Teaching in the Netherlands and Learning Outcomes #TeacherTuesday


This interview was conducted by and is courtesy of UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report team. 

We are happy to join UNESCO’s #TeacherTuesday campaign – a ten week journey around the world to share a glimpse of teaching from the voices of teachers themselves. The sixth honored teacher is Cees, a teacher from the Netherlands. This is his story.

I’m working at a secondary school called Spinozalyceum Amsterdam for 12-18 year olds. It’s a general high school in the Netherlands.

There are 1100 students in our school and I have several classes with an average of 26 students. I’m a history teacher. It’s my sixth year and my second school. I was at a previous school for two years.

Photo_CeesI became a teacher because I was working in a museum in Amsterdam. It is a photographic museum and was asked to set up the educational part of the museum and that brought me to some teachers who were giving art lessons to children and that was really interesting and gave me the idea that this would be exciting and challenging work – you’re really free to design your own lessons.

Teaching was not seen as a good profession but right now there’s a lot of attention in politics to say let’s improve the level and appreciation for it. If I compare myself as an academic teacher who studied for five years with another master after that, then the starting level of pay is quite low, but after about ten years then it becomes more acceptable, but it takes a long time to get on a certain level on which you are comparable to other salaries, and people who have marketing jobs, for example, earn a lot better.

There are some school subjects in which a lot of people will try to get jobs as teachers but there are also real shortages in certain subjects. Economy teachers and German teachers and certain other language teachers are hard to find. For history there are a lot teachers.

I find it difficult to answer why the Netherlands are doing so well because what do grades mean!? To which countries do you compare?

We have a professional education for teacher, if you want to teach in the Netherlands you need to get your papers. Those teacher educations are loose, I guess, so it doesn’t mean that everyone who’s teaching has the right papers because of the shortages in the offer of teachers, you get a certain license but it’s always, well, the school need to show to the inspection that they have good quality. So you have to do your best to get certified teachers as a school.

We have first grade and second grade teachers in Holland. First grade need academic qualification at first. That means I was studying history for five years. After that I am a historian. I’m not a teacher. Becoming a teacher you then need to do a full time year of study and then you learn a bit the basics of teaching history. Right now you have a master in history and then you need a teaching history master. That’s first grade.

If you want to be second grade teacher that means you can’t teach the higher grades. We have pupils who are 12-13-14 years, but those who are 15-16-16, you can only teach the younger kids, so not of the preparing final exam class. You can always become a first grade teacher by doing extra lessons, but you must already have a lot of interpersonal and pedagogical competence.

If you studied something like law at university it means it’s hard to become a teacher because there are very few schools giving law. If you studied French it’s very easy as most schools offer French. It’s then very easy to do one year of extra study because you already have all the knowledge of French, but if you studied marketing, then it’s more difficult because there are not really courses in marketing at schools, so you have to have the luck to already have done the kind of course that’s given at school.

We have a certain amount of teaching hours and all the coming tasks from that – preparing and the after work – and from 5-10% of your time is reserved for professional development every year – courses and training. 10% is a big amount. It’s much time.

Everyone has to write a professional development plan and in that plan you have your growing points – your developing points – and we do this every year after we speak to our boss who does our analysis. You then you do the courses you need. We don’t have a huge budget, we have 500 euros a year, which isn’t much, but we do the courses in-house with, for example, ten teachers at a time so you get a discount. We have also a lot of training in how to go along with problem kids – pedagogical side – and those trainings are really moving because they tell a lot about your own personal difficulties. That’s another that passes on the educational system in Holland. Lots of 360° reflections on yourself in Holland. Thinking about what does this problem I have say about me.

One other reason for why we are able to improve ourselves as teachers is the pupil enquiry lists in which pupils give their opinion about you and your lessons. It’s a very confronting way and big motivation to improve yourself. You want satisfied pupils! Of course these test are input for the evaluation with your boss about functioning properly.

About 70% of the courses we teach is compulsory, but 30% we can chose our different subjects which are interesting. Not bad that it’s structured, because it’s about what we find particularly important that we teach our students.

National exams are always in a certain dialogue. For our history teachers we have an organization of history teachers who are always working with policy makers so there is a way to influence curriculum. But that’s a problem with policy – we are already experiencing some difficulties and know it won’t change in five years because we know policy is in the long term. That’s a bit frustrating but that’s always the thing. We are well organized in Holland, though, at least with our history teachers – that’s what I can attest. I think it must be the same with other courses.

We have our school exam and we have our final national exam. If the students have too big a difference between the grades in those two exams then you have to explain something. A lot of work is preparing for the national exam, but you must also do well in the school exam because otherwise you’re grading your students too low or too high.

I am teaching at a school where it is very student focused. Students are the masters of their own learning process. You teach them how to cooperate, how to be self-supporting, and to make their own decisions how to learn things.

In our professional courses, we create those lessons with lesson forms. We know how to deal with all the learning styles – the doers, the thinkers, the dreamers – we have training in how to manage the different levels in our class – it’s called teaching on demand. It means we have different cognitive intelligence in our classroom. Simply said, we have smarter and less smarter pupils on our class.

You design choice in your lesson programs for the disadvantaged students. So the more you focus on the pupil with your learning activities, the more different choices they have. If they have a choice in which to start first, and what to learn later, and what they have to work on themselves, and what is a common activity, it motivates them to learn.

In my school we have a different level that’s really preparing on the academical side so about half prepare for university, many prepare for the other higher schools, some also prepare for apprenticeships – more on the practical side.

When they come to our school in the first grade, they are already tested and some, on the basis of their results, are going directly to the higher schools, but the ones who are not certain yet they have a bridge class, they call it, where they decide if they go to the higher school or the practical side. An in-between class. 30% to go university, 50% go to the other higher schools and 20% go into some trade or practical apprenticeships.

My typical day starts as I arrive at school at 7.50am and the lessons start at 8.30am. In the first hour, pupils are a bit quiet because you need to wake them up still. Most of the time the first two hours are really nice to teach because they’re still rested and attentive to your lessons. The more the day is over, the more knowledge they have and less attention. At my school the students are really social, really paying attention to each other. We do a lot of group activities.

Every day in the middle hour they have one hour to decide what to do – it’s called the Delton hour – a free hour when they put themselves on the list to say what courses they want to do – maths, French, German or history, and then they work for themselves, but they can ask us for extra help. We can also invite certain pupils who need extra attention. Then we have the big power break when the kids eat their sandwiches – typically Dutch we don’t have the warm lunch! – Holland is a typical sandwich culture and I don’t mean the nice sandwich with egg and butter, it’s more likely bread with a slice of cheese! Then the last two hours are difficult to get their attention. It means we have to have more creative classes but it’s not always easy to get their attention.

We finish on average at 3pm or 4pm.

The homework is a bit less – especially if they really work in that middle hour, but it’s up to them if they work during that time or not. They choose themselves if they’re going to be productive in that time or not. It’s a bit like giving them responsibility to discover at the end whether they’ve spent that time effectively. That hour doesn’t happen in every school. It gives them more freedom to grow more responsible. We also work with deadlines. Some don’t. But we do. It’s not typically Dutch, this, but we do have more of this because we have more liberal parents who want their children to be in more liberal schools. But typically classical schools see the teachers speak more and the pupils are more quiet.

Our pupils are more ready for the academical studies because, with all the freedom and responsibility they have, they know better how to use it than the pupils who have strict classical lessons.

I was surprised because we also have German, British and American schools and I though America was really ahead in integrating ICT.

We have the label of being a school for immigrants. We have a really nice mix of those pupils who have disadvantages and those who have the advantages of really educated parents and it’s positive for both. In our school we have a certain lottery and we’re a popular school and have more pupils who want to be in our school than we can offer. And that’s equal for everyone. So we’re not an elite school. We’re not selecting only those with the high grades. In all Dutch schools we have a good mix of pupils who need more attention, but it’s not too much of a problem ever. We have special courses for Islamic cultures and those from other background in our training to understand about them. We aim at teaching to all levels in our class. We have lots of tools for that. If you have problems then you can always get training.

During the training we have supervision and mentors and I had two coaches – one for supervision on the psychological reflection and one for more general studies. Now when you’re new at the school you have a special coach. When you’re not new anymore, you don’t have a coach, but in every school you find five teachers who are equal and you share your experiences – what you can’t cope with and what techniques you use. You can reflect on that. It’s really helpful for things you can’t cope with. It’s done by our school. We got special training to lead such conversations. And now we do that as some sort of oral support. For example I had a personal clash with a pupil and I didn’t know what to do because there was tension that wasn’t getting better. I talked to the pupils’ parents and that didn’t help, so then I talked to the support group. It’s all classified and safe of course.

I am also a teacher coach, so I observe lessons of my new teachers in the school. The best piece of advice I could give to a new teacher is to be themselves. Everyone is different. Pupils know if the teacher is behaving like he isn’t in real life. But on the other hand, be very consistent.

I guess that if we cooperate more between the teachers nationally – maybe if the ones who are writing the school books are aiming more on how we can create more active lessons that will help a lot more. When you find a really different lesson plan on the internet you wish you could find more. It needs to be written out, you can’t tell someone in one minute, how and why you can do a lesson. But the current method doesn’t offer that. We need more learning activities and programs. Teachpitch.com is a good example of a tool we use to professionalize ourselves by sharing knowledge with other teachers in the world by the internet.

My hopes for the future of teaching in my country? I am really hopeful about technology helping us to improve the organization that is needed to implement student-centered learning. Last Friday we had a mind-blowing presentation of the Dutch educational entrepreneur Bob Hofman that introduced Peerscholar (invented and used by the University of Toronto) to Europe. This computer program is a very good example of how teachers will be able to help students really reflect on each other’s work, and which will improve their responsibility to their own learning process. Less focus on grades and more on the content and the reflection of how they are learning.

Read more about the Education for All Global Monitoring Report.

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