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‘Right now, it's an enormous achievement just to pass a subject'

When the corona epidemic broke out, Nuno Atalaia, a teacher of Portuguese, ‘democratised’ his lectures. He is one of the three nominees for the LUS Teaching Prize. What is it about this approach that appeals to students?

Congratulations! What did you think when you heard you were nominated?

‘In all honesty, my first thought was: ''Wow, there's a teaching prize; that's great!'' But then I felt really proud, and very happy to know that students appreciate my lectures. Over the past few months we have had to  move at very short notice to online teaching, and it's hard to gauge how well it's going. So, this nomination comes as quite a relief to me because it seems that students learn a lot from the lectures and they like my teaching.'

What do you teach?

‘I teach Portuguese Language and Culture in the Bachelor's programme in International Studies. The students have to choose a geographic area to specialise in and a language relevant to that area. My students specialise in Latin America or Africa. The students who choose Europe as their specialist area are more likely to choose French. There seems to be more glamour attached to French!' 

'I put myself in a weaker position, but that meant we had a more equal playing field.' 

Why do you think you were nominated for the prize? 

‘I think it's because I respect my students. In the midst of a pandemic we had to reshape a whole series of lectures, and I decided straight off to level with my students. I wrote them an email explaining that even though I was their teacher for this subject, I had no idea how the rest of the semester would turn out. There were actually times when students knew more than me. So, I put myself in a weaker position, but at the same time it meant we had a more equal playing field. I also encouraged students to talk about how they were feeling because I'm not a mind reader, particularly not via a computer screen. You could say the lectures were democratised.'  

It doesn't seem easy for a lecturer to show weakness

‘Yes, it does take some getting used to because you're surrendering part of your authority. But, don't get me wrong: I certainly don't see myself as some kind of hippie lecturer. There's still a clear power differential between teacher and students. Nobody speaks Portuguese as well as I do, so I'm the person with the most knowledge. And then there's the fact that they're the ones paying, and I'm the one being paid. But it's quite liberating not to have to keep up the façade of the omniscient teacher. It's taught me to rely on confidence rather than mistrust. We're making the best of it together.' 

What else have you done differently in this corona time?

‘I soon decided that I wasn't going to set any old-style exams. It was already a very stressful time for many students and I didn't want to burden them any further with too much unnecessary work. We worked with a portfolio for which they had to do short, weekly assignments. I kept track of what they included in their portfolio and warned them beforehand if an assignment was likely to fail so they had the chance to submit an improved version. And I made it very clear that a pass was good enough because in the midst of a pandemic it's an enormous achievement just to pass a subject.' 

'I warned them beforehand if an assignment was likely to fail so they had the chance to submit an improved version.'

When did you first realise that your students appreciated your approach ?

‘I noticed that we gradually started complimenting one another on holding up so well in the corona crisis. But the best compliment came when we played a language game where students had to write a note in Portuguese describing one of their fellow students. I read the descriptions aloud and the students had to guess who was being described. One of the notes said that the person had an odd sense of humour and an unusual taste in clothes. It took a few minutes before I realised that it was about me. They had included me in the game. I found that a real sign of appreciation.' 

Just imagine you win the LUS Teaching Prize. What will you do with the prize money? 

‘I really like using games in my teaching. Students have to learn to lose because that's the best way to learn. A while ago I wrote a Portuguese soap that I want my students to perform as a way for them to learn to be free and passionate in how they use the language. I'd like to be able to buy some props for the play: things like fake plants, kitchen stuff and wigs. That would make it more realistic.'

Text: Merijn van Nuland
Image: Nuno Atalaia (second from the right) plays the recorder in his spare time and sings in the
Seconda Pratica Ensemble.

About the LUS Teaching Prize

The LUS Teaching Prize – temporarily christened the Leiden Remote Teaching Prize – is the initiative of the Leiden University Student Platform (LUS). At the opening of the academic year, this year on 31 August, the lecturer will be honoured who has been of the ‘greatest merit to teaching.’ All students at Leiden University can nominate a lecturer. The LUS visits a few lectures by the nominated teachers and chooses three finalists based on criteria such as teaching innovation and interaction with students. The winner is given five-year membership of the Leiden Teachers’ Academy (in Dutch) and a 25,000 euro grant to spend on educational improvements during this period. Alongside Nuno Atalaia (Humanities), the nominees for 2020 are Arianna Pranger (Medicine) and Aris Politopoulos (Archaeology). 

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