What's the Deal with School?
Between moving to a new country, being sick, going to treatment, and wanting to get a diploma, my school career has been a bumpy ride! In this blog post, I’m sharing my educational journey and the decisions that I’ve made along the way.
It’s been exactly one year since I wrote a blog post about school. More specifically, it’s been exactly one year since I wrote a blog post about my school career, and how I was thinking ‘out loud’ at the time. If you haven’t read it, I recommend checking it out before reading further, as it will make this post more clear! Click here to view the full post :)
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way and you’re aware of how things were looking for me around this time last year, you know things were looking uncertain! I felt that I was ready to start my junior year of high school (5vwo in the Netherlands) and finish my last two years like ‘normal’…but one month was enough to make me realize this was simply not my path.
I ended the post with ‘something has to change’ and that I was going to have a conversation with my mentor and mother about the options for how I could proceed. Since then, we’ve made plans, evaluated, talked again, and made other plans. A lot has happened since then, to say the least.
So here’s my update for you on what all that is…and of course what path I am currently following!
The Dutch School System
Before I share the options laid in front of me as well as the option we eventually concluded would be best for me, I think it’s important to explain how the Dutch school system works in comparison to the U.S. system, because that’s going to make this post a lot easier to understand!
Just like in the U.S., the Dutch school system can be divided into two levels of education: primary and secondary. Primary education consists of groepen, meaning ‘groups’ here in Holland. There are eight groups in total, with preschool and kindergarten being group one and two. You might be wondering, what happens to seventh and eighth grade if you already start counting numbers in preschool and there’s only eight groups? If you are wondering that, you are SHARP ;)
The fact that the Dutch start counting grades two years earlier than in the U.S. was honestly the most confusing thing for me when I moved to the Netherlands at the age of 15! People would ask my sisters and I what grades we were in, and we literally had to help each other out in figuring out an answer haha! Slowly we got the hang of it though, and it gets easier! Just like everything in life :)
Now, it’s actually pretty easy for me to remember. To get the Dutch ‘group’ you take the American ‘grade’ and add two. Vice versa, you subtract two from the Dutch group to get the American grade. So for example, grade six would be group eight. But then what happens after that?
Then you go to the ‘middelbare’ school, which is basically the same as if you squished middle and high school in one. Unfortunately it’s not that easy though, because here’s where it starts to get confusing.
When you start secondary school at age 12 in the Netherlands, you enter one of three streams: VMBO, HAVO, or VWO. Each stream represents a different educational path. The path a student chooses to follow depends on their academic level and future hopes and dreams.
VMBO (Voorbereidend Middelbare Beroeps Onderwijs) meaning Preparatory Middle-level Applied Education, is a four year vocationally orientated stream focused on practical knowledge. It leads to vocational training (MBO) and is completed around the age of 16.
HAVO (Hoger Algemeen Voortgezet Onderwijs) meaning Higher General Continued Education is a five year middle stream that prepares students to study higher professional education at universities of applied sciences (hogescholen), where they can follow a bachelor’s degree in applied sciences (HBO). Havo students are around the age of 17 when they graduate the U.S. equivalent of ‘high school’.
VWO (Voorbereidend Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs) meaning Preparatory Scientific Education, is the highest stream and requires six years of schooling, usually completed around the age of 18. It is focused on theoretical knowledge and prepares a student to follow a bachelor’s degree at a research university.
Curriculum and Subjects
Because HAVO and VWO streams both lead to university-level schooling, the curricular are very similar. For this reason, Most Dutch high schools are either a HAVO/VWO school or a VMBO school. I will not being delving into the curriculum of VMBO, because I honestly know too little about it and it isn’t really relevant to what this post is actually about!
So, let’s continue.
In the lower years (i.e. years 1, 2 and 3), all HAVO and VWO students follow a general curriculum with subjects being Dutch, English, foreign language, mathematics, sciences, culture & arts, and social studies. In the upper years of the ‘middelbare’ school, you choose a ‘direction’ for your education. This will be one of the following ‘profielen’ (profiles):
science and technology
science and health
economics and society
culture and society
Based on the education profile chosen, you are required to follow certain specialisation subjects (such as physics, chemistry, and/or biology, geography, history, etc) along with the general subjects mentioned above.
During the final year of schooling (for HAVO this is the 5th year and for VWO the 6th), students must take and pass all their subjects through (school and central) exams. HAVO students do their final exam in 6 subjects while VWO students do this for 7 subjects. These exams usually happen in the gym of a school, so all the students taking the test can fit!
