Does the suit make the teacher?

This is a cross-post from my education blog See Mary Teach, but I thought it might be interesting to expats confronting differences in workplace etiquette, dress codes, and other things we must navigate as foreign workers.  

Not in The Netherlands it doesn’t. I’ve not had a great deal of exposure to Dutch work environments other than the few times I’ve visited the immigration office and the time I’ve spent with the curriculum team developing a new international school. Working from home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But even after a few visits to real workplaces, something is startling clear: Casual apparel is okay in The Netherlands, especially in the workplace.

In America, as most Americans can attest, your work attire is taken very seriously, particularly in offices. As a newspaper reporter I only dressed up when heading to a cushy office to interview someone and the rest of the time I rocked jeans and casual dresses. In a workplace where people (used to?) smoke and keep bottles of bourbon in their desks, this is an improvement. But when I became a teacher that all changed. I needed to “dress respectably to be respected,” as one principal told the staff during a meeting. Apparently dressing respectably meant skirt and pants suits like the administrators wore each day.
Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to begin training in the MYP curriculum. It was an all-day session that challenged me and my new colleagues to move away from our previous experiences as educators and think within this new curriculum focused on authentic, project-based learning and interdisciplinary collaboration. I’m still reflecting on the experience and writing about it, which I’ll share soon, but as invigorating as the experience was it was also a chance for me to chat casually with these teachers. Usually we’re cramming a lot into our meetings and have little time for chit-chat, but we had lunch together and tea breaks and I shared a lot about myself, the true outsider on the team, and learned more about them. Photo by semuthutan.

The most glaring difference I found while hanging out in the personeelskamer (teacher’s lounge) is that seeing people “dressed up” was a rarity. Now, these educators weren’t rolling into work in sweat pants, but here are just a few examples:

- Older gentleman in jeans, flannel shirt, suspenders, sneakers.

- Younger woman in cotton dress, tights, Ugg-type boots.

- Administrator in khakis, button-down shirt (no tie), and a houndstooth jacket.

- Younger man in khakis, loafers, and an untucked polo shirt.

It may seem that I’m being overly superficial, analyzing the wardrobe choices of the teachers I encountered, but it affected me so much that I knew there had to be a reason. I realized that this casualness toward dress code was indicative of something deeper in the culture of the school and the attitude toward the teachers. They are considered professionals and treated as such. It’s as if someone said “Yes, I know you’re a professional and I don’t need you to wear black pumps and suit pants to prove it.”

I met a young teacher who had the opportunity to do her student teaching internship in Pennsylvania as part of an exchange program. She said she was told she had to dress up and spent the first few weeks buying new clothes for the entire experience. She told me that in The Netherlands people dress down at work - wearing “work clothes” - and save their dressy attire for events and nights out. Makes sense to me. Teaching is hard work and I don’t know how many days I came home from my internship with my toes nearly arthritic from being crammed in fancy shoes for eight hours.

As a teacher in Virginia I’ve been frustrated with the discussions surrounding a potential ban on virtual communication between students and teachers. The state’s board of education is considering banning teachers from chatting with students on Facebook, Twitter, and through text messages. The reason? To protect the students. At first blush that sounds like a good idea. We all want to protect the students! But why would we want to protect them from their teachers? Yes, there have been the few cases of teachers and students sexting, but with nearly half a million teachers in the country that’s a small drop in the bucket. The education system paints with a wide brush and often does so to the detriment of innovation in our tired system. In this case, rather than deal with the inappropriate teacher-student relationships as they arise, the board is treating all teachers as potential predators than the professionals the majority of them are.

Yes, there are things online that I’d prefer students not run into - predators being the main one. But those dangers are everywhere, not just online. And to take away the one connection to responsible adults that kids may have in those spaces is truly irresponsible. Wouldn’t it be better for us to hold their hands crossing the road than to say “No, holding hands might lead to a sexual relationship, so we’ll just let the kid cross the six-lane highway. Alone.”

I’ve heard familiar gripes about teachers here - that it’s so easy and they get the summers off. Dream job! But overall the school culture itself seems to lead toward a mutual respect among colleagues and an understanding that no, whether one wears jeans or a suit doesn’t mean one is a better or worse teacher. Effectiveness isn’t tied to your tie. Leadership isn’t lost by leaving your collar unbottoned. Seems a little ridiculous when we think about it this way, don’t you think?

