Humans of EUROCLIO: Huub Oattes


Huub Oattes
EUROCLIO Affiliate 1995-Present

“EUROCLIO got me flying again.”

Huub Oattes (1955) was a Board member (Communications Officer, Vice-President) between 2005-2010. His involvement with EUROCLIO started as early as the mid 1990s through attending and participating in Annual Conferences (in Prague, Bologna, Cardiff, Riga, Malta, Nijmegen, and Erfurt) and participating in teacher training courses (in Doorn, Coleraine, and Oslo). Inspired by the EUROCLIO meetings he became a proponent of the international dimension of student education (Comenius Projects, EUROCLIO cartoon webinars) in both secondary and tertiary education. Huub is currently working as a teacher trainer and lecturer in history education at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. He is also a PhD-student researching the role of the history teacher in Dutch bilingual schools.

Q: How did you first get involved with EUROCLIO?

I was a secondary school history teacher and, as such, I first heard the name “EUROCLIO” one day in the late 90s. The thing that attracted me to EUROCLIO was that it was an international organization. In 1995 I did a postgraduate study in Amsterdam about Holocaust education, and during this year I also went to London for a conference, where I first encountered EUROCLIO. A year later I did a teacher trainer course in Ireland. I very much enjoyed the idea that we, as teachers together in Europe, are related and have the same goals and purposes. So that experience is when I first got attached to the organization, and I attended a EUROCLIO activity each year thereafter.

Q: Do you have a first or favorite memory of working with EUROCLIO?

This may be a silly anecdote, but EUROCLIO got me flying again. Several years ago, I was quite afraid of getting on a plane. I went to all of the conferences by car, so it took me much longer than other attendees to get to all of the places. However, I did enjoy driving around so many places at that time! But then at one point, EUROCLIO was going to meet in Malta. I obviously could not get there by car! So, in the end, because I wanted to stay involved and attached to the organization, I realized I had to get over my fear. I took a course and did many exercises, and nowadays, I can fly without issue.

Most of the conferences were really excellent, so finding one memory that stands out above the rest is quite difficult. It comes down to a personal preference, and for me, going to countries where I’d never traveled before and meeting new people was very exciting. My first trip to eastern Europe was in 2005 to Latvia, and I remember being so impressed by my colleagues there and the difficult circumstances under which they taught. The educators truly had very poor working conditions. I even felt a bit ashamed that in western Europe, teaching seemed carefree, and it wasn’t politicized as it is nowadays. The teachers in Latvia worked under difficult circumstances, where interest groups were pressuring them, and this pressure was something that we did not experience in the Netherlands.

Every time we went to a different country, the association there would organize it, and all of the organizers made huge efforts to make us feel comfortable. The organizers, proud of their country, would take us around and showed us parts of their cultural heritage. For me, it was very educational to be able to travel around and to see schools and circumstances very different from my own.

Q: You’ve participated in so many international training courses and conferences: annual Conferences (in Prague, Bologna, Cardiff, Riga, Malta, Nijmegen, and Erfurt) and teacher training courses (in Doorn, Coleraine, and Oslo). Do you have any specific memories or impressions that stand out from these experiences?

Each year, the week of the annual conference hosted by EUROCLIO is packed with meeting people and talking to colleagues. The conferences are also so multifaceted and dynamic; we would experience the intellectual part of the conference from scholars, we would attend workshops to get new ideas to use in our own teaching practices, and then we would have school visits where we would see the differences between schools in our own countries and the host country. At all different levels, there was so much input. I also should mention that there exists the official conference time, but then there is also “off-the-record” time spent with colleagues, during meals and at the pub, for example. Time spent talking with colleagues could reach up to 20 hours a day sometimes! Through these talks and meetings, friendships were born.

As a result of me being enthusiastic about the meetings, I thought that my students would also love this idea to work together with international colleagues, so I did stay in touch with those that I met at the conferences. Sometimes we even managed to set up a digital project or an exchange where we would actually meet each other! It inspired me and my students as well to have this kind of international contact.

Q: What is the role of EUROCLIO today? In the future? How will it develop?

I believe that new projects are needed to develop more contacts and additional areas of interest, but I think that another necessary component are regular, sustainable projects that will come back every year. In other words, I think that one part of EUROCLIO’s program should be fixed for a couple of years and that there should be another department finding new frontiers.

During the last couple of years, we worked on digital side of things as well, so that we could interact with colleagues and students from around Europe. I think it is important for EUROCLIO to be active in the digital world, making sure that people can attend webinars and digital seminars a couple of times a year. EUROCLIO has worked with eTwinning in the past, an organization that facilitates, through digital means, collaboration and connection between European schools. This cooperation with other institutes and organizations is important for EUROCLIO as an organization. Historiana is also a very interesting digital product that deserves further attention and effort.

Q: In your career with EUROCLIO what has been your greatest challenge? How did you overcome it?

