What do Biology, Paedagogy and Salsa Have in Common?
This year, the Latvian Medical Association Lecturer of the Year Award went to Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) Department of Biology and Microbiology Lecturer and Assoc. Prof. Rudīte Koka. What should you do in order to become lecturer of the year and is it better to work hard to win the award, or is it better not to know about the award at all? We have many questions, so we invited the winner of the award to a conversation.
Was the award unexpected or were you hoping to win?
It was totally unexpected! To be honest, I didn't know that the Latvian Medical Association had an award for lecturers who work with prospective medical practitioners. I thought that awards were only granted to medical practitioners. This, of course, did not lessen the satisfaction of receiving the award. I am happy that my work is appreciated so highly. Like my colleagues, I perform my work duties in good faith, and awards are the last thing on my mind.
What matters most in teaching?
I have a great deal of respect for my students and see them as equals, because I can learn a lot from them. For instance, some of the questions my students ask me highlight a completely new way to look at an existing topic or problem.
A lecturer is responsible for a creating the right atmosphere during a lecture or a class. Students should not be shy or uncomfortable to ask questions, they should feel safe, have the space to reflect and to evaluate what they hear.
It was students from RSU who nominated you for the award. Is there a big difference between the time when you were a student and what it’s like for students today?
There’s a drastic difference! Students used to be passive listeners, but today students actively participate in the study process. A lecturer’s job is to guide the process for students to achieve their goals successfully.
A lecturer should be able to guide the study process in a very smart way, be able to anticipate questions, see possibilities for discussions and encourage students to reflect.
The students do their reading before the lectures, they study during the lectures and read after the lectures. Students do not come unprepared, and my book is not the only one they have read. The lecturer is no longer the only source of information.
Have you ever been angry with a student?
I have, but I never show it. I always remain calm, I never raise my voice. No one sees what goes on inside. This is why I am where I am today, because I am able to control my emotions.
You developed and interest in biology when you were still at school. Why biology? It is not the most popular field among young people.
When I was at school, I loved literature and I used to read a lot. I also had intensive dance practices and my daily schedule was very busy. At one point, I realised that I could not keep up with my reading list. I did not have enough time, so literature became secondary, and I asked myself what else I could possibly enjoy. Since I lived in Lubāna, a beautiful town near Lake Lubāns, I was always fascinated by the surrounding nature - the Lubāns wetlands and the great diversity of plants.
I enjoyed observing nature, collecting plants. That is how my path as a biologist started.
I have to confess that at the beginning of my studies, I did not like biology so much. The topics seemed very complicated and there were many things I didn't understand. There was a moment when I thought that I had made the wrong choice. However, with each passing year, I enjoyed and understood biology more and more. When I tell this to my students, I see relief in their eyes. They understand that they are not the only ones who experience this feeling and that they, too, can overcome their struggles.
At one point during your studies, you realise that the balance starts to sway to the other side and you are able to start applying your knowledge and skills in practice.
At first, you accumulate knowledge and then at one point you are able to start using the knowledge you have in different situations.
You chose paedagogy instead of biology for your doctoral studies. Why?
I studied biology on a bachelor’s and master’s level, but when I moved to Sigulda, I left all my biology studies in Lubāna and wanted to start something new. At that time, I was working at Sigulda State Gymnasium. Since I think it is best to study the things you do on a daily basis, so I chose paedagogy. I have to admit that it was rather difficult for me to switch from a hard science, meaning biology, to a social science - paedagogy. At first, it was difficult to accept that I couldn’t measure everything in numbers.
What is the hardest thing about teaching?
To keep going!
There might be a moment when everything seems to be going smoothly, everything is working out. This feeling can be deceptive and short-lived, however, and then there comes a point when you realise that there are many things that you do not know.
The events of the last few months have proved this. This spring we all had to figure out how to teach content we were used to teaching face-to-face, remotely. There was a great deal of discussion as we were trying to find the best solutionsn and we had to improve our digital skills. We got a lot of support from Juta Kroiča, the Head of the Department, and the IT support staff gave us a lot of useful advice. We got a lot of valuable experience in the seminars and discussions that were organised by the Centre for Educational Growth. It so happened that a colloquium was supposed to take place during the second half of March, and together with my students we decided not to postpone it and go ahead as planned. In a short period of time, therefore, I mastered how to build questions using Moodle and later on, in April and May, other colleagues would benefit from my experience.