It’s small thing, but it means a lot. It has me wondering what other small differences might go a long way to change the entrenched culture of schools in America.

I wrote an article for the web site about my experience obtaining a residency permit in The Netherlands. I thought when I picked up the permit at the IND offices that would be the end of my struggle for at least a year, but no. My last name was misspelled on the card. The hardest part is over, but I’m still waiting for a new card. This has the makings of an “I Love Lucy” episode. Click the link above to read the article!

Opening wide for 2011

Happy New Year !!!

I’m sure I say this every year - and really, if you can’t say this every year you’re doing something wrong - but 2010 is certainly a year I will remember. The date stamped in my mind with major milestones, like the true beginning of my teaching career, my trans-Atlantic move, and my continuing battle to be a successful expat in a new country. 

As is to be expected in a 365-day swath of time, there’s a lot about this year I’d like to forget and move past, mainly the creepy, hermit-like existence I’ve been living since moving to The Netherlands. Part of my hermitdom has been a result of secondary circumstances, like money problems, no job, snow, and ice. But I know much of this has come from my fear of truly stepping out on my own in a new place. There are pros and cons of moving abroad for the sake of your love of a foreign partner. Having a native by my side is comforting, reassuring, and gives me a little window into a social network I might otherwise have to build on my own from scratch. The dark side, however, is using this person as a crutch. Thomas has been the blanket to my Linus for the last few months and I can’t ignore that anymore. Photo by Tim Hamilton.

Thomas and I both struggle with the 20-something feelings of having not created enough or done anything big by this time in our lives. Rather than focus on our successes, we’ve dipped into self-loathing about what could have been - who we could have been. It’s bullshit and a waste of time, certainly, but that doesn’t make the feelings go away. Oh common sense and logic, how I wish you were more powerful in the face of angst and emotion. I’m sure these tinges come from living in a world where kids run multi-million dollar companies or have traveled the world by the time they’re 14. You can’t help but feel a little pale in comparison and wonder why you didn’t take certain paths or why you were so careful when you had the freedom to be wild. Insecurity is powerful, but we both made a pact to move past it this year, or at least fill our lives with hobbies and passions that bring us happiness in hopes of drowning it out.

We can only move one way through time and there’s no way around that (yet…still waiting for a 15-year-old to figure out time travel). In the face of that fact, I’m gathering a short list of new year’s resolutions that I hope will help me, at the very least, see what I’ve done, be happy about it, and use that positive energy to push me toward something better. Let’s face it - you can only wallow for so long before you start to annoy yourself and the people around you. For the most part I find resolutions to be less constructive and more destructive in our lives, but I’m avoiding the typical “lose weight, eat healthier, etc.” resolutions for more broad and, dare I say accomplishable ones like:

- Try to spend at least 15 minutes a day writing for no one but yourself and without any kind of publication in mind. If it goes longer, awesome, if you miss a day, no biggie - make up for it with some extra time on the next day. 

- Study Dutch, some how some way, every single day. Even if it’s learning one word and using it in a sentence and that’s as far as you get, it’s a success. This is a firm one, though - you have to do it every day. 

- Finally do that podcast you’ve been talking about for so long. 

- Do some sort of physical activity once a day, even if it’s just biking around the neighborhood or dancing to music for 10 minutes in the apartment. Get into some yoga. 

- Finish Couch to 5k program and keep running! Aim for at least three times a week, or more if you’re up for it. 

- Try to work up to at least one, real, on-your-toes push-up with good form and everything.

- Try to grow some food, even if it’s a small herb pot or two on the patio.  

- Commit to a big knitting project, like that light spring cardigan on Ravelry. 

- Go to a MeetUp group meeting in The Netherlands. 

These may not all start the morning of January 1, 2011, but I’m writing them out and keeping them close by to remind myself of what I’ve committed to and who I want to strive to be this year. On the top of my list should be “GET A JOB,” but I don’t think of things like that as resolutions but rather necessities like “eat food” and “bath regularly.” I will have a job this year, sooner rather than later, and I don’t need to see it on a list of resolutions to feel the pressure to search and apply. 

