A student who doesn’t understand his story about layers of soil and water flow is not a source of irritation to Roel Dijksma. On the contrary. ‘I am quite happy to explain something all over again.’ The new Teacher of the Year is famous for his storytelling skills and his approachability.
photos Sven Menschel. Roel Dijksma on a field trip to the so-called Sandr plain near Wolfheze.
Teacher of Hydrology Roel Dijksma is moving. From a large, light corner office in Lumen to ‘the toilet lady’s room’ – in his own words – in the same building. The corridor to his room is full of empty yellow removal boxes. The interview with Resource is his last activity before packing up his stuff.
‘I am coordinating the move for our chair group so I could have given myself a better room. But I have so many meetings that I was always having to look for another room so I didn’t disturb my roommate. Now I am on my own and that is better for everyone. I did email the professor, to whom I gave the big room on the courtyard, to suggest it would be a nice gesture if he gave me his room now that I am Teacher of the Year.’ He laughs. ‘Haven’t had a reply.’
Dijksma won the Teacher of the Year Award on 21 April. He was on holiday in New York with his wife at the time. ‘Because of the time difference I got up at five o’clock to attend the award ceremony via Skype. When I heard I had won I was proud as Punch – I’m getting goosebumps again now. I went into town and I was just walking on air.’ He points at a bag in the corner of the room. ‘A Will limited edition. I had seen it earlier that week in a shop in Manhattan. I was only going to let myself buy it if I won. Now I can feel proud every time I look at that bag.’
Dijksma is a busy man. The teacher supervises 23 students, teaches 10 courses in Wageningen – some of which he coordinates – and is a guest lecturer at Lille University. ‘I thoroughly enjoy it, but the time has passed when I could get completely absorbed in my work and was the last to leave. Not that I mind that, as I don’t feel the job has to fit strictly into a 40 hour week. But these weeks are really extreme: sometimes I am busy grading papers until two thirty at night. You don’t do that for fun.’
In spite of being so busy, it is clear that Roel Dijksma has found his vocation as a teacher. Even his answers during the interview often develop into mini-lectures. About Darcy’s law, precipitation differences in Iceland – where he takes MSc students of Soil, Water and Atmosphere every year on a field trip – or extracting drinking water from basalt on Hawaii. ‘Friends of ours go walking every Sunday and now and then my wife and I go along too. If I see something interesting, such as shapes in the landscape, or if they ask me something, I explain it. They call that a “Roeltje”: a nice little fact from the field. Hydrogeology is such a wonderful discipline; I can’t think of a nicer field for me than this. And I love talking about it.’
And that is his strength, as is clear from the jury report for the Teacher of the Year Award. Students appreciate him because he is a good storyteller. ‘I like nothing better than to teach people things and tell stories. I am quite happy to explain something all over again if a student doesn’t understand it the first time. They can email me or Whatsapp me to ask.’ So he wants to use the money he has won, 2500 euros, to organize lunchtime lectures with other storytellers. ‘I know there is a call for that. I once gave a lunchtime lecture for Pyrus, the Soil, Water and Atmosphere study association, and it was so well-attended that I couldn’t get into the room myself.’
Dijksma’s role model is former professor of Geology and Minerology Salomo Kroonenberg. ‘He had a very visual way of describing things. His lectures consisted largely of slides, and you went on a journey around the world as he told you how the whole thing hangs together, geologically speaking. You never forget that.’ Yet he doesn’t try to imitate Kroonenberg’s style. ‘As a teacher you must be yourself, authentic. Students can tell immediately if you are just putting on an act. I’m just a born communicator. I see when their attention is flagging and I respond immediately, not by grumbling at them but by doing or telling them something surprising.’
Another of the qualities for which Dijksma is famous is his approachability. ‘I am genuinely interested in the student as a person. And students find it easy to talk to me. When I am on a field trip and we are walking from A to B I am always chatting to students, and not only to explain something; it’s often about the students themselves. I also really see them as my students and I feel responsible for them.’
Although Dijksma’s name has been on the longlist for the Teacher of the Year Award for years, this was the first year that he made it onto the shortlist of five. ‘I actually think that those who came between 6th and 16th deserve more regard than they get, because many of them are nominated time after time.’ He thinks it’s ‘brilliant’ that he has now won the prize. But it is not why he teaches. ‘The reason I teach is the click you get in the classroom, in a group, in the field. And the way it comes alive for students and they start enjoying it. And the feedback you get from the students about what they learn on the programme and that you have made a not insignificant contribution to that… That’s what matters.’ He is quiet for a moment. ‘Wow, what fine, edifying words. Blow me, they come out just like that. But it’s true.’