A few months ago I had an appointment with Mart. He’s the head teacher of a primary school in Venray which is going to move to a new building soon. Mart told me that he hadn’t actually wanted to make an appointment, because he assumed that I would have other things to deal with. But his wife spurred him on, saying “It can’t hurt to ask”.
Well, it so happens that I come from a family of teachers: both my father and mother were teachers, as were a lot of grandmas and grandpas. My sister, too, ended up in teaching after many peregrinations. So if there’s something that’s close to my heart, it’s teaching. For that reason we quickly arranged to go to Venray. We visited the school in the old building, looked at the new premises and also visited a school that had recently moved. We were struck by the fact that in every room, all the walls were used to display teaching materials in all sorts of ways. The alphabet, drawings, poems, examples of sums – everything was stuck or pinned to the walls. The old school was a cosy jumble of old furniture. There were generous quantities of teaching materials, as the school had been shrinking continuously over the years due to demographic developments. The oldest teaching materials were in fact much more attractive than the new ones: they were often made of solid wood or beech multiplex and, if they were made of plastic, it was thick plastic in the right colours. Nowadays they are “designer” objects made of plastic and metal, and therefore ugly.
The new building, which has nothing wrong with it, by the way, is simple, light and clean – functional, but not yet very warm. There is of course a budget for a new interior when a school moves. Initially, Mart didn’t want to say what that budget was, probably because he didn’t want to scare me off. Our line of approach was how to achieve a lot with a little. For example, we noticed that the tables that they already had were actually much more attractive than the tables that are produced nowadays. This was especially true if you replaced the table tops with solid beech. After a few discussions, we suddenly had the idea of making a teaching wall where the teachers could do whatever they wanted. The largest wall in each room would be covered in multiplex. The teachers would be allowed to nail, stick and screw whatever they needed to this wall. We then made a test wall, covered in all the things we could think of. We also thought up and made additional objects: little carts with teaching materials, partition walls with a horizontal surface on which to work standing up, cabinets on wheels, and many more things besides. The test classroom was then inspected by the teachers. They explained what they did and did not want to have, but also came up with a number of questions of their own. In this way the teachers were invited to think about how they wanted to teach, rather than being confronted later on with whatever had been decided for them.
The good thing is that their ideas don’t have to be right first time, as the whole point is that the wall can easily be changed. Afterwards, we were given a design for each room, with all sorts of extra wishes and alterations. Joost, one of our most experienced carpenters, is in charge and can fulfil the individual wishes for each room by using a variety of construction methods. It’s no surprise that the teachers of the lower years had very different wishes from the teachers of the older children. But, strangely enough, classrooms often end up being more or less identical. It looks as if, amazingly enough, we are going to complete the whole plan within the prescribed budget, even though a lot of objects will be made to measure. I’m now going on holiday, while the children and staff are already on their summer holidays, and when I come back, a lot of the work will already be finished. If it all goes well, we will have imagined and created something good! We’ll have done good in every sense.