And on one last note about changes in my life, I’ve decided to block myself from Facebook and disable my account. I’m still considering not disabling it so I can have links from my blogs appear in my feed, but I’m certainly blocking myself from the site through my MacTerminal. At first I felt like Facebook was connecting me to my friends and family a world away, but really it’s isolating me from the world around me here, now, in The Netherlands. Thomas and I took the plunge last night (sheesh, why is it such a big deal?) and blocked our accounts and deleted the apps from our devices. I really love social networks and advocate for them often in education and my personal life, but this one has been toxic for me personally. I’ll still be connecting on other networks, like Twitter, but for now Facebook is gone and it feels good. 

Cheers to a new and fulfilling year. 

Unearthing old passions

Winter is just not my season. Try as I might, I just can’t learn to love sweater weather, gray skies, and holiday music. My first inclination is to stay in the apartment on the couch reading or writing and wait it out. But then I feel guilty about turning into a hermit and I try to pull myself out of it, often unsuccessfully. 

However, I did have a wonderful day recently where I managed to yank myself out of hibernation to meet some new people and saw, for just a moment, what kind of life could be possible if I would just push myself to live it. I traveled by train (all by myself!) to Rotterdam to meet with a friend I met on Twitter. Back in America I was part of an art and craft collective known as the 7 Cities Crafters and was always around someone making something. I’ve been missing that and set about searching for similar groups in The Netherlands. I bombed Etsy and Ravelry boards and connected with Ballee. We decided to meet up for some tea and knitting in Rotterdam. 

I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to be doing something so familiar in my new, still very unfamiliar, country. I battle often with trying to make myself comfortable, as if I were back home, and embracing the novelty of my new home. But sometimes, in a rare moment, the two just mesh perfectly into a hybrid existence that’s comfortable and new at the same time. My hope is to find that feeling in other parts of my life, but knitting and chatting at a cafe in Rotterdam over tea gave me a taste of what could be - I just have to be willing to climb out of my shell and do it. 

That same day I met with a teacher from an international school in Rotterdam to chat education and the challenges of being a foreigner in a new place. It felt right to be around another educator, sharing my ideas and fears. I got a lot of practical, veteran advice about job hunting and working in an international school, which is something I can now do legally thanks to my residency permit. Though I haven’t actually gotten the card since the postal system has been on strike here. Still waiting. 

I’ve found my old passion of knitting and crochet and I’m taking this time I have and using it to try new things. So often I was content with making scarves and dish towels because they’re easy and square and mindless, but I’ve reached beyond those things to challenge myself with a cowl and a set of mittens. Maybe I’ll try socks next. Or even a sweater. I’m at a point in this craft where I’m starting to understand how certain stitches work to create objects and garments. Before I was just the sort of knitter that learned a stitch and did it when I came across it in a pattern, not really understanding why the author included that stitch where she did. Now I’m starting to get those decisions, which is quite freeing. It’s the same feeling I got in cooking when I discovered I’d turned into one of those people who could cook just by feel and taste rather than follow a recipe. Instead of seeing a pattern as a limiting thing that I must absolutely follow, I’m now seeing a pattern as a guide within which I can make my own decisions. I will refrain from making some sort of metaphor about my evolving experience and worldview here, but just know I’m thinking about it. 

PS: If you’re ever hungry in Rotterdam, check out De Oude Plek. It’s near the Lombardijen station and you can fill your belly with delicious, vegetarian Chinese food for a decent price. It’s on my list of places to take mom when she visits next year. 

This is an article I wrote for The site was online for a while, serving expats in The Netherlands, but it recently relaunched with a new look and a list of contributors, one of which is me. I’m looking forward to writing more for them and sharing my experiences over there. Check out the site!

I got my residency permit!

Well, I got approval. Now I’m waiting for the paperwork to arrive in the mail and to pick up my actual card. I’m a little, legal immigrant! I’ll ruminate more on this development later, but for now I’m going to bask in this new day. 