So What About Me?
Now that you (hopefully) know how the Dutch School System works, I can finally get to the part about me, haha!
I guess I’ll just start from the top (minus what I wrote in my last school blog post of course, because you already read that)!
September of 2018, I was going into 5VWO, or my second to last year of high school here in the Netherlands. I was already 18 at the time, due to missing lots of school. This was for several reasons, being the move from U.S. -> Holland, going to treatment, and simply just being too sick to concentrate on school (because no, it is simply not possible to focus on school when you’re struggling with an ED 24/7). Of course I was frustrated that I was 2 years older (almost 3, considering my birthday is in November), but tried to ignore the fact because there wasn’t really anything I could do about it at this point.
I felt motivated and ready. If my teachers asked me how I felt, if I thought I could ‘handle’ it, I told them (with 100% certainty) that I was going to work hard, kick ass, and slayyy. Unfortunately, reality hit me a bit too soon. I felt overwhelmed, stressed, and I was just drowning in pressure that I created for myself. I was struggling to finish my assignments, sleeping bad, and I was freaking tired all the damn time. This is also when I started bingeing every night for 3 months straight.
I knew something was wrong, and I couldn’t go on like this with school. My mentor (who is absolutely the sweetest human on Earth) knew too that this way of school wasn’t for me.
That’s when we started discussing our options. I had several meetings at school with my mentor and myself, but also many with my mom and the dean. Besides that, the school also had separate meetings to talk about what was legally possible, because we had to make sure a plan would work for me, but also my future! Some of the options were:
complete 5 and 6 VWO over the course of three years instead of two
going to HAVO
leaving the school and attending adult education
leaving the school and doing state exams (similar to GED)
From the beginning, I said that I was 100% NOT going to do HAVO. I knew, and my teachers knew, I was completely capable of VWO. I felt that if I went down a level it would mean I was no longer as smart or intelligent, and I wasn’t ‘challenging’ myself enough. Besides, I wanted to keep my options open. I wanted to have the OPPORTUNITY to do whatever job I would like later. I wanted to have all the choices still there. I didn’t want to attend adult education either, because the stereotype at these kind of schools is mostly high school drop-outs (or people that didn’t go to high school at all) that decided they actually do want some kind of diploma so they can get a certain job. I contemplated leaving the school to do state exams as well, but this meant I would REALLY be on my own without any external support.
The First Big Change
The only option left was, you guessed it: completing my last two years of VWO over the course of three years. Really, it ended up being more like doing 5VWO in two years, as I would do half of my subjects the first year and the other half the following year. Then in 6VWO I would take the central exam for all of my subjects. This plan was set up to give me space and time to work on school at a slower pace, which would take the pressure off and give me time to regain my confidence back. I was really happy with this plan. If you’ve been following me on instagram, you know that’s the truth. I believed this path of education would give me the time and space I needed to complete my school without excessive amounts of stress. And it definitely did! But there was one thing that made it frustrating: my schedule.
As one can imagine, a school schedule changes drastically when you take out half of your subjects! This resulted in huge gaps of time between classes, time that I needed to take a break and rest. At first, I would spend those gap hours working. This ultimately ruined the whole point of this new plan though! So instead of staying at school, I started going home in my gap periods. This, however, was also not sustainable because I live 25 minutes (by bike) away from school, which meant I was biking back and forth for almost 2 hours some days.
It was awfully tiresome, which hit a peak in January of 2019. Our school has a weekly schedule that has mandatory tests scheduled on Tuesday afternoon at the end of the school day. Any other tests can be done when the student prefers, thanks to the Montessori system (I am enrolled at a Montessori school which focuses on independence, so we can plan our other tests ourselves). Anyways, I had school all Tuesday and already felt exhausted after the long day. I knew I had the test still, and I was planning on taking it. But as I was waiting during the 20-minute bridge time between the end of school and the start of the test, I felt like I was going to collapse. I was so tired and knew that if I would go in and take the test, it would be useless because my brain felt like a complete ball of fog. I told my friends this, who told me I also looked extremely pale and recommended I go home immediately. So I went to the attendance office, said I was sick, and went home. I ate a snack then plopped onto bed and slept for literally five hours straight…
I didn’t go to school for the following two weeks. I was mentally and physically worn out, spending my days simply eating and sleeping. I knew I had to still do something about school though…but what?
It was time to re-asses the situation, because what I was doing was still not a sustainable way for me to finish my school. What I needed was a schedule that allowed for me to work on school while being able to take my rest and focus on my health at the same time. I immediately knew the solution for this: continuing school from home.
