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‘When I leave the lecture and students are still discussing, I know I did a good job’

‘It was the biggest bunch of flowers I’d ever seen,’ says Emily Strange about the moment she won the Leiden Teaching Prize 2022. The judge praised the conservation biologist for her passion, engaging personality, and the way she motivates her students. On the Dutch Day of the Teacher, we get to know her a little better.

You didn’t know you were going to win?

‘No, it was a complete surprise. Already in June, I found out I made it to the top 3. The other two finalists and I had to give a public lecture for the judges about a subject of choice. And then, you don’t hear anything until the second it’s announced. I thanked my students and I received a cheque and the biggest bunch of flowers I’d ever seen. It was very surprising.’

That cheque is worth 25,000 euros. Do you already know how you want to use your prize money?

‘Not really. I only know I want to spend it on something to do with interdisciplinary teaching. I really think that’s the future of education and certainly within these big global challenges that we teach about, such as climate change or the biodiversity crisis. I believe the solutions for these problems are on the interdisciplinary side of things. We’re already becoming better at interdisciplinary education in the sense that we open up the classroom for different disciplines, but I really want to learn more about how to tailor education to that interdisciplinary approach.’

What do we need to improve that kind of education?

‘I believe there are two things: first, you have to be accessible to everyone’s different background. For the minor I teach , we have students from Japanese studies, art history, chemistry, physics, literature… and they’re all here to learn about sustainable development and sustainability issues. That means you need to be both accessible and engaging at the same time. If the lecture focuses on something biological, you want the biology students to still feel challenged, but you also don’t want to lose the students who haven’t thought about biology since high school.’

‘I want to avoid students from thinking: I don't know about this topic, so I stay quiet.

‘The other half is working with the students and not at them. Really getting them to be involved in group activities and making the courses interactive. Learning something from me is great, but I’m only from one discipline. It’s even better that they can learn from the person on their left who’s an art major and the person on their right who studies chemistry. By making the classroom interactive, all students feel like they’ve got something to contribute and hopefully, I avoid students from thinking: I don’t know about this topic, so I stay quiet.’

All these different backgrounds, are they a blessing or a curse?

‘I love to spend a day hanging out with students with different backgrounds and experiences. I just like taking concepts and ideas into the classroom and throwing it out there. Seeing how it lands and what the students think about it. And seeing their ideas evolve and change. It’s the most fun thing ever!’

Students about Emily Strange

‘She does not just talk to the class, she also includes all of her students in discussions and class activities like filling out giant post-its and enabling games in class.’

‘She is very encouraging and always lifts her students up through her inclusive style of teaching. She addresses all of her students and is always up for a conversation with everyone. And she's really funny :)'

Do you also learn from them?

‘All the time: new attitudes, perceptions. I try to make the classroom as safe a place as possible. That way, students feel like they can say things that might be seen as controversial or discussive. Learning from them is so much fun. Even if I give the same lecture ten times, it is always different, because you have a different room of people. That’s magic.’

When do you feel like a lecture was successful?

Laughing: ‘When at the end, no one is asleep. No, I think, when I leave the lecture and I walk past my students to get back to my office, and they’re still talking about the things we discussed. Having their own discussions about the topics. That’s always a really good sign: it sparked or shifted something in them.’

Students about Emily Strange

‘Emily even dressed up like the European flag on Brexit Day to show how much she wanted Britain to stay in the EU; that's how dedicated and inclusive she is.’

‘She always shows genuine interest in her students and their well-being. While her classes are very educational and interesting, they are always fun to listen to and students are happy to attend.’

In the last four years, the CML has won the FWN Faculty Award for Teaching no less than three times. And now you win the University award. Are all environmental scientists that good at teaching?

‘I’d love to say it’s just because we have the coolest topic, haha. But I really don’t think that’s true. I do believe that working in an institute or department that truly values education, really helps. It creates an environment that’s very inspiring. Like, when you can chat with interested colleagues at the coffee machine about a lecture you gave, or your students. At CML we have the educational lab, where we get together and discuss educational matters within our institute. If you start planting those seeds, it is reinforcing. Having a supportive team and working with other great teachers, is the best.’

'We should create an environment where good education is really sought after and not seen as an extra to the job'

That recognition and appreciation, is that something teachers need more of?

‘Yes. In my department, good education is well recognised and valued. But I don’t know if that’s the same for the whole Faculty. I believe we should create an environment where good education is really sought after and not seen as an extra to the job. Instead, we should try and push the value of education and see it as just as equally valuable as the research we do.’

‘To me they’re completely connected. My research feeds into my teaching. My teaching and my experiences in the classroom feed into my research. They’re one and the same. But I know that’s not always the case. Therefore, we should ask people what they don’t like about teaching, address that, and understand where people’s strengths and weaknesses in education are. Because after all, what is a university without students? It’s just a research institute. A university is only a university because we have students. And that is precisely our strength.’

About Strange's teaching

Emily Strange has been teaching for 5 years. She started in the UK at Liverpool John Moores University in 2018 as a Conservation and Wildlife Management lecturer. In 2019, she moved to the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML) in Leiden. Here, Strange is the director of the sustainable development minor. Within this minor, she teaches the biodiversity module. Furthermore, Strange teaches Conservation biology at the Leiden University College in The Hague and various guest lectures on the CML and Biology-master’s programmes as well.

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