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‘A good relationship is a teacher's best asset'

During the opening of the academic year, true to tradition the LUC Teaching Prize will be awarded to the best lecture at the University. Get to know the nominees. This week: Christine Espin.

It doesn't matter whether she is facing rebellious American adolescents, critical teachers or Leiden students of education and child studies. Humour and the unexpected are tools that remedial educationalist Christine Espin uses to teach her students - and her methods are obviously appreciated. Students nominated her for the LUS Teaching Prize. 

What was your reaction to being nominated?

‘I was totally amazed. A student congratulated me and I thousght she was referring to my birthday. It means a lot to me that the nomination came from my students because that's the greatest honour you can have as a teacher.' 

What has your development path been as a lecturer?

‘I started at an American secondary school in Maryland where I taught children with learning and behavioural problems. Some of the youngsters there took drugs and carried weapons. I learned that a good  relationship with your pupils or students is the most important weapon of any teacher or remedial educationalist. If you have a good relationship with the people you're teaching, it's easier for you to get through to them and they learn better.'

‘Once I came to Leiden University I had to learn all over again how to teach students. I gave one of my first lectures at the age of 29 to experienced teachers aged forty and above. After the lecture, one of the students said: "I hate the way you teach." He felt I gave too many direct instructions. I went home and had a good cry. Then I realised that I had to take what he was saying seriously, because I knew that students learn and remember best when they are actively involved. After that I started to include more active assignments in the lectures and things went much better. Since then my lectures have always been a combination of discussions, assignments and instructions.' 

Can you give some examples?

‘For the lecture in Assessment and Diagnostics I had to explain the concept of "measurement errors" to 300 students. The idea is that you may know the result of one test, but that doesn't always automatically say what someone's average level is. So, to illustrate the concept, I got ten students to throw beer mats. I then told the student who threw the furthest the first time that he was the best. That really helped the students understand that you can't base an assessment on just one result.' 

‘One time when I needed to explain the concept of validity, I used my experience with taekwondo. I took planks of wood with me to class, of different thicknesses and asked my students: If each plank is a "test", which "test"gives the most valid score for your skills in taekwondo? That led to a discussion on the meaning of validity. After that they had a go at breaking one of the planks! Students can get very enthusiastic about these kinds of experiments and if I meet them again years later, they always talk about that particular lecture.' 

How innovative are your lectures?

‘If something doesn't work, I'm always looking to see how I can do it better. As an example, I realised that not all students stay for the review - a summary of the lesson after the break. Making it compulsory or giving them some penalty generally doesn't work well, but an inbuilt reward does. So, now  I include sample questions from exams in the review session and students can answer them via the online forum Kahoot. Attendance is a lot higher now. I generally learn about new methods like Kahoot from my students. They also have to give presentations, which is a good learning experience for all of us. They learn from me how to present and I learn the latest technologies from them.' 

What would you do with the prize of 25,000 euros?

‘I would use it for a project I'm working on: improving teaching at the University for students with such conditions as dyslexia, ADHD and autism. These improvements will very probably not just help these particular students, but will also benefit everyone.' 

Why should the jury choose you?

‘At this level, all the nominees (the other two are Florian Schneider and Thijs Porck, Ed.) are obviously very good. What I can say is this:  as a teacher or remedial teacher you can have a lot of influence on the lives of pupils or students, at university, secondary school and primary school. When I was a student I couldn't decide: should I do a PhD or become a teacher at a secondary school? My PhD supervisor told me: "Chris, if you teach at a school, you can have an influence on 30 pupils every year. If you do a PhD and teach future teachers and remedial teachers, you will have a much bigger impact, because all your students will also teach, so you can influence hundreds of children every year. Don't waste the opportunity to have that level of influence."'

About the LUS Teaching Prize

The LUS Teaching Prize is an initiative of the Leiden University Student Platform. Every year the LUS honours a university lecturer who has made an ‘exceptional contribution’ to teaching. All students at Leiden University can nominate a teacher. Members of LUS attend several lectures by the teachers nominated, after which they select three finalists. The skills LUS are looking for are innovative teaching, interaction with students and whether the lecturer is able to continually improve his or her teaching.

This year the nominees are Thijs Porck (Humanities), Florian Schneider (Humanities) and Christine Espin (Social and Behavioural Sciences). The winner becomes a member of the Leiden Teachers Academy and receives an award of 25,000 euros, to be spent on teaching projects.


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