At first I was afraid this wouldn’t be ‘allowed’ or something like that, but fortunately for me and thanks to the law that you are not ‘required’ to go to school over the age of 18, this solution was a perfect one. My school is also beyond understanding and supportive, so they thought it would be good to do anything I felt would help me.
When I started doing school from home full-time (I only went to school for tests etc) I was over the moon. I remember writing below caption on this instagram post in February:
As you can tell from my tone, I was really happy! But note my word choice: was. In May of this year, I started thinking about it all again. The whole 5th-year-in-2-years and then 6th-year-in-one-year plan was totally unrealistic in my mind. I was already feeling stressed and overwhelmed with 5VWO and I’m even spreading it out in two years! It would be unrealistic to think that then suddenly doing 6VWO all at once (plus the stress of final exams!) would be reasonable for me. That meant I would also have to do 6VWO in 2 years, and would finally graduate high school at the age of 23. Yeah, I didn’t really want that :/
The Last Change
So I reached out to my mentor again. I told her that I had been thinking about the whole plan and that I felt it would be better to take an educational path that was just going to be a bit more ~low key~. To be honest, it took my several days, if not a whole week, to find the courage to write that message. The school had already been so flexible and supportive in finding prior solutions for me, I just couldn’t believe myself in that I wanted to change something AGAIN.
Lucky for me, I have the most amazing mom EVER! She reassured me that I didn’t have to feel bad, guilty, or like I was being a burden at all. She reminded me that my school is there for ME, not the other way around. She reminded me that a school is there to help students be successful; to help students go into the world with confidence and knowledge. It would be silly if I didn’t speak up for myself simply because I was afraid of ‘hurting the school’s feelings’. Am I right or am I right?
So I sent the message. And per usual, I received a kind, understanding, and supportive message. My mentor uttered that she was proud of me for speaking up and communicating that this plan wasn’t working for me. So we had some more meetings at school, and the school had some more meetings about me. We laid all my options on the table. I had a big decision to make.
Choosing what’s best for your HEALTH does not make you stupid, selfish, or less-worthy
Between leaving school, doing adult education, taking state exams, stepping down to HAVO, or continuing VWO anyways, there was a lot of contemplation. I’m going to spare you all of that because this post is already long enough, but I do want to give you some advice based off of my personal experience and what I’ve learned.
Health comes first—always. If you’re not healthy (that can be physical or mental or both) you can’t unlock your full potential. So I stopped pretending like I was ‘fine’ and made a choice for my own personal sanity.
I chose to step down to HAVO. Almost a year later, I chose the option that I had completely wiped off the table in the initial meeting at school. I was so afraid of being judged by my fellow (now past) VWO classmates as ‘incapable’ or ‘not smart enough’ because I was no longer going to be doing the ‘highest’ level of schooling. Until I realized the only person judging me was myself. I thought I was now stupid. I thought I wasn’t smart enough. I thought I was now throwing away my opportunity at being one of the best. But again, that was all me.
Sure, other people are going to think things—they always do. Just like not everyone is going to like you. But at the end of the day, the only person you’re accountable to is YOURSELF. And I didn’t want to spend my days drowned in misery and stress anymore. I didn’t want to feel like this school path was never-ending. I just want to get it over with and MOVE ON with building an amazing life for myself! Because I truly am so capable. It’s unfortunate that I got an eating disorder, but my illness influenced the paving of different path for me. My eating disorder coming into my life brought me down in many ways, but made me stronger in many MORE. The level at which you complete your school is ZERO indication of how smart you are, how capable you are, or how worthy you are as a person. YOU decide all that.
So I’m choosing to complete my high school at HAVO level right now. All of my teachers talked and decided whether I could immediately go into my final year or if I still needed two more years at this level, and the conclusion was different for different subjects. Because I only focused on half of my subjects in 5VWO, these being English, French, Mathematics, these were the subjects my teachers had confidence in that I could go to 5HAVO for and round off this year. So I’m taking my final exams upcoming May for those three subjects. For my remaining three (I got to drop physics, yay!) being Chemistry, Biology, and Dutch, I’m still in 4 HAVO and will be doing my final exams next year.
It’s going to be hard work and it’s going to take time, but I’m nourishing myself and resting, meaning it can only get better from here! I hope you enjoyed reading this more personal post and I’d love to hear what you think—let me know in the comments, send me a DM on instagram, or submit a message through my contact form!