[Column] The most sustainable teacher?

Columnist Bob van Vliet has been named the Most Sustainable Teacher of 2023. While happy, he is also uncomfortable with this recognition of his teaching and activism.

Bob van Vliet: “Comparing everyone with the same yardstick also depoliticizes the whole thing.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Earlier this month I was awarded first prize in the first TU Delft-wide election for Most Sustainable Teacher of the year. It’s a wonderful honour of course, and I would be lying if I would say that I’m not proud of it. Nevertheless, I have mixed feelings.

First of all, I have my doubts about ‘teacher of the year’ elections in general. Yes, it is important to shine a light on good education and dedicated teachers every once in a while. But by declaring winners, you turn something into a competition that should not be a competition. Good education has many forms so you’ll always be comparing apples to oranges. Research also shows that women and people of colour are systematically judged more critically than white men in this sort of thing. And I know from experience that not winning an election like this can be hugely demotivating. And so on.

Critical climate education can also take many forms. And different people play different roles in developing and stimulating it. It happens to be easy for me to be super visible with relatively modest initiatives because I have the platform of my columns (and the luxury of a permanent contract). Does that mean I do it better than others? It feels strange to ‘win’ against people who co-write the reports of the IPCC, colleagues who are more effective than I am in gaining the support of others behind the scenes, and everyone I know at Scientist Rebellion who I know work harder and take more risks than I do.

There is a limit to what you can do as an individual in a hierarchical institution like the university

A second point of discomfort is the emphasis on the individual that, by definition, is part of a competition like this. The implicit message is that the responsibility for change rests in the first place with individual teachers. But while I do believe that teachers have a heavy personal responsibility, there is a limit to what you can do as an individual in a hierarchical institution like the university. The climate crisis and the slow and reluctant response to it at TU Delft are systemic and institutional issues that call for systemic and institutional change.

Comparing everyone with the same yardstick also depoliticizes the whole thing. As though there is no ideological debate to be had about what ‘good’ education actually entails and what the role of a university should be in the climate crisis.

I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, that the chair of the GreenTU jury explicitly said at the award ceremony how important they find it that I regularly support students’ and colleagues’ activism in my columns and teaching. So I’m going to interpret this award as a message that this activism is appreciated and supported by more people than some seem to think. More of that, please.

Because one thing I know for certain: if I am the most sustainable teacher at TU Delft, then our university still has a long way to go.

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl.

Bob van Vliet / Columnist

Columnist Bob van Vliet

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