January 28th, 2011 | Filed under: Opinion, teaching
Not in The Netherlands it doesn’t. I’ve not had a great deal of exposure to Dutch work environments other than the few times I’ve visited the immigration office and the time I’ve spent with the curriculum team developing a new international school. Working from home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But even after a few visits to real workplaces, something is startling clear: Casual apparel is okay in The Netherlands, especially in the workplace.
In America, as most Americans can attest, your work attire is taken very seriously, particularly in offices. As a newspaper reporter I only dressed up when heading to a cushy office to interview someone and the rest of the time I rocked jeans and casual dresses. In a workplace where people (used to?) smoke and keep bottles of bourbon in their desks, this is an improvement. But when I became a teacher that all changed. I needed to “dress respectably to be respected,” as one principal told the staff during a meeting. Apparently dressing respectably meant skirt and pants suits like the administrators wore each day.
Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to begin training in the MYP curriculum. It was an all-day session that challenged me and my new colleagues to move away from our previous experiences as educators and think within this new curriculum focused on authentic, project-based learning and interdisciplinary collaboration. I’m still reflecting on the experience and writing about it, which I’ll share soon, but as invigorating as the experience was it was also a chance for me to chat casually with these teachers. Usually we’re cramming a lot into our meetings and have little time for chit-chat, but we had lunch together and tea breaks and I shared a lot about myself, the true outsider on the team, and learned more about them. Photo by semuthutan.
The most glaring difference I found while hanging out in the personeelskamer (teacher’s lounge) is that seeing people “dressed up” was a rarity. Now, these educators weren’t rolling into work in sweat pants, but here are just a few examples:
- Older gentleman in jeans, flannel shirt, suspenders, sneakers.
- Younger woman in cotton dress, tights, Ugg-type boots.
- Administrator in khakis, button-down shirt (no tie), and a houndstooth jacket.
- Younger man in khakis, loafers, and an untucked polo shirt.
It may seem that I’m being overly superficial, analyzing the wardrobe choices of the teachers I encountered, but it affected me so much that I knew there had to be a reason. I realized that this casualness toward dress code was indicative of something deeper in the culture of the school and the attitude toward the teachers. They are considered professionals and treated as such. It’s as if someone said “Yes, I know you’re a professional and I don’t need you to wear black pumps and suit pants to prove it.”
I met a young teacher who had the opportunity to do her student teaching internship in Pennsylvania as part of an exchange program. She said she was told she had to dress up and spent the first few weeks buying new clothes for the entire experience. She told me that in The Netherlands people dress down at work – wearing “work clothes” – and save their dressy attire for events and nights out. Makes sense to me. Teaching is hard work and I don’t know how many days I came home from my internship with my toes nearly arthritic from being crammed in fancy shoes for eight hours.
As a teacher in Virginia I’ve been frustrated with the discussions surrounding a potential ban on virtual communication between students and teachers. The state’s board of education is considering banning teachers from chatting with students on Facebook, Twitter, and through text messages. The reason? To protect the students. At first blush that sounds like a good idea. We all want to protect the students! But why would we want to protect them from their teachers? Yes, there have been the few cases of teachers and students sexting, but with nearly half a million teachers in the country that’s a small drop in the bucket. The education system paints with a wide brush and often does so to the detriment of innovation in our tired system. In this case, rather than deal with the inappropriate teacher-student relationships as they arise, the board is treating all teachers as potential predators than the professionals the majority of them are.
Yes, there are things online that I’d prefer students not run into – predators being the main one. But those dangers are everywhere, not just online. And to take away the one connection to responsible adults that kids may have in those spaces is truly irresponsible. Wouldn’t it be better for us to hold their hands crossing the road than to say “No, holding hands might lead to a sexual relationship, so we’ll just let the kid cross the six-lane highway. Alone.”
I’ve heard familiar gripes about teachers here – that it’s so easy and they get the summers off. Dream job! But overall the school culture itself seems to lead toward a mutual respect among colleagues and an understanding that no, whether one wears jeans or a suit doesn’t mean one is a better or worse teacher. Effectiveness isn’t tied to your tie. Leadership isn’t lost by leaving your collar unbottoned. Seems a little ridiculous when we think about it this way, don’t you think?
It’s small thing, but it means a lot. It has me wondering what other small differences might go a long way to change the entrenched culture of schools in America.
