Interview with Beau Brown: ‘The kids are openly dropping F bombs in class’

In this series I interview people about their views on and experiences with language(s) in Dutch higher education. Click here for more

Beau Brown (37, Texas, USA) is an English teacher at ECL Haarlem (as of January 2019). He is currently doing a master’s in Education on second-language identity among English language students in Dutch secondary schools. ​

I’m an English teacher at Da Vinci College Purmerend, but ​I’m moving schools in January to ECL in Haarlem. It’s a ‘traditional’ lyceum that will mean I teach English bilingually to the students. I tend to teach these classes as immersively as possible in my native English, and switch to Dutch when necessary for points of comprehension or explanation.

Most of my students are VWO students, more than 90% of them end up going to Dutch unis. As we know from the news lately, Dutch higher education is struggling with a crisis of linguistic identity in terms of its student body and language of instruction. I don’t think the trend of more and more English taught at bachelor and graduate levels will abate. Take my wife’s cousin: He graduated two years ago from Barlaeus gymnasium in Amsterdam, took a year off to study Italian and work part time before entering the PPLE (politics, philosophy, law and economics) program at the University of Amsterdam this past fall. The program required multiple rounds of interviews and applications, and was quite selective in its admissions. Many of its students are international, and the program itself is 100% taught in English. My cousin could have gone anywhere in Holland (or Europe for that matter) for his degree, but chose this program because of the international, English-speaking approach to his education. I helped him draft his application essay, and, along with his parents, marveled at the change in university applications from their time in Dutch higher education thirty years ago, and today. My cousin fits the mold of the future of Holland’s educated class: He speaks English well, sees its value in uni classrooms and future career prospects, and knows the Netherlands will only be more of an English-speaking country in the future.

Dutch kids today are more than comfortable watching American Netflix, listening to English lyrics on Spotify, and gaming with their peers online in non-native English trash-talking around the world. As a long answer to the question of how I motivate kids in my English class on learning the language—the idea  is too self-evident to ever be more than a one-off selling point in my first day’s introductory lesson. Telling Dutch kids they need to learn English is like telling them they need a raincoat for the fall.

Even though the (social) media landscape is evolving so quickly with respect to English and its embedment in Dutch language and culture, school is still school. And today’s educational system is out of date. When it comes to language teaching, the idea of teaching something like English towards a centralized test which asks students to listen to twenty-year-old videos on Cumberland agricultural yields and answer listening comprehension tests doesn’t dovetail at all with how a kid will spend his or her time ​using ​ English in their life. The aforementioned examples from sources of English influence in entertainment (Netflix, YouTube, music, online gaming, etc.) and the way Europeans and the rest of the world are developing English as a second language at work and home means we need to be teaching kids much differently and more in step with the times. Why would we belabour a grammatical point on the past simple from a well-meaning but out of date, weirdly anglophilic textbook when Britain is falling away from the continent in terms of strength and influence at warp speed?  Kids of 12 and 13 are watching their global ESL peers discuss digital marketing solutions, gaming profiles and makeup tutorials in English to one another with amazing proficiency and professionalism and yet in my class we are meant to teach towards an outdated language test—it doesn’t make any sense.

Back in 2008 I went to South Korea to teach English, continue living abroad and earn what was, before the economic crisis hit a few months into my tenure, good money. Financial events aside, my time teaching English was strange to say the least. I was teaching at a Seoul suburban high school. The cultural aspects of the job had to be learned through daily experience, as I had no idea how hard it would be to reach my audience. I was the only non-native for a 20 mile radius at least, and was treated like a minor celebrity for the arbitrary fact of my nationality, both at school and around the town where I lived. In fact, that was the main reason I was given the job—to be a Western face and imbue status to the school administrators who could show me off during school inspection visits.

The day-to-day work itself meant I had 30 plus students too terrified to speak a word of English to me, as the Confucian system of respect and deference meant it was like pulling teeth to get a student to tell me their name in warm-up English drills. I spent nine months getting little more than a timid ‘hello, teacher’ from students, and the rest of the time I was placed front and center in the teacher work room to await the school director’s daily walk through, which was a ceremonial ‘Hello, teacher’ from him, a ‘Hello, sir’ from me, and then my liaison and fellow English teacher Alfred (that was the English name he chose for some reason, even though neither he nor anyone on staff could pronounce it) would confer a few asides about the weather from Korean to English and so would end the ritual for the day. It was a weird year.

Compare that experience to kids in the Netherlands having no problem calling me by my first name and openly dropping F bombs in class when speaking to one another and it’s an even sharper contrast in terms of school and national culture creating wildly different learning systems. I could go on at length about Korea, teaching in other places and here, but suffice to say each country has a unique understanding of how ESL learning should work for their kids’ education.


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