It was on a windy, grey morning when I saw the light. I had dragged myself out of bed, not ready for another day of paper-pushing at the ministry. Fortunately, my boss allowed me to do a guest lecture at the Free University (VU) of Amsterdam. The topic? Dutch governmental policy regarding fragile states. So, I expected questions on the ‘what’: what we do as government, what are our policy goals, what we will do to help prevent further conflict, etc. Check: I brought all the facts and figures students needed.

But I was mistaken. The young generation in front of me was interested in the ‘why’. Why is our government investing in these places and why do we focus on country X and not Y? But above all, why are you, Marije Balt, doing this job? Right at the moment when I was having some doubts… Yes, I loved my job as a diplomat representing my country abroad, but I did not like being back at headquarters, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with 1.600 staff stuffed together in a tall, concrete building, called the “monkey rock”.

Societal impact is what I wanted to achieve, as I had done when working at the Dutch Embassy in Kenya. The changemakers we invested in were still making a difference. But somehow I could not make such impact from where I sat…at the monkey rock. I was yearning for exchange and dialogue with young people, and – who knows – potential changemakers? Still honestly, I was not ready for the ‘why’ question in that classroom at the VU.

The struggle must have been visible – I just did not know what to say. I thought: “If I am frank, would that not cost my reputation and status, my whole 12-year career?” I held back my thoughts and gave the diplomatic answer, which I was trained to do in – famously known in Dutch as – ‘het klasje’. Even so, in a private chat with a student I heard myself say: “No, I want to make a difference now and there is no time to lose!” I left the building utterly confused. Who was that just talking through my voice? Was it me or some alter ego? The wind was blowing through my hair, it lifted me up and I started walking as if on clouds. It wás myself talking.

A year later I had quit my diplomatic career and was teaching once a week to pass on my knowledge. This was part of SpringFactor – to invest in the young generation – my organisation’s mission. For myself, teaching International Relations courses came to serve as a platform: to demonstrate my knowledge and plead for what I believed in. My students were silent as nuns. I tried harder and provoked them to talk. One day, this triggered a young war veteran, who spun out of control as his past trauma suddenly came out. The rest of the class sat and watched as my well-intentioned efforts ended up in drama. “Teaching holds a mirror to the soul”, Parker J. Palmer said in his book ‘The Courage to Teach’. I saw that to transform into an actual teacher, one has to rise to the occasion and serve the learning of the students in the room.

A couple of years later, another young veteran sat in class. Alarm bells went off in my head: he was defending the American interventions in the Middle East, and pleading for the right to carry a gun in the Netherlands. We had several stand-offs in class. I regarded him as the ‘Student from Hell’, literally. He had tattoos all over his body and swore every second sentence. But his struggle turned out to be a life lesson – the opening of his mind forced me to do the same. Was I willing to hear him, or even learn from him? Sometimes the only way to get out of trouble is to get deeper in. Although I came a long way in life by masking my anxieties, I cannot fake interest. And our interests matched, during the Politics of Peace course. Together, we designed a simulation, set in a conflict zone, in which I learned from him how the military usually behaves. Students who learn are the finest fruit of teachers who teach, but foremost: teaching made this teacher grow and (yes) be humbled.

One of the purposes of World Teachers Day (5 October) is ‘to enhance instructors of the world’. Over these seven years, I went to fascinating places and worked with many young changemakers, from Somaliland to Mali. But it was teaching that brought me to genuinely connect with this ‘Generation Z’. It engages my soul more than any other work. I share with students whatever I have learned in life. I source from a wide range of knowledge, experience and real-life stories on diplomacy and making the world a better place. But just like Palmer, every time I walk into a new class, it is as if I am starting all over again.

Marije Balt

Owner, SpringFactor research consultancy

Lecturer, International Relations

(blog at the occassion of World Teachers’ Day 2019)