I teach RE at the Vincent van Gogh comprehensive secondary school in Assen, which is the capital of the province Drenthe, in the north-eastern part of the Netherlands. The city isn’t famous for anything, except maybe for its motor races.
I teach full-time, which at our school is not all that common for female teachers – especially not when they are married. In the Netherlands, more women than men work in education – except in management. Since RE is only taught one hour a week in most years, I teach about 18 groups of around 25 to 30 students. A full-time job as a teacher in the Netherlands usually means teaching 25 hours each week.
Children start attending my school when they are 12, after eight years of primary education. They have a lot of choice around what they study. We offer two streams of education. The first is Hoger Algemeen Voortgezet Onderwijs (HAVO): higher general continued education, a vocational programme that takes five years to complete. The second is the six-year Voorbereidend Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs (VWO): preparatory scholarly education.
In VWO you can choose to do the basic “atheneum” pathway. If you are more gifted or interested – preferably both – you could follow the “gymnasium” pathway, which involves studying classics, including learning Greek and Latin. At our school you can also choose to do a combination of the bilingual TweeTalig Onderwijs (TTO) programme and gymnasium, which gives you both the classical background and an international approach to your learning.
In Year 3, students in both HAVO and VWO must also choose a profile for their learning. In upper form, they will then study some general subjects and some specific to their profile. They can choose a cultural, economical, health or technical profile.
'Empathy and understanding'
On an ordinary school day I get up at 6.30am and leave the house at around 7.30am on my bicycle. Most of my colleagues and students cycle to school, although there is a growing trend of parents taking their children to school by car when it is cloudy, wet, windy or cold. Since we have a climate not unlike the UK, this tends to be rather frequent. We have around 1,300 students at school, so you can imagine the traffic jams.
RE is a compulsory subject at our school. We teach about religion as a cultural phenomenon, rather than focusing on what students believe. Students learn about the sources, beliefs, cultural implications and the historical and social contexts of religions. Ideally, we help students to develop a kind of meta-vision on religion, which leads to more empathy and understanding.
After graduating from our school, students continue their education at higher vocational education or at university. They have to pay around €2,000 (£1,800) a year in college fees, and they can receive a loan to help with this. Though the interest on these loans is low, the fees are still an obstacle for students whose parents are not well off financially.
In the Netherlands, there is currently a shortage of teachers. This is partly because of low wages and partly because of the pressure that comes with the job: parents trying to get more influence, excessive administrative tasks and a government convinced that the educational system needs to be thoroughly changed every couple of years, without asking teachers what they think or need.
Even so, I would not change my job for anything else. I consider myself privileged to be part of these children’s development.
Beitsche Bruin-Bekius is a RE teacher at Vincent van Gogh comprehensive secondary school in Assen