Tags: America, culture shock, dress codes, education system, Facebook, Holland, international school, MYP, Netherlands, online predators, online safety, professionalism, school culture, sexting, social media, student safety, Twitter, Virginia 10 Comments »
November 8th, 2010 | Filed under: Opinion, teaching
On a recent trip to the grocery store I shyly approached a young man (probably a teenage boy) quietly stocking the shelves. I stammered out my best “Pardon, spreekt u Engels?” to which he replied “a little bit.” I let out a sigh of relief even though I knew the answer before asking – everyone speaks at least “a little bit” of English. I’d been in The Netherlands for long enough at that point to recognize a Polish accent when he spoke. I needed help figuring out what to do with my produce since a sign covered up the scale where I normally weighed my fruit and obtained my price. While this young man’s English language skills weren’t perfect, he still understood my question and gave me the answer I needed.
I was impressed, as I often am when outside the U.S., by this man’s skill in being a Polish immigrant to The Netherlands speaking enough Dutch to get him a job at a store and also speaking enough English to help me. This man spoke three languages. Maybe not perfectly or academically, but he still spoke three languages. This wasn’t some university professor who had spent time in another country or a young person privelged enough to attend second language lessons at a young age. This was a stock boy in a grocery store. Graphic by woodleywonderworks.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve found myself shocked by the second and third language skills of people in countries other than my own. In France a garbage collector was able to give me directions in a nearly perfect English accent. In my Dutch class there are students with native languages that make learning Dutch much more difficult than it is for me (Thai, for example), yet their tongues form the words and when they can’t get their point across they switch almost effortlessly to English. It’s in these moments that I realize my stereotype of multilingualism as a hobby of the elite is completely unfounded.
These moments shame me and inspire me. I am fluent in only one language – English. I attended a few private (and very low budget) Christian schools and graduated from public school where I was required to study Spanish. I also studied Spanish at university, but I can do little more than understand vocabulary words and simple sentences. Conversing is out of the question. I know very few people in the U.S. who are truly bilingual or even fluent in another language. The few people I know in America who are bilingual are so because they were raised in homes where English was not the first language spoken – not because their schools pushed them toward fluency in another tongue.
Research has shown us, time and time again, that the time in our development most ripe for language learning is at a young age, yet very few schools begin foreign language study at the primary level. On a recent trip back to America, I had a chance to grab a drink with a friend I taught with last year and we both lamented our inability to speak a foreign language and the daunting prospect of attempting to achieve fluency as adults. We felt jipped by our educations – like the people making the decisions didn’t think we were important enough to cultivate into global citizens. Unfortunately, part of the problem with foreign language education in the American public school systems is time. Students often have to take five or six classes each year just to graduate, leaving little time for in-depth study of a second language. And many students can graduate without ever having studied a foreign language.
America has put so much pressure on English and math courses as “most important” in the curriculum. Many of my students struggled with communicating clearly in their native English tongue and they were approaching 18 years old, so one might ask why we should even bother getting those students learning another language on top of English. We should do it because there is no better way to understand your native language than through the lens of a foreign one. I have never been so cognizant of English grammar constructions than when I started studying Dutch. I’m an “English teacher,” yet I’m continually learning about my own language as I learn a second one. To understand how the Dutch construct a sentence one has to understand how it differs from how sentences are constructed in your own language.
The lackluster foreign language education in America is breeding unilingual teachers like myself. The teachers who are bilingual (or multilingual) see the marketability of that fact and may reach beyond the borders of America for more lucritive and exciting careers in international education or opt for private schools that will compensate them for the rarity of fluency in a second language. Or they may skip over the prospect of education as a career since pay scales are set in stone and allow little room to compensate new hires for unique skills.
Dutch students are required to study not just their native language and English in school, but French and German. We put limits on the potential of American students by not pushing them to study two or more languages. Being able to speak a second or third language instills confidence in students and opens up new worlds to them, not to mention it helps to mold them into more global-minded individuals by allowing them to delve into cultures other than their own. While I hate the rhetoric about America “losing” to other countries in certain fields and studies, I would ask the leaders that make that argument as a push for standardized testing how they expect the students that score highly on those bubble tests to help America “win” if they can’t communicate in languages other than English?
I feel like I was done a disservice in my education by seeing foreign language study portrayed as an elective and being told “but don’t worry – everyone speaks English.” That may be comforting to the occasional traveler, but if we want our students to be able to go anywhere and do anything, as we so often tell them they can, then we have to put a heavier pressure on administrators and elected officials to appreciate and fund foreign language education.
