Aletta Wiersma

‘Teaching is also a little like theatre’

04/25/2024 - 15:02

After almost 35 years of travelling between Utrecht and Breda and mucho más (and much more), she may soon call herself a retired lecturer. Read the full interview here.
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Did you do Hotel Management? Or Kort-hbo at NHTV? Did you opt for Spanish or did a placement in Spain? Then she is no stranger to you: Aletta Wietsma. After almost 35 years of travelling between Utrecht and Breda and mucho más (and much more), she may soon call herself a retired lecturer.

How do graduates remember you, do you think? I mean, what is typical ‘Aletta’ in class?

‘I once started as a substitute lecturer at Tourism. My first batch of students probably still see me walking around with this heavy ghetto blaster that I used in Spanish classes to train their listening skills. From this oversized tape recorder came the sound of an Englishman’s voice – oddly enough. The students had to repeat his Spanish phrases endlessly. So that was typically not Aletta!’ (laughs) 

‘When I started teaching at Kort-hbo on the Boeimeersingel in Breda back in 1990, I was fortunately given all the freedom I needed to develop my own lessons.’

And what did you start doing differently?

‘Together with a new colleague, Dick van der Wal, also a Spanish lecturer, I made new teaching materials and they did not stop at a syllabus. We were quite ambitious. We travelled to Barcelona and Madrid and talked to young people on the street. We would ask, for instance, whether they were studying and whether they still lived at home with their parents or not. We always looked for themes that appeal to students. Can I ask you something, I just said, and Spaniards always like that. We made videos of them and used those videotapes in lessons. You learn the most from native speakers anyway.’ 

In 2001 you started at Hotel Management, right from the first intake, I gather?

‘True, I taught quite a lot at the time. Spanish was included in the curriculum as a compulsory subject. Understandably so, as it is a world language, but for many students it turned out to be a stumbling block. We later dropped this requirement. If you want to choose Spanish now, you first take an introductory course that lasts four weeks and that you finish with a test. It is certainly not easy and there are students who ultimately opt not to pursue it after all.’

Is it a difficult language to learn?

‘Not necessarily, but it takes some effort. And I didn’t make it easy for students either, I believe, but you should ask graduates. They probably recognise it. I do think they learnt a lot, but I was quite strict. Now I am much more lenient.’ 

How come?

‘Maybe it’s an age thing?’ (laughs) ‘I don’t know. I obviously thought writing and grammar were very important. I took a lot of tests and then went through them with my red pen. I don’t do that anymore. Anyway, I only take oral exams now. After all, the objective is for students to learn to communicate in Spanish effectively. It’s all about getting the message across clearly. And even if you accidentally say ‘getting the message across clear’, it still comes across.’

And writing they do learn with AI? 

‘Quite honestly, I don’t notice much of it. Of course, that’s because I train students mainly in oral communication. But I understand that students use AI tools and it can also be really handy if you just need a quick translation.’

But what is your take on it, as a language lecturer?

‘Teaching languages is actually nonsense, someone told me recently when we were having dinner together in Spain. To prove his point, he swiftly typed in – in some app and in Spanish – that he was having a very pleasant meal with me, and it was translated to excellent Dutch at lightning speed. In short, it works. But I prefer personal communication and that only works if you really learn to speak a language and you don’t have to keep reaching for your phone to look something up. So yes, there’s a case for continuing traditional teaching. After all, language lessons always convey a piece of culture, too.’ 

But you will not continue teaching, as you are retiring on 31 August. How does that make you feel? 

‘I already know I’m going to miss it. Our students here are very communicative, and an absolute delight. I’m just thinking now about the tapas sessions I organise with students, where our colleagues from Sibelicious put in tremendous effort. Every time they create delicious dishes. That feels so good. That strong bond with both students and colleagues has definitely contributed to me lasting so long here.’

That’s what I was about to ask. What made you stay this long? Did it never get boring?

‘Well, not that, anyway. I’ve witnessed plenty of curriculum changes!’ (laughs) ‘I also did a lot more than just teaching. I supervised students on placement, for example. In Mallorca, in Barcelona. And later mostly in Valencia, Seville and Madrid. Those contacts along with the cooperation with our industry partners added an extra layer of enjoyment to my job. And I always felt I could contribute something valuable. When you speak the language well, maintaining relationships becomes truly meaningful.’ 

What will you never forget?

‘Queen Beatrix’s visit to our hotel school in 2008! The Sibeliuslaan location, where the Hotel & Facility programmes were housed at the time, had been completely renovated and the Queen came to officially open the revamped building. Together with colleague Geoff Marée, I presented the show and afterwards we were allowed to converse with the Queen. That was really special. Furthermore, I find every Graduation Ceremony unforgettable. With the graduates on the catwalk and the whole team there; I will certainly miss that!’

What else are you going to miss?

‘The Personal Onions! That’s what we’ve been calling our staff outing for years. It was once in a report by a student who had it translated by Google Translate or something. In that respect, those translation machines have gotten a lot better. Anyway, I’m going to miss travelling. Once, our entire team flew to Carcassonne to spend two days there. It’s hard to imagine that now. Many former students will also fondly remember the study trips to Salamanca and the wine trips. Just ask about that in your Alumni Newsletter!’ 

Noted, comments welcome! And what are you going to do next? 

‘Travelling, that is. I regularly go to Spain, but I also really want to go to Mexico. I also like culture very much. I sing, I like going to museums and also to the theatre. I chose to study Spanish because I find it such a beautiful language, but my plan was actually to pursue Theatre Studies after that.’

And that plan stayed in the wings?

Teaching is also a little like theatre, right? Only now the curtain is really falling.’ 

Interview: Maaike Dukker - 't Hart