Face to face: Tsjipke Okkema “Children in special education are so incredibly grateful”

“There are usually visitors behind here”, says Tsjipke Okkema with a laugh, as we have just rang the bell by the front door. In the wake, his sons Hidde and Jildert, who are a bit ‘primitive’ that two ladies from the newspaper come by, a journalist and a photographer. They run one after the other through the garden, through the living room and back through the garden via the utility room. It’s a happy scene, two of the blond men bubbling with energy. Youngest son Hidde wants to show his skills on the slide; he immediately jumps off and lands wrongly on his foot. Sobbing, he goes to his father, who calmly comforts him. Chipke’s wife Esther eventually calls the brothers inside, where they join their ten-month-old sister Jeldau. “So,” says Tsjipke, “it’s a bit easier to talk about”, and he sits down a bit.

foster home

“I was born in Harlingen but lived in Easterein until I was 25,” he says. “I grew up with an older sister and two younger sisters. My mother was in education and it seemed like something to me too. After the mavo in Wommels (Bogerman College, ed.), I did CIOS in Heerenveen. I did a number of internships, including at the Piet Bakker School in Sneek, special education. Still, I didn’t want to work with the CIOS training; it wasn’t for me. That’s why I went to teacher training college; For this education, I also had to do internships at various schools. And it was great fun! There was a lot of work with education – just like now – and I could work anywhere as a stand-in. I especially liked the longer periods, because then I had a little more certainty, and I also got to know the children and the other teachers better. In addition to my work as a teacher in schools, I was also three days a week at Zorgboerderij in Tzum aan de Slachtedyk. Here I supervised young people who were between the shore and the ship, one by one. They worked a lot with their hands and, among other things, looked after the animals. It was a great time and I really liked the combination of working in schools and the care home.”

Double function

Tsjipke met Esther in the meantime and together they had sons Jildert and Hidde and daughter Jeldau. They exchanged their jointly rented house in Wommels for their current owner-occupied house in De Homeie. “And then the director of the primary school in Wommels asked if I wanted to become a teacher in my own village,” explains Tsjipke. “I would like to, but with the caveat that if my eldest son went to primary school, I would stop working there. I didn’t want to be a dual role, master and parent. I enjoyed my work there for three years, usually in the eighth grade.

At the end of the third school year, Piet Bakkerskolen in Sneek came my way. I was able to become a teacher there for the group of students aged four to twelve. I thought it was exciting but took the plunge. I find the target group of very difficult learning children with various problems very interesting. Our students have mild to severe disabilities and I find it fascinating when and why they exhibit challenging behaviors. In the ‘normal’ primary schools where I worked, there was almost no time for children who needed a little more attention. What do you want with a class of thirty students!”

Tailored training

Tsjipke has now completed two full school years and is very enthusiastic about his work. “I started in the corona era, it was quite difficult. The work was completely different from what I was used to. Kids would run away sometimes, I really had to build a relationship with them. It was sometimes chaotic in the beginning. Then I thought: ‘Help!’ But gradually the contact with my group of eight students (aged eleven and twelve, ed.) got better and better. Pupils can stay at our school until they are eighteen. It is a small school and a safe haven for them. We work with small groups, I have eleven children in my group and I work with a teaching assistant. Sometimes an intern is also added. We offer tailor-made training. That is to say: within my group of eleven students there are about three or four clusters, students who work at the same level. Each cluster has its own goals; it is up to me to figure out how we are going to achieve these goals. This gives me a lot of freedom. Within the ‘ordinary’ primary schools there are fixed courses that leave no room for deviating from them.”


“I usually start the lesson with some brief instructions,” continues Tsjipke. “Suppose we have the subject ‘calculation’. Then we play games that have to do with arithmetic, it’s really playful. ‘Language’ works the same way. We work a lot with images and icons. Sign language is also a supportive method, we use everything. The senior pupils orientate themselves in different areas, for example working in the garden or cooking. As long as they are very busy with their hands. Variety is very important. And they must be able to move freely; the energy must go out. In addition, structure, calmness and regularity are the motto. Holidays are therefore not always fun for some children; then they are out of their normal rhythm. Children in special education are so incredibly grateful. They are actually always happy and come to school with a smile. I think that’s fantastic to see, and that’s why this job suits me really well. The children are unique; they are looking for boundaries and it is up to me to set them. It ensures that I also have to stay on track.”

Train together

In addition to his work, Tsjipke can also be found on his racing bike or on the football pitch. He started as a boy in the football club SDS in Easterein and played in the first team until about five years ago. “But it is difficult to combine football and a busy family with three small children,” he says. “I have also been a youth coach, and I want to support the head coach in the first team. I also want to help with the team that my oldest son will be playing on soon. He is very excited about that and so am I. But I only play one match on Saturdays with my football friends’ team. Some have stayed in the area, like myself, and there are some who flew out but still came back. It’s always nice and cozy to train together and then sit back and relax.”

Keep learning

Tsjipke is happy and satisfied with his life, and that’s good at first. But of course there are dreams: “There are still so many fun things to do in the field of education. For example, teaching at a practical school, or guiding young people in a smaller way. But that’s really for later. I will continue to learn, and for now I am not done learning in my current position.”

Image: Laura Keizer

Text: Amanda de Vries

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