Articles| A Slightly Different Elementary School

A Slightly Different Elementary School

4. July 2012 - Týdeník Květy Members of the teaching staff help each other as a matter of course. Teachers go to classes for a collegial sitting in, and have nothing against being “trained” by a pedagogy consultant! They are under a microscope. They are not afraid of self-learning; they do not reject it, and bear criticism bravely. They also devote their leisure time to preparations and their profession; they simply accept extra work willingly and on their own. They worked with the kids until the last ring of the school bell, before the holidays started...

Class 3A is about to begin its Elementary Knowledge class at the Mendel Elementary School in Karviná. Two teachers - the ‘regular’ teacher and an assistant - open the class by acting out an introduction: they read out a fictitious e-mail letter received from the Czech Space Research Institute. Sitting riveted to their chairs, the kids are intently listening to what the scientists ask of them. “You are now becoming the crew of a satellite travelling into space.” When? Tension amongst the kids is culminating, 22 pairs of eyes are watching a video recording of a satellite launch …

“Space is the topic that accompanies these little students in all their classes this week, and so we have opted for this introduction,” explains the ‘regular’ teacher, Hana Lipková, and starts the class in a winning and entertaining manner. The kids have fun when they learn in tandem, i.e., “learning in pairs”. One teacher actively communicates with them while the other is preparing her own intro or helping the kids with their task. And vice versa.

The principal is here? And so what?
The kids don’t mind having two women teach them while the school’s principal and other teachers are sitting in little chairs in the back row and watching the class. Both the children and the teachers have grown accustomed to this. This Karviná elementary school is one of the two pilot schools in the Helping Schools Succeed project. What is it? The Kellner Family Foundation’s idea and scheme directed towards elevating the standard of Czech public elementary schools. The aim is to improve teaching, educate teachers and school principals, develop an individualized approach to students, and create a kind atmosphere in schools, as well as pull in the parents some more so that they are actively interested in their children’s studies. Seemingly simple, but…

“At the first sight, we look like madmen who have willingly piled more work on their own shoulders and made a rod to beat their own backs with, don’t we? It’s not so; it’s something that requires effort and time, but, above all, teachers’ dynamism and appetite to improve - and this has always been here, and strong. They are motivated, they want to teach children how to learn as best as possible - which is another objective of the project - they simply don’t regard their profession as devoid of space for progress. This was decisive; this is our basis for signing up for the project,” says the principal, Bohumil Zmrzlík, whose subordinates are all women. Beware - enthusiastic women rather than burnt-out pedagogues.

But this school’s entry into The Kellner Family Foundation’s project in 2010 did not depend on the school only; a commission made the decision. The commission gave the Karviná school thumbs up for its courage, continuous activity, accessibility, good facilities, etc. For five years, the Foundation will provide selected schools with financial support for teaching assistants, school psychologists, and seminars for teachers, and teaching aids and equipment… On the other hand, the school must press ahead all the time; stagnation means the end of support. And there are ways and means of finding out!

When the “Ol’ Teach” is learning too...
These third-grade students are jotting down what pops into their heads when they hear the word ‘space’. Regular teacher Hanka asks them to say what they have dreamt up, and her colleague Pavla is typing the verbal expressions into a computer that transmits everything to a screen so that the kids see their schoolmates’ ideas.

“The public education system is still in dire straits; there’s no money for textbooks or teaching aids, not to talks about teachers’ salaries, and so I regard this help as highly positive and extremely laudable,” opines the principal, who is now receiving more applications for jobs at the school and more applications from students for enrolment at this school, thanks to the school’s participation in the project and its direction towards a more modern style of teaching.

An interesting aspect is that the teachers there are not afraid to share their know-how with one another. “Teachers’ willingness to inspire each other is a success factor in this project. That they share what has proved its worth in class, what they agreed with. We’ve agreed that we’ll start to sit in on one another’s class. Initially, people may have felt their stomachs churning [with fright], but it stopped soon, because the outcomes didn’t degrade anyone, they didn’t cause any personal persecution, weren’t reported in a mean tone to the school’s management, etc. It is mutual support rather than mutual threatening,” says Leona Mechúrová, a teacher at this school who provides professional support to her colleagues and works as the so-called internal mentor under the project. She exudes natural authority. “What has brought us and the kids closer to each other is the fact that they saw how we too were learning something new, how we apply new procedures, which they in fact enjoy more. This has a positive effect on them,” she adds.

