Dutch Education: Burnout Early and Burnout Often
XPat Journal, Spring 2017
The assignment was simple. Write an essay on the question: ‘What is a burnout, and how can I avoid it?’ And by the way, ‘you have to write the essay while you’re juggling homework for eight other high school classes, extracurricular activities inside school and extra classes outside school. Not to mention the prospect of spending your puberty in the most judgmental environment imaginable, as opposed to, say, hiding under a rock.’
My previous column on education was ‘Let Kids Be Kids – Until Age 11, When You Must Decide the Rest of Your Life.’ Well, my youngest is 12 now, and the pressure is only greater. While some multinational companies are introducing the concept of ‘Work Life Balance’ to prevent ‘employee burnouts,’ Dutch high schools are teaching kids to visualize their own burnout and head straight for it.
My son’s particular high school had such a minimal orientation that it could fairly be called ‘Sink or Swim.’ Indeed, many Dutch basis schools don’t give much homework, in favor of ‘letting kids be kids.’ That’s a big part of the reason Dutch kids score so famously well on the occasional Happiness Index. But high school is so different it’s a total shock to system. From Day One, he was expected to suddenly lust the forbidden fruit of endless homework, at least two hours per day. And not only that, he was expected to have long-term scheduling and planning skills: ‘You’ll need to have your French homework ready by next Tuesday, but you won’t able to do it on Monday, and Sunday is (hopefully) your free day, so you’ll have to squeeze it in on the Saturday of the weekend you don’t have anymore.’ Oh, la la! There are entry-level office jobs that get more orientation than these high school kids.
Actually, for our kids, the concept of ‘Burnout’ came well before high school. They got to witness it with their teachers on multiple occasions in Basis school. My daughter was meant to have the same teacher for her first six years in school. The teacher had a burnout and quit after two. My son’s first teacher had a burnout in the middle of her first year. We didn’t mind, since we parents were not big fans of her methods. The temp teacher was better, in our opinion. And just when she was getting the kids back on track, the first teacher came back from burnout. And she quickly made it very clear she was not over her burnout. Still, she got the okay to start a new school year. She lasted two months and then abruptly announced she was leaving teaching entirely to go work on a farm in Costa Rica. I told her ‘Good luck’ in Spanish, and she revealed she didn’t speak Spanish.
Luckily, help is on the way. Dutch elections are coming up, and if there’s one issue where all parties agree, it’s that class sizes are too big, and teachers need relief. At least all parties say they agree. There are only two parties that are actually committing money toward that goal. And with the issue of education so contentious and critical, the number of times it comes up on the national Stemwijzer voting guide is: zero.
There is one area of Dutch education where I’ve found some welcome common sense. It’s the new method of evaluating a student’s school performance, which weighs the teacher’s input as well as test scores. My kids both do well enough on test scores, but it’s the teacher’s input that provides a larger perspective of a student’s long-term growth and helps identify the path they should choose going forward. In the US, the debate between test scores and teacher evaluation is called ‘Proficiency vs. Growth.’ You may have heard the term used when US Senator Al Franken asked America’s incoming Secretary of Education ‘What is your opinion on Proficiency versus Growth’ and she answered ‘I don’t know what that is.’ She then plagiarized her application form for the job and misspelled a tweet congratulating herself for winning the job.
Interestingly, she has a Dutch name: DeVos. Vos in Dutch is fox. Is De Vos clever like a fox? Or does ‘DeVos’ stand for ‘Devo’ as in De-evolution?’ One thing is for sure, evolution is not a subject she wants being taught in American schools.
So when my kids are stressed out by Dutch high school, and they look like they’re headed for their own burnout, I just tell them about the new American Education Department. Clearly the lesson is: don’t try to hard. You can be the dumbest person in the room and still fail your way to the top.