How to become a better teacher - The story of Koen Timmers

I got the chance to talk to Koen Timmers, who got nominated for best teacher worldwide by Global Teacher Prize. His nomination woke up Belgium and the world around him.

But what made him the teacher he is now? Why is he one of the top 10 best teachers from 2018? While trying to find this out, I got many tips from Koen, learned how he reached his goal with trial and error, and how he sets new goals all the time.


Project Kakuma

Koen was nominated by two other teachers because of the Kakuma project. It all began after a Skype call between Koen and an outreach assistant working in the Kakuma refugee camp. Koen was asked to help improve education in Kakuma. Without seeing the bumpy road ahead, he said ‘yes’. Koen soon found out that they didn’t even have internet or electricity. After a lot of effort, Koen managed to send his own laptop to Kakuma, and after a while, 20 more laptops were sent. Via crowdfunding, Koen managed to send over a solar panel and created an internet connection. This way, Koen could teach students in Kakuma, without leaving Belgium.

The lessons were a success in the school, and they started asking for more lessons. 175 Teachers in 50 different countries across the globe are now teaching to students in Kakuma via Skype.

How to be a good teacher

Koen started this project using his own money. After the teacher prize nomination, he found out that there is still a lot of goodwill in the world as well. Banks started funding his project, and Koen was asked as keynote speaker to inspire teachers all over the world. He met new people and teachers that wanted to give a helping hand.

Together with another Global Teacher Prize nominee, Koen created the solar suitcase: a suitcase with a solar panel and a battery. Wherever you put down this suitcase, you get electricity for a complete day, for free. Since there was no electricity in the refugee camp, the solar suitcase had quite an impact. The global teacher prize has set in motion many more other projects, so it really serves its purpose.

Innovation project

I noticed technology and innovation play a huge role in Koen’s projects. So, I asked if this is one of the most important aspects of education?

“Not really.”, Koen said. “Education has 3 important aspects: the content or the curriculum, didactics, and perhaps technology. I’m just a technology geek, and I get excited when I find out about new technology tools and gadgets. So, for me it’s obvious that I use technology. But it’s not a must. As you’ve heard before, technology is just a format, not a goal in education. But it can certainly spice things up.” - Koen Timmers

Our world is growing fast, and new things are invented all the time. You can see that innovation in education has always been important to Koen. That’s why he - what did you expect - set up another project. Each time, during 1 month, schools focus on the 17 SDG’s (sustainable development goals) made by the United Nations to improve the world by 2030.

The project is student centered, where they need to look for “solutions” and pitch their idea. They naturally use social media and other tools to shape their project.

how to be a good teacher

For example, a school in Canada used a 3D printer to print coral reefs, a technique to make sure that the real coral reefs don’t fade; another school found out about mealworms that consume plastic.

During this project, students have to make videos of what they’ve learned and share it with other schools. That way they learn from each other across the globe. The last week is intended for Skype calls with other schools across the globe, to exchange thoughts on the topics.

The “innovation project” is celebrating its fourth birthday this year, and keeps growing. Today, 500 schools in 85 countries are participating.

Teacher Influence

Being one of the 10 best teachers in the world gives Koen a voice. Since he’s a teacher with more influence now, I wanted to know what he is going to do with it.

“First of all, getting the media attention helps a lot to spread the message and to recruit other volunteers for the projects. Where I never reached the local papers, they are now begging to interview me. With all the running projects, this is a chance to put them in the spotlight.” - Koen Timmers

Koen is also asked a lot as keynote speaker now. This is an opportunity to inspire other teachers setting up their own educational projects. “It’s harder to send a laptop to Kakuma than to find 100 teachers to teach for free. People want to be part of something.”

With all the help Koen can get, he’s thinking about setting up a new project. Koen is setting up an innovation lab. The lab’s curriculum is focused on the SDG’s. Starting from the SDG’s, students are taught literature, math, science,…

How to be a good teacher

The anatomy of a great teacher

“What does it take to be a good teacher?” I asked. According to Koen it takes experience in standing in front of the classroom and building your lessons. A lot of teaching brings out the best and the worst in students and teachers, and it teaches you how to handle things, how to adapt your lessons, how to engage with your students, how to reinvent yourself over and over and over again. It’s also very important to understand that education is about “learning” and not about “teaching”: learning is student-centered.

“An untrained teacher is a teacher that can transfer knowlegde perfectly, but panics at questions he doesn’t know the answer to. They focus on the knowledge and the time they get to transfer that knowledge.” - Koen Timmers

“A good teacher is some kind of pedagogical engineer that knows when to use which didactics, so he can transfer knowledge in different ways, without getting stuck to same patterns each year over and over. A good teacher looks for different ways to teach the same subject.” - Koen Timmers

Wrap up

I only have a few questions left, and they are for you: how are you going to be a better teacher? Are you dreaming to set up your own educational projects? What are you waiting for?

Lucie Renard

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