In 2006, EUROCLIO was quite close to the edge, and financially, more money was going out than coming in. It looked like it would be the end of EUROCLIO as an organization. It was a tough time, but then we, as a newly elected board decided that we did not want to quit on the organization we believed in, and we wanted to put all our efforts into keeping it alive. Luckily, people were very supportive, and many came to Malta in 2006 to help. At that time, I vividly remember that the secretariat had largely resolved, so as board members, we were stuck in a basement trying to do all of the work that the secretariat does! I also remember that because finances were a bit off at the time, I was traveling with 20,000 euros in my pocket throughout the Netherlands! I kind of felt a bit funny about that.

However, 2006 passed by, and we survived and new projects came in. It was definitely a tough fight and emotional period with high tensions.

Today, the secretariat is alive thanks to the worldwide projects that EUROCLIO manages to get involved in. Accompanying the projects is funding, and if that money is managed well, then it is possible for EUROCLIO to sustain itself. Back in the early days of the organization, all the money was geared toward projects, and funding for the secretariat was secondary.  That was kind of like a poker game: was it possible to get enough money to fund projects AND the secretariat? Now, thankfully, I think that people have enough experience to realize that if quality projects are desired, secretariat funding is absolutely necessary. And of course volunteers are also quite important to the organization!

Q: Within EUROCLIO and outside of EUROCLIO, who has influenced you the most professionally and/or personally?

Well of course I have to say my mother! But within EUROCLIO, different individuals influenced me when I was working at different levels. In 2005, I managed to squeeze myself onto the board of EUROCLIO, which I was lucky enough to be a part of for five years. I was closer to the fire, and happily for me, I was able to pull a few strings and have some influence on the activities we organized. I also became extremely close to the other board members, especially during the 2006 period when the organization was struggling. We would talk to each other a few times a year in person, but we really became friends through a lot of Skype and telephone meetings. This getting to know the thoughts and ideas of my colleagues was really important for me.

My fellow board members and I were teachers, but as board members we were also organizers, and we had to always consider the secretariat. It was very interesting for me to see how EUROCLIO worked and to get insights into running a business. Sometimes there was even a bit of competition amongst the board members! For instance, Joke is a powerhouse; she did not always agree with the things we wanted, because whereas we could think more in ideals, she had an office and projects to run, and she was grounded. Of course, if you say EUROCLIO, you would also have to say Joke, because her focus on EUROCLIO and her determination to make it succeed was quite impressive. I think other people would have said, “it’s too much,” but she never let go. She deserves much credit for that! So even though sometimes there were opposing forces, these competing ideas gave EUROCLIO a special dynamic, and in the end we all appreciated each other.

Q: How has your perspective on history education changed since you began working with EUROCLIO?

The first thing that comes to mind is that I have gained this international perspective by listening to others’ stories. Through EUROCLIO, the idea of multiperspectivity became reality. At the week-long conferences, ubiquitous multiperspectivity would lead to new and valuable discussions and insights. I would think, “Oh, I haven’t looked at it from that point of view,” and then I would take that perspective back home and integrate it into my own teaching. One specific project, which looked at remembrance during the World War I, exemplified this multiperspectivity for me. We heard the familiar English, French, and Dutch stories of the war, but we also heard from teachers in Bulgaria and Greece, for example, and their perspectives were quite eye-opening. Now, as a teacher trainer, we have discussed and compared, in my own classroom, EUROCLIO’s set of ideas as to what teaching should be like to the Dutch curriculum. And from this exercise, I can safely say that multiperspectivity is definitely invaluable, and it has become an integral part of my own teaching.

Additionally, I have recognized that international cooperation, not just through books or texts but through actually working with the other, is quite powerful. The image of the other is significant, but there is nothing as striking as working with this “other,” listening to them, and being able to discuss with them; nowadays all of these things are possible.

Q: For those interested, could you tell us any more about your PHD work in Dutch bilingual schools?

Because of my interest in international relations and international education, the idea to look at international education and bilingual schools stemmed from my being a history teacher; the main question I am trying to answer is, “what does it mean for a history teacher to teach in a different language?” At Dutch bilingual schools, half of the subjects are taught in Dutch and half are taught in English. We only use English in history education, so this dynamic is a bit odd because the teacher in the classroom is usually a Dutchman.

I’ve seen high quality Dutch teachers who have learned to teach in Dutch, and so when they try to transition to teaching students in English, it is a bit unnatural. In addition, the Dutch teacher knows a lot of vocabulary, but not everything. If you can teach in your native language you can use cultural references, play word games, and relay details, but if you have to teach in a different language, it is much more complicated due to more limited language skills. So, how can you get the same message across with a limited vocabulary? Even though the students are very bright and motivated, this does provide unique challenges, because inevitably, the quality of a Dutchman’s history lessons taught in English is slightly less than history lessons taught in Dutch.

It is clear to me from my observations that teachers are really doing a good job, and I’m not quite sure but the end result of my study will be. Perhaps I hope to determine compensatory measures used by teachers; if you cannot use all the words that you would like to use, you have to add something, like more illustrations or gestures.