Reflections of a teaching graduate

By Luuc Brans (Staff Writer)

As many readers will probably agree, graduating from university is a strange experience. One has to find their way in a new post-academic reality. Questions that used to be put off until ‘sometime in the future’ (such as: what am I gonna do when I grow up?) suddenly have to be faced, as ‘sometime in the future’ is now.

Arguably, being a graduate of the social sciences does not make answering these kinds of questions easier. After years of reading and writing about the social world, one becomes hyperaware and self-reflexive of their position in the social system. This obviously has an effect on the career decisions one faces after graduation. Concerned about the socio-economic inequality produced and entrenched by the dominant neoliberal mode of society, I made the decision that whatever job I took would not contribute to the perpetuation of this inequality. In any way, my job should make the world a better place according to my principles and values.

Lucky as I was, I ended up as a substitute teacher in the subjects of modern history and democratic citizenship at my former high school, a small but quite reputable state school in Amsterdam. Shaping the minds of children as young as 14 is an honourable job that satisfies my conscience. Armed to the teeth with my sociological knowledge about the role of the education system in reproducing inequality and existing power structures, I was ambitious to mould these young kids into nuanced, democratic citizens that strive for an open, cosmopolitan, and just society.

Three months later, I realised I might have been a bit too naïve. There is very little room for agency in teaching at a Dutch high school, and I argue this for two reasons. One important caveat here is that in the following, I make some broad generalizations on just three months of observations, and on the basis of a limited student pool.

The first problem arose with the school’s curriculum. As a teacher of civics and modern history, one is confronted by the nationalistic undertone of the curriculum that reproduces an inherent nationalist view of the social world. As a student of nationalism, I am well aware and supportive of Hobsbawm’s idea that nations are nineteenth century inventions, and that traditions and school curriculums try to naturalise this social constructional character of nations. However, before I knew it, the curriculum had forced me into contributing to this invention of tradition myself.

For example, the school asked me to spend five weeks (that’s more than ten hours) of teaching on the so-called Dutch Golden Age. This is also a national A-levels exam subject. Although I was given some freedom to determine the precise content of my classes, the nationalist undertone of the subject was clear, especially considering the mere two weeks the school gave me for the English Golden Age. I tried to insert some nuance in my classes by talking about global inequality in the form of the slave trade on which most of the Dutch wealth was founded. To no avail, I embarrassingly witnessed how the nationalist subtext of the subject, and the accompanying textbooks, was not lost on the Dutch pupils.

In their exams, most of the students - especially the boys - wrote about how ‘we’ (the people inhabiting the Dutch republic in the 16th century) were better than ‘the French’. When we discussed the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century, the boys were quick to cheer for Dutch victory as if we were discussing a contemporary football match instead of a historic battle from a pre-modern age. Personally, it was quite confronting to see that my job was actually contributing to the ‘invention of tradition,’ and that my nuance was lost on most of my pupils.

The second challenge involves the problem of social inequality. The pupils I teach are mostly from white, upper middle-class backgrounds like myself. As a result, the pupil population does not represent Amsterdam’s diversity. These students enjoy certain privileges, which include being raised in an economically secure environment, and parents who provide them with abundant social and cultural capital by, for example, reading them bedtime stories, discussing politics at the dinner table, and taking them to museums. This is reflected in the class contributions of these students, as they demonstrate a relatively impressive understanding of culture and politics that has not been derived from the school curriculum.

I perceive these children as ‘privileged’ in comparison to some of their ‘underprivileged’ classmates, who do not always enjoy similar advantages. The underprivileged pupils, who are a very small minority in my classroom, do not have the same benefits for a variety of reasons, the specifics of which I often do not know. As an example, their parents might be struggling with unemployment, and instead of paying for trips to the museum are understandably more concerned with the family’s economic security and having enough money to buy groceries. As another example, a student’s family may not speak Dutch at home, or may not have a native-level command of the language, and thus the language of their lessons may present a challenge for them. For these reasons, underprivileged pupils often enter the educational system with less social and cultural capital than their more privileged white peers. To compensate for this inequality, I try to grant the underprivileged students extra attention and assistance in whatever way possible.

But much to my dismay, I notice that I am not able to transcend the reproduction of social inequality. Again with the caveat of making some broad generalizations here, I notice how, unconsciously, there is a connection between my background and those of my privileged pupils. Benefitting from their home situation and their extra cultural capital, they grasp my lessons more easily, understand my teaching style and my humor more often, and feel easier to teach.

My underprivileged students, on the other hand, seem to struggle and, for example, may ask more repetitive questions than their privileged peers.  Moreover, when I asked one pupil what he had done during the weekend, I found out his parents had taken him to the exact same photo exhibition as I went to. Another privileged student told me how he read a book that my parents used to read me before bedtime. These experiences show a cultural connection between myself and the privileged pupils, and I am sometimes afraid this unconsciously biases my appreciation of pupils in favour of the privileged ones. Both the pupils and I embody the class structures we grew up in, and this affects our teacher-students relations. I try to be conscious of this, but I fear that some bias remains unconscious and is difficult to undo.

So again, I feel like my job allows less agency than I’d like. On the one hand I feel constrained by the nationalist structure of the curriculum, which feels more like a political struggle against a certain worldview implemented by educational structures. This worldview legitimizes certain power structures, for example, of the nation being the prime legimitizing force of political power in our era. As a result, my struggle against this structure is one about power.

The second lack of agency I described is one of a different, but related, character. Here, class structures and social inequality are the source of my restricted agency. The struggle against these structures is different and, I believe, much more difficult, as I feel these structures are also manifested and embodied by myself through the things I do, the culture I like and the way I talk. Here, I am constrained by myself too, which makes this lack of agency all the more frustrating.

In short, I graduated with the feeling that I would want to change the structural inequalities and problems of our society that concern me. But I found out that when teaching in a Dutch high school, there is little room for agency, and I am heavily constrained by structures, both from the school and myself. Changing the world might be too much of a Herculean task. Maybe the key is not to try and fight all the social structures at once, but find new little pockets of agency within these structures that allow me to accomplish social change, however small. That seems like a right way going forward in my new post-academic life.