s, study association Pyrus revived the competition. ‘At their anniversary event we had a competition for who could drill the deepest hole in 15 minutes.’ It became a tradition that grew and grew. ‘It was starting to cost an incredible amount of time. So then Pyrus decided the first person to drill 1.2 metres would be the winner. That was how the student championship started and that has escalated into what we have today.’ By which Peek means a spectacle with hundreds of participants, barbecues, beer on tap and fantastical costumes. Last autumn, he served as chief referee for the last time. ‘It was wonderful, but here too it’s time to move on.’
Voor bij het kader HiRes Sven Menschel-1.jpg