The art of being a teacher
How to keep 80 students with different backgrounds motivated for 3 hours? Stefano Cucurachi knows how! By incorporating current developments, lively discussions and even some improvisation theatre, this assistant professor managed to become Teacher of the Year 2018. ‘You have to find ways of gaining the students’ interest without forcing them to shut down their devices.’
Teacher or artist
‘You have to stay motivated, live in the moment and cherish the time you have to inspire people. You must overcome the moment you start to censor yourself or stop yourself from testing new things.’ The way Cucurachi talks about teaching, makes it sound almost like giving a performance. And that is exactly how he feels when he finishes a class. ‘I can imagine a similar feeling after giving a concert: high on adrenaline and feeling really well. But then this energy level drops and you can barely do anything else.’ And that’s not strange, considering the fact that Cucurachi sets his bar high.
In the bachelor programme Urban Studies, Cucurachi teaches the course Material City, he also teaches the courses Material Flow Analysis and System Earth in the master’s programme Industrial Ecology. For the latter, he became Teacher of the Year 2018. ‘System Earth is a broad course. It looks at the connection between the natural systems and the anthropogenic system. We explore the natural processes and then look how humans and their demand for among others food and energy, have changed these processes.’
System Earth is a broad course, which even involves science communication. ‘It therefore allows me to explore new things and link my lectures to current events’, Cucurachi says. ‘We talk about big issues, such as climate change or resource scarcity. As an academic you have to realise that there are different reactions to that. People feel despair, neglect the issues or can feel overwhelmed by them. I make students aware of this by linking events from the news to the course material. Hence the link with science communication: to learn how to communicate current scientific issues with a broader public'.
Room for discussion
System Earth brings together students from social and natural sciences with different perspectives on the discussed issues. Cucurachi therefore puts effort into facilitating good classical discussions. ‘Otherwise I would get bored,’ he jokes. ‘I like to incorporate moments in which I walk around, directly ask questions and engage in dialogue. I facilitate a debate-like atmosphere, instead of it being a static and frontal lecture. That’s desirable, because the topics can be quite polarising. For example, when we talk about the food system, there are meat eaters, but also vegetarians or pescetarians. It should not be just me talking and filling a box of knowledge, I like to leave space for the students.’
Teacher versus technology
According to Cucurachi, the biggest challenge of teaching is taking on the impulses that students get from the outside world, like technology. ‘I know I sound like an old man now,’ he laughs. ‘But as a teacher, you are competing with so many things. Online shopping, playing games, checking out social media…’ Yet, he doesn’t want to prohibit technology in class. ‘I try my best to create an interesting environment. You have to find ways of gaining the interest of the students without forcing them to shut down their devices. I like to look into other disciplines, like improvisation theatre, to find techniques to warm up the students or to keep their attention.’
Just as performing, teaching takes lots of effort. Cucurachi: ‘People underestimate that. Try to hold on for three hours to 80 young people that are motivated, but, at times, also ready to do something else.’ Besides that, he emphasises, as an academic you have to deal with lots of others tasks and pressures that come at the expense of teaching. Luckily, Cucurachi mostly sees the merits of teaching. ‘Students allow you to test new ideas. You learn from them. Teaching is a nice moment of interaction with other humans, and I find that really rewarding.’
Text: Hilde Pracht