Meet the Teacher: Iris van Duren

| Rense Kuipers

What makes a good teacher? Where does the passion for passing on knowledge come from? In the series ‘Meet the teacher’ we focus on people who are truly dedicated to education. In this episode we introduce Iris van Duren, assistant professor at the ITC department of Natural Resources.

Photo by: RIKKERT HARINK

The ITC teacher knows good education is like a good commercial. It only sticks if it’s fun or surprising. That’s why she makes sure that there are enough fun elements in her courses. From handing out cookies to quizzes and many jokes. The courses are without a doubt lively. Which is a good thing, since the days are getting shorter and darker. Especially for the ITC students who usually come from warm places to study in the Netherlands.

For Van Duren, it’s all about learning by doing. Her students don’t get a literature list. No, let them go to the library for relevant information. After all, they’re being taught to become active researchers. That approach has its effect: the majority of her own scientific publications within the field of Natural Resource Management in the last couple of years has come from the work of Master’s students. That’s quite a unique achievement.

However, research comes in second for the ITC teacher. As an example, she finished her PhD quite late in life, more because she had to. She gets much more joy out of coaching students and PhD’s. Since she started working at ITC in 1999 she’s fit right in, because ITC has always been an education institute. It led to quite a shift in culture in 2010, when ITC became the sixth faculty of the UT. Research and scientific publications were emphasized. And Van Duren wasn’t happy with it. She would rather be judged on her drive in teaching people. Not on how many papers she writes.

Although things changed for ITC, some values never got lost. She’s still regularly in touch with former students who are working in countries like Nepal or Rwanda. ITC feels like one big happy family for everyone. Students from Eritrea and Ethiopia work together in their study programme, despite problems in their home countries. At ITC, people work together, eat together and – of course – laugh together. Because it’s not easy when you’re here from a faraway country. Dutch students can always go back home to mom and dad, but that’s not easy for ITC students. If you have to leave everything and everyone behind, it’s nice to be welcomed by a surrogate family. And Van Duren is one proud family member.

New students regularly have to adjust to the amicable style of communication between students and teachers. They’re not used to it in their home countries. For instance, in Thailand it’s considered rude to ask the teacher a question. Also in other countries like Ethiopia, the relationship between a student and a teacher is completely different than in the Netherlands. It’s something you also have to adjust to as a teacher. Van Duren and her colleagues want students to think for themselves, to ask questions and to write research proposals on their own. That’s one of her challenges. To let students be themselves, but also to give them the trust to make mistakes.

When students have collected their diplomas at the end of the programme, it’s a confirmation for Van Duren of why she puts her effort into this. To help students become a member of the huge melting pot that is the ITC family. And to see them spread their wings afterwards. In her eyes, that’s so much more beautiful than having her own name on the bottom of a research article.