Is it difficult to be away from your students and from onsite teaching?
Yes. I know that some of my former colleagues from various schools and universities have quit their jobs. A lecture that Professor Gunta Ancāne gave on the crisis and its successive phases was very helpful. It helped me understand what is happening, what has happened and what stage of the crisis I am in. This understanding gave me strength, and I was in turn able to support my students via Zoom. Even though classes could not be held in person, the total number of classes had to remain the same, so I planned my lecture schedule in the same way as before the epidemic.
Students told me that they were looking forward to meeting in person. This emotional contact was important, and once we had established this connection, we could move on and study biology.
You worked at Sigulda State Gymnasium as a biology teacher. What led you to RSU?
After I obtained my PhD, I had no plans to change my job. I had a good connection with the students and their parents and received the Person of the Year Award in Sigulda. I was nominated by my students, and that award, too, came as a surprise. After I defended my doctoral thesis, however, I was invited to participate in a European Social Fund (ESF) project aimed at making major changes in science. A team of experts from all over Latvia was created. I had to step out of my teacher’s shoes and become the leader of the biology team. I had to imagine myself as a pupil, figure out how to best acquire the study content, how to apply the knowledge in everyday life, and how to assess the knowledge.
During the project we visited the RSU Department of Biology and Microbiology, where we presented the knowledge and skill levels of recent high school graduates who would have learned based on our recommendations and conclusions. After the presentation I was invited to teach practical classes in a department for a group of students. I dared to give it a try and that was the beginning. I spent the first two years as an adjunct lecturer for a couple of groups, as I had to finish the project that I had started. And then, ten years ago, I started working at RSU full-time.
You also work with students from schools that RSU cooperates with. Is teaching university students not enough?
It is, but my experience and understanding about the processes at schools enable me to express an opinion, to help and consult. By the way, I prepare and read lectures for teachers as well. Another field of my expertise is knowledge assessment. Whether it is ten or twenty years ago, or at the present moment - knowledge assessment has been and remains important to any educational institution, like good quality feedback, when and how to give it, what to do next. This is important for anyone who thinks, analyses, and strives for improvement.
You mentioned research and paedagogy as your research topics. Do you have time for scientific work?
I have two directions in research. One is related to paedagogical processes, the other, which I am working on together with a doctoral student, is in the field of veterinary pharmacy. The study is on biologically active substances and plants and their use in organic farms in Latvia. Antibiotics cannot be used to treat the livestock, fertilisers cannot be used to improve the soil, and pesticides to control insects. In organic farms everything has to be organic. However, animals get sick and they must be treated. It is therefore important to study plants and their effects. In the current phase of the study I am collecting samples of plants in Lubāna, my doctoral student obtains extracts from these plants and later we are going to study them.
How do you spend your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
When I was at school, I practiced folk dancing. When I moved to Sigulda, I took a break from dancing, but then I had a wonderful idea to learn another dance style - Latin dances, like, salsa. Now salsa is my hobby. I leave Sigulda at 6:00 and my work at RSU begins at 8:00. Sometimes after a long day I feel like I have no energy left to get back home to Sigulda, but I force myself to get to the dance school. After each dance practice I feel a huge boost of energy.
My second hobby is to make crowns from pearls and crystals. Now I am busy with a project for the Latvian Song Festival - I am making an amber crown. I hope it won’t be long until the next festival so that the amber crown can be worn by a participant, or maybe by me.
What students say about the Lecturer of the Year
- Assoc. Prof. Rudīte Koka is always very nice and kind. She always believes that we are capable of more, and reminds us to strive for perfection and set the bar high. She has a way of explaining difficult topics in an interactive way.
Žanete Petruņina, 5th-year Dentistry student
- Rudīte Koka is a lecturer who inspires her students to do more and encourages them to grow and improve. She loves her job and, therefore, we students become fully engaged in the study process.
Paula Feldmane, 3rd-year Public Health student
- My very first class at RSU was Molecular Biology with Assoc. Prof. Rudīte Koka. I was very worried and scared, but when I entered the classroom, I saw her smile and I relaxed .To me, the study course seemed very difficult at first, but she was persistent and really interested in helping each and every student to understand the details. She has an individual approach to each student which makes it easier for students to learn. She is amazing!
Arnolds Gudkovs, 2nd-year Medicine student