Now, who wants to help me with my Spanish?
Tags: America, Dutch, education, English, foreign_language, French, German, language_learning, Netherlands, NL, second_language, Spanish, teaching, Thai 9 Comments »
June 6th, 2010 | Filed under: personal, teaching
I wouldn’t say the last year has been the ideal experience of a new teacher, but it has certainly shown me a diverse population of students, given me the chance to try different techniques, and taught me more than anything else to roll with the punches.
I started this 2009-2010 school year as a student teacher in Virginia Beach working with ninth graders in a Global Studies and Foreign Languages Academy program at Tallwood High School. They gave me the chance to cut my teeth with them on challenging world literature. We slogged through Tu Fu and Jorge Borges together and came out on the other side feeling pretty damn proud of ourselves. But like all things, my time with them came to an end in December along with my teaching certification program.
It was time for me to move on to something new, but what? It was the middle of the year and school systems were cutting positions not hiring. I decided to fall back on my freelance writing and editing work and hope for substituting gigs. Little did I know that another door was opening just as I was getting into a routine.
Along came the sixth graders at Ruffner Middle School’s Young Scholars program, a gifted education program in Norfolk. It was an amazing, long-term substitute opportunity and I snatched it up. I taught reading, writing, and early American history to 38 children that renewed my optimism and excitement about teaching even as they challenged my remaining threads of patience. They were so curious and opinionated and intelligent and they really had no idea of any of it. I went into the job thinking it would renew my feelings about the age group I wanted to teach, but instead they opened my mind and had me thinking “Sixth grade is pretty great. I wouldn’t mind doing this for a while.” I feared teaching history. I love history and enjoy consuming it on my own, but I’d never considered myself a history teacher until this job. Now I have a history endorsement on that list of goals in the back of my mind along with those other lofty ones (master’s degree, publishing articles, etc.). I’d planed to teach the sixth graders as long as the school would have me, but Virginia Beach called again and wanted to interview me for a full-time, contract position teaching core 11th graders. I got the job and it was time to move on again.
One of my sixth graders warned me “You think we’re crazy, Ms. Worrell? You’re gonna miss us once you get with those 11th graders!” I laughed it off. I wanted to teach high school and this was my chance to work with yet another age group and learn more about my strengths and weaknesses. But in that first week my little sixth grader’s ominous warning echoed in my mind. I felt I’d been thrown into a lion’s den of hormonal teenagers ready to claw their way through me to get out of high school. Gone was the feeling of being a learner alongside them. They saw me as an adversary and I wasn’t sure how to reach them – or if I even could. It was a Herculean struggle, but I’m happy to report that I have come out on the other side learning more than I ever thought I would in a contract only three months long. The eleventh graders (the large majority of them boys) taught me so much about classroom management and patience that I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I taught The Great Gatsby, a book I myself hated in eleventh grade, and learned to love it. Even more exciting – I watched students learn to love it. I didn’t have my own classroom, so I was forced to drag a cart around between rooms and classes, teaching me the value of obsessive organization. Along with my four blocks of eleventh grade, I also had a block of core ninth graders whom I taught The Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet - stories I knew but had never really given close scrutiny.
And more than anything, my experience with my first contract position gave me a taste of what I really want in an English department – co-workers that are great friends and colleagues depending on what the situation demands. The English department at Green Run High School is a motley crew of large-hearted, loving teachers that want nothing more than to see one another succeed. If there ever was tension among teachers in that department, I never noticed it. I felt I could approach any teacher with advice on lesson plans or for ideas on teaching a certain story or book. It’s a supportive and collaborative department and I’m sad I’m not going to be there next year. I have never laughed so much at work.
I’m starting another chapter in this whirlwind year, but I’m hoping to settle down with a teaching position where I can teach students from beginning to end, on my own. I’m moving to The Netherlands in July to pursue a career abroad and to expand my experiences in an international environment. I’m excited about teaching students from a completely different culture than my own and watching those same light bulbs go on in their minds. I’ve daydreamed about what it would be like to teach The Great Gatsby to a group of non-American teenagers and to make connections about the American Dream to their own dreams – are we that different?
So, I’m off again to search for a teaching job – this time in a country not my own. I’m hopeful and optimistic and just as inspired as when I started.
Tags: 11th grade, 6th grade, 9th grade, careers, English, gifted, high school, job search, Language Arts, middle school, Netherlands, teaching 1 Comment »