Parents sitting tight
Most of the parents take longer to start showing interest in the school’s project, and some of them have not even noticed it and regard the above-standard aspects as something normal. After all, this school has always been sought after. For many the main point is that their child simply goes to this very school. The school’s management can handle these attitudes. This is reality!

Broader surroundings - various authorities, competitors? “This definitely doesn’t mean that our school should be regarded as not needing anything from its founder just because of its status of a ‘project school’ of The Kellner Family Foundation. The project doesn’t pay for furniture in classrooms and locker rooms, … Our good luck is that prior to joining the project, the school had been refurbished thanks to the town hall’s contribution, and a gym and a floor with language classrooms had been built, and so it entered into the project as a school with modern facilities. And now, it is the turn of our colleagues in other Karviná schools to make major investments in renovations,” notes Bohumil Zmrzlík.

The third-grade students, sitting in the pairs they had set up themselves, are reading out to each other the tasks they have fulfilled. One of them reads aloud his notes on his imaginations of a new planet, on which, according to him, gatherers live. Chestnuts are their staple, and they greet each other by banging their heads. The regular teacher listens, while the assistant prepares additional questions and worksheets.

They won’t be at loggerheads!
The two teachers’ preparation for one class is not easy. “It depends on who of us is the first to come up with an idea. Then we sit down, get some coffee, and discuss everything regardless of which one of us has the inspiration,” Pavla Kucharczyková, a pair teacher, explains with a smile. A more experienced Hana Lipková adds: “A lot of our communication is via e-mail and over the phone. Since we’re personally close to each other, we also have no inhibitions saying something the other does not like. No walking on eggshells! I work with Pavla as the pair teacher six hours a week, mainly in Elementary Knowledge, Czech Language, and Mathematics. I want her to be able to focus on individualization, i.e., take care of the lagging and, on the other hand, more gifted students.” Although Pavla is described as a pair teacher, she does not feel inferior at all.

Ringing! Stop, the class ends - well, perhaps for the third-grade students; but the two teachers go to … well, let’s call it a special debate. There, their “eyeing” commission debriefs them. Why had they prepared this the way they had? Why did they place the main emphasis on this, that or the other? And words of praise also come. Each of the participants voices their opinion, thereby helping the other side. And, last but not least, helping the Mendel school students. That’s really moving, isn’t it?

“Unlocking of the internal resources, the fact that people feel that it’s only up to them whether or not the school will succeed - all this can be regarded as a challenge, but also as a risk. We tend to be inclined towards the challenge,” concludes the principal of this unusual school.

***

PUBLIC SCHOOLS with The Kellner Family Foundation
The Helping Schools Succeed project supports the quality of teaching: Praha 4-Kunratice Elementary School and Mendelova Elementary School in Karviná. Another 12 public elementary schools are to join. Unique tools for teachers of all elementary schools are being created. For more information visit: www.mendelova.cz
www.zskunratice.cz
www.pomahameskolam.cz

Five features of the project 
PAIR TEACHING. Two teachers in a class. One of them is usually a recent graduate from a teacher’s college and perhaps cannot find an independent job. Here, she will acquire practical knowledge while the kids are offered an additional method of teaching. “This is the way students might acquire professional experience in their college internship. For the benefit of both sides,” the principal mentions the advantages.
PARENTS’ CAFES. Parents and the school get to know each other better through quite periodical informal meetings in the school; for example, in the garden over coffee! They all meet and mingle, and also build a relationship with their children’s educational institution, learn about how it works, etc. This also helps them become more engaged in everything the school does.
SUPPORT FOR TALENTS. The rather different style of teaching can keep more gifted students’ attention while not discouraging those who are not as strong in the particular subject. Space will be given to thoughtful children and also to those who are weaker at that moment, without one holding back the other. This is enabled by, for example, the ‘teacher plus assistant’ style of teaching.
TEACHERS’ CONTINUED PROFESSIONAL LEARNING. The project offers them training courses and seminars, language courses, access to the latest teaching methods, foreign methodology manuals, etc. The teachers create their professional goals and plans every year. No limits are imposed on teachers’ ideas.
OPEN - SHARED - CLASSES ARE TAUGHT. A teacher who starts with something interesting in her class