‘You only live once. Cut the crap’

He is known for his boundless enthusiasm, feeble jokes and joie de vivre. But don’t imagine that the Teacher of the Year Award 2019 was handed to Fred de Boer on a plate.

An emotional De Boer was declared Teacher of the Year 2019 on 17 June. ‘My wife Pat always told me I would win that prize one day. She died three and a half years ago, and soon after that my daughters left home. Then you suddenly find yourself all on your own. I’ll be honest with you: I went through a few tough years. It was a hard time both in my private life and at work. In the end I managed to pick up the threads again, but the grief doesn’t go away. It all came together at the award ceremony: the recognition for my teaching, and the beautiful memories of my wife, and my new partner, who was there as well. The fact that after all those difficult years you can be happy, in spite of the grief. That’s what made it such a moving moment.’

In your word of thanks, you said this prize was not just for you but also for Ignas Heitkönig and Frank van Langevelde. 
‘The Teacher of the Year Award is like comparing apples and oranges. One teachers is a good listener while another can explain things well. One knows everything about the material while the other is more involved with the students. No one is the best on all fronts. I won the prize mainly for Ecological Methods 1, a statistics course for ecologists that I teach with Ignas and Frank. We really teach the course together. Ignas is so involved with the students, he sets a really good example in that area. Frank has a better grasp of the mathematical and statistical background. It is a terrific combination.’

What is your contribution? 
‘My enthusiasm, I think. And my feeble jokes. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what makes someone a good teacher. I think the most important thing of all is to be yourself. The person I am in the classroom is who I really am. So I just crack silly jokes. A course like statistics needs that, otherwise it gets really boring. We are a bit dismissive of the background information. We just teach the students: this is how we do it, and then it’s actually not that complicated at all. Nine out of ten pass with flying colours.’

According to the Teacher of the Year student jury, your lectures are a bit theatrical.
‘Frank, Ignas and I are always joshing each other. We make the most of that. Each of us has a day when our component of the course is in the limelight. On my big day I come in a formal suit – waistcoat, tie, the works. Frank and Ignas do it on their days too. If you did that on your own, it wouldn’t work, but because all three of us do it, it’s funny. And we all claim that our component of the course is much more important than the other two. Of course we can explain the material well, too. So the students get good teaching and they get entertained by the three of us. That works.’

You also use a wide range of examples to explain things.
‘You need to grip students with a certain passion. It’s a passion for life too, the passion for doing nice things, going out at the weekend or going to the theatre. I have a passion for my work and that is the same passion I have for music, theatre, art, cooking and life itself. So I refer to these things when I’m teaching. That means Vivaldi might come up. Or, do you know Theo Jansen’s beach creatures, those enormous skeletons made of plastic tubes that move in the wind? He says: I make living things out of dead material. That is a transformation and I use it when I explain the log transformation of data. I think it’s a nice example because it also touches on the big question for biologists: what is the origin of life?’

As the winner, you get the Leermeester statuette. Who was your own mentor? 
‘Diederik van der Waals, an archaologist. He is in his nineties now but he’s a friend of mine and I still see him regularly. We look at life in the same way and share a passion for art, music, good food and science. I’ve known him since my university days in Groningen. For years I wanted to be an archaeologist, and he taught the subject. I was about 20, I was taking one of his courses and I knew he was involved in several projects in Africa. I was very keen to go there, but I never thought I would actually manage it. After hesitating for a week, I just went to see him and said, ‘You don’t know me but I’m one of your students and I would very much like to go to Africa.’ And he said, ‘Sit down.’ We had a nice conversation and then one thing led to another and I was allowed to join a trip to Mali. My first trip to Africa turned my world upside down so totally that I started gearing my entire biology degree to the tropics. Afterwards my wife and I lived and worked in several African countries for over 11 years. The wildlife, life in primitive conditions, working in nature – it really is great. Our daughters grew up in Africa.’

How formative was Africa for you – as a scientist and as a teacher? ‘The Sahel problem took us to West Africa. There was drought and overgrazing there. We did research on how to use the scarce resources you have. That took us to Chad and Burkina Faso. Then we spent eight years in Mozambique, after the civil war, to breathe new life into the biology department at the university. That taught me that I really do love research and teaching. The students’ enthusiasm, thinking things through together, and solving problems. I had taken a course on didactics in Groningen, but I dropped out as soon as we had to do an internship at a secondary school. I’d had enough of that after two days. When I teach, I want to do it my way. In Mozambique I discovered that I could do that at a university.’

 When I teach, I want to do it my way 

How did you end up in Wageningen? 
‘After Mozambique we were in the Netherlands for a while to look for a new project overseas and go off again. But the Netherlands proved to suit us, very much in fact. Your friends being nearby, your parents being able to visit more often, the beautiful skies and landscapes. So we started looking for jobs in the Netherlands. In Groningen at first, but then I got a job in Wageningen, and could start in August 2001.’

Don’t you miss life overseas? 
‘I can combine it now, so I don’t have to miss it. I get the Dutch skies, the friends and family nearby and I get to work overseas with PhD students. I usually supervise about five PhD students at a time. In China, Kenya, South Africa, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, and so on and so forth. It is fantastic that you get to go to these places now and then.’

Teaching or research? 
Both: what I like is the combination. I love teaching and stimulating students. The combination of teaching in a beautiful place and working on research projects overseas… That’s what makes my profession so nice. And I think you need to really be involved in research if you want to teach well. You have to be able to give up-to-date examples, and to know what the scientific questions of the day are. Or if students want to go to South Africa, you should know what’s going on there and what they might be able to do there.’

How much has the university changed? 
‘Yes, it is different to when I started. We used to teach this course to 40 students, now there are 200. It’s much harder to really have contact with the students. I used to know everyone by name, but that is impossible nowadays – although I still try. I know some of their names, and I recognize the rest by their faces. Contact with students is so important. Wageningen has a reputation for good student-teacher contact, doesn’t it? Another real issue is work pressure. Everyone in Wageningen works extremely hard, but the people at the top seem to think, the more students the more money. Well, hello! The number of students has grown so big that a new timetable had to be made. Well, the quality of the education does not benefit from such ‘solutions’.  And then I read an interview in Resource with the timetabler, who says it’s not that bad really… On the other hand, Fred Jonker (the timetabler, ed.) does his best to facilitate our work. I appreciate that. But we need to pay far more attention to the work pressure.’

How do you keep it up, putting so much effort into your teaching? ‘Working here is top sport. If you want to keep fit, you can’t sit at your computer all day. So I play tennis, which is nice, but far more important: I swim twice a week in the lunch hour. When you’re swimming lengths, you put your head under water and there is no one. It’s quiet then and I think things over: How am I doing, how’s it going with my work, a manuscript or a student? A bit of reflection. It’s almost like yoga for me. Lovely.’

How do you get to be Teacher of the Year? 
‘I could give you some bla bla about how I find education innovations so exciting, but that’s not what I’m like at all. I got here just by being myself. Cut the crap, you know? You only live once. I do my best in everything I do. Even if it doesn’t go well. You can’t do more than that. Whatever will be will be.’ 

Fred de Boer
1961Born in Harlingen
1974 – 1980High School in Drachten
1981 – 1988University of Groningen, Biology BSc and MSc
1989 – 1991Research on livestock systems for development projects in Chad and Burkina Faso
1991 – 2000Improving education, research and facilities for Ecology at the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique (in collaboration with the University of Groningen)
2001 – 2011Started at WUR as an assistant professor
2011 – nowBecame an associate professor at the Resource Ecology Group. Fred de Boer lives in Wageningen and has two daughters, Sara (a drama teacher) and Roos (training to be a master tailor)

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