That falling feeling

I’m wondering if I’m drifting slowly into a life crisis of sorts. My career never really started before I changed it and then my second career, if I could call it that, got off the ground right before I up and moved to another country to be with the man I’m pretty sure I want to spend my life with. I often envy people who’ve been in jobs for long periods of time. They seem to have a commitment characteristic engrained in their personality that allows them to do this. They’re most likely the same people that say they’re going to start jogging and acutally do it. I’m always thinking about the next thing or how I can grow and move on to bigger and better projects, but is this the healthiest way to be? Should I try and settle down for at least five years (Jesus, that sounds like a long time) in some sort of position so I can see what I might be missing? 

fallen tree

Photo by slimmer_jimmer

Time has always been a fickle reality for me. It goes by so fast, but at the same time I beat myself up for not being a completely established professional, fluent in Dutch after only being here four months. I should cut myself some slack, I know, but it’s hard when I feel the sands of time slipping through my fingers while I’m sitting on the couch watching an antique appraisal show on BBC just to hear some English. (I wish I could get some decent American English in my life, but I can’t handle another episode of MADE or 16 & Pregnant. I just can’t.). I’m only 26, I tell myself, but then I also think: Holy shit, I’m 26. So many questions are running through my mind at this point. Am I going to get married? Should I be having kids right now or is that just my reproductive system sending me weird evolutionary signals to procreate? Why haven’t I published anything creative? Why is my freelance career so fledgling? What should I be doing differently? 

These panicked moments of self reflection often send me into a tailspan of clicking embedded links endlessly on LifeHacker productivity articles. Yes, I’m one of those people that frets about productivity by procrastinating on my to-do list through reading how-tos on how to be productive. It’s shameful and yet I continue. 

So then I think again about that person in the office, having put in a good five years with the company, has a pin to show for it or something. And then I wonder, maybe that guy hates his life and wishes he’d dropped it all for something else. I go back and forth on this imaginary shmoe’s innermost feelings about his career. I suppose it boils down to my simultaneous yet conflicting desires for spontinaeity and security in my life. How does one reconcile these two longings that seem to have equally strong grasps on my life trajectory? 

I’ve just downloaded a copy of Getting Things Done by David Allen. Yes, I feel stupid about this. I’m now going to load it onto the e-reader I never feel like I read enough and get to thinking about my productivity, or lack thereof. I’m curious if this book is even made for funemployed, 20-something, expats like myself whose GTD lists involve things like starting a new blog, knitting a neck cowl, and trying my hand at homemade, vegan ba pao. We’ll see. 

It’s snowing

Photo by cindy47452

I’m not sure where my disdain for this nostalgia-inducing bit of precipitation started, but I can’t deny that I really don’t enjoy it anymore. I remember the days spent wishing and praying for a snow day to cancel school. In my part of the states, schools were canceled for even the slightest bit of snow because no one knew how to drive in it, particularly bus drivers. A light dusting of snow could bring Southeastern Virginia to a screeching halt and did quite often. But as I grew older I seemed to lose the excitement that came with snow days. The flakes, instead of representing that youthful energy that one also gets in finding a tall pile of leaves that seems to call out the child in you to jump into it feet first, came to represent inconvenience, time lost in lengthy commutes, and money. (I had a car that didn’t always work well and loved to demonstrate this fact during winter storms)

My go-to bit of small talk, as is the case in dealing with most strangers, is the weather. Everyone always asks me, sarcastically, how I like the Dutch weather. I chuckle goodheartedly and say I find it absolutely dreadful. This has been mostly in jest since I’ve yet to see what a true Dutch winter is like (though I have witnessed the incredible amounts of rain this country gets), but if this cold snap and forecasted snow is any indication, I won’t be able to say what I think about it because my mouth and nose, along with all other exposed body parts, will be wrapped tightly in scarves, jackets, mittens, and boots.

Climate is one of the characteristics of a country that, like no other, can make you feel far away from home. You can hole yourself up in an apartment, hide from the locals, and try to recreate the feelings of your home country. You can trick yourself into feeling like the old you - the one from “zee old country,” but you can’t do anything about the weather. Whatever filter I may have had on my view of The Netherlands is quickly dissolving as the cold gets more fierce and my body struggles to acclimate to it. I imagine veteran expats, the ones that have moved all over the world, have bodies accustomed to abrupt changes in the weather. They no doubt have wardrobes that keep them prepared for any situation, from bikinis in 30 celsius to snow boots for those negative 10 situations. I, on the other hand, am still finding my way around. For example, I’m not looking forward to traveling to Dutch class this evening in a pair of Keds while the wind whips its negative four air around my shivering body and snow flakes cake to my glasses.

And so this is one of those things from which I can’t hide. As I face down the (thankfully small) snow flakes tonight on my way to Dutch class, I’ll be thinking about the many other aspects of this new life I’ve been hiding from but which I should face head-on, confidently. They aren’t going away. Neither am I.

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