Interview - Teaching maths: a tremendous privilege
‘It’s an honour to be nominated for the Teacher of the Year Award,’ says mathematician dr. ir. Onno van Gaans. For more than a decade he has been teaching Analysis 1 to first-year mathematics students.
In addition, he regularly teaches Functional Analysis to master students. ‘I really enjoy teaching,’ he says. ‘Right before a lecture I always think to myself: yes, here we go again! I don't hold back that enthusiasm while calculating in front of the lecture hall. My pleasure probably radiates onto the students.’
Van Gaans often succeeds in having some really enjoyable hours. ‘I try to keep the atmosphere relaxed and open so that students can enjoy fun and maths together.’ How does he achieve that? ‘Well, I'm just standing in front, writing on the blackboard, but I try to get the students to think along. I seek eye contact, pay attention to their posture: do they nod along, can they see the next step coming?’
How to grasp attention?
Teaching is not unidirectional, according to Van Gaans. ‘If a subject gets boring and the attention is waning, I wrap it up quickly and switch to a new subject. But if a subject is well received, I do the contrary: I add some material from the next lecture.’ Questions are always welcome. ‘I will never truncate questions. If you react a bit grumpy, especially at the beginning of the year, no one will ask any questions anymore. The same applies the other way around: if you respond to a question in a friendly and constructive way, then other students will feel free to ask questions as well. For this reason it actually makes me happy when someone comes up with a wrong idea: apparently they feel free enough to do so.’
‘It is a tremendous privilege to teach such talented, enthusiastic students’
Teaching fits like a glove
Did Van Gaans already plan to teach when he started studying maths? ‘No, for me it was purely about the maths. But looking back, I've always liked helping classmates in high school. And during my studies I enjoyed giving presentations and explaining everything as clearly and understandable as possible. So when I became involved in education as an assistant, it fit like a glove. I still consider it a tremendous privilege to teach such talented, enthusiastic students.’
Teaching is a challenge during a pandemic
Of course, online education during the corona crisis was more difficult. ‘From my home kitchen I was suddenly in the middle of a lecture. Many students had their cameras and microphones turned off, so I was basically talking to a laptop. I always hoped for questions via chat.’ Still, the lectures were appreciated. ‘I heard afterwards that many students experienced them as quite personal. The material also got across: scores were comparable with those in other years.’ Of course, Van Gaans is happy that physical lectures are allowed again. Just like the students are. ‘This year, people seemed even more excited about actually gathering together again.’
We’re all on the same side
Does the nominee have any tips for fellow teachers? ‘I have many colleagues who teach very well,’ he answers. ‘I learned a lot from sparring with them about education. But if I have to come up with a tip: try to put yourself in the shoes of the students. How do the things you say come across? To me, we’re all on the same side, trying to get through that material together. Sometimes I say, ‘I know it's been a rough week, but we still have 20 pages to plod through.” That helps. And if something is boring, then I point that out too. It's not me on one side and the students on the other.’
Coaching students as a study advisor
In addition to his activities as a teacher, Van Gaans is also a study advisor for first-year students. They can consult him with any study-related issues. ‘We look for the best solution together, such as adjusting the planning.’ That’s quite something else than explaining Taylor polynomials and improper integrals, isn't it? ‘Yes, but I think it's a wonderful combination. In mathematics the idea of perfection prevails, everything is beautiful and perfect. As a study advisor you will have to deal with people’s messy lives in which things go wrong. It is a challenge to find solutions for these problems too.’
About Onno van Gaans
Onno van Gaans studied technical mathematics in Delft and obtained his PhD in Nijmegen. After being a postdoc in several international places he became assistant professor (tenure track) at Leiden University in 2006. He is nominated for the course Analysis 1 for first-year mathematics students.