Classroom culture in the Netherlands

Rachel Heller

Rachel Heller is a writer, blogger and teacher living in Groningen, in the Netherlands. American by birth, she met her Dutch husband and found her career as a teacher when she joined the Peace Corps and was posted to Malawi. She loves to travel and write, preferably both at once! She writes about her thoughts and experiences on her blog, Rachel’s Ruminations.

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We’ve all experienced how languages borrow words when they come in contact with other languages. Cultures do the same thing, borrowing aspects of other cultures. If you take a job at an international school, you’re likely to experience a different school culture than you’re used to. It won’t be the culture of your host country, but it won’t be the culture of your home country either. And, if you’ve worked at other international schools before in other countries, it won’t quite match any of those either.

I can’t describe what that culture will be at your international school, since I’ve only experienced this in Holland, but you can see my observations as an example. Where I taught, the teachers were from several different countries. It’s an international school that operates in English, so most were first-language English speakers, though many were extremely fluent second-language English speakers. The students, on the other hand, came from many more different countries and spoke English with varying degrees of fluency.

Despite its very international population, the school’s culture is heavily influenced by the wider society around it: in this case, the Dutch. After all, the teachers live here, whether they’ve settled here for good or not. It’s inevitable that they’ll at least to some extent adjust to local customs. For that reason, many things the school did surprised me when I first started working there, with my American background.

For example, it’s a secondary school (starting from age 11 or 12), and sometimes the students have free periods. When students in the Netherlands have free periods, they are really free. They can leave campus. They can sit around and waste the hour. They can go shopping or go home. No one keeps tabs on them and there is no need for them to sign in anywhere.

That’s likely to worry parents when they first enroll their children. But it’s surprising how quickly they get used to it and accept it.

As another example, teachers assign homework that they then do NOT collect and grade. They’re likely to go over the answers with the children in class, but that’s it. It’s just expected that the children will do it for the practice it affords.

The culture among the staff is affected by the Dutch culture too. The organizational structure is much less authoritarian than in American schools, so everyone gets a say in decision-making. Any decision that the head of the school wants to make is first discussed with the staff members, who can freely contribute a suggestion or opinion. This “polder model” makes decision-making much slower, but also creates near unanimity in supporting the decision that is eventually reached. As an American used to a school principal who simply makes decisions and expects them to be followed, I was intrigued by this system when I first arrived.

The Netherlands is a very casual country and dress codes are almost non-existent. It’s perfectly alright to teach in jeans, a simple shirt and sneakers. Teachers with piercings or visible tattoos are not unusual. Students, as well, can wear whatever they want, even to the extent of girls baring their midriffs or boys exposing their underwear when their pants hang low.

Another difference for me is the attitude toward field trips. In the US, a field trip demanded extensive advance preparation including a letter to parents and a permission slip that had to be signed by the parents. Not here! If the trip will happen during the school day, there’s no need to even inform the parents, though often teachers will do so just to make sure the kids all have their bicycles available for transportation. If it’s overnight, a letter or email will go home to let the parents know what is planned and what the child needs to bring, but no permission is needed.

These are just examples, of course. Your mileage may vary. If you’re arriving at a new international school job in a country that’s new to you, I’d suggest just observing the school culture at first. Notice how staff members relate to each other and to you. Dress to their norms. Ask about what the standard practices are for things like homework and field trips. Keep the “In my country they do it differently!” comments to a minimum, unless you’re specifically asked. Don’t try to make the school culture change to meet your expectations.

And keep in mind that the students and their parents, like you, may be foreigners getting adjusted to a new culture. They might be just as surprised at the school culture they’re joining as you are, so the best thing you can do is lend a non-judgmental, listening ear.

Soon, if you’re like me, what surprised you at first about the school culture becomes what you expect. Of course I wear jeans to teach! Of course I assign homework that I don’t collect or grade! Doesn’t every teacher?

Do you teach in an international school? Share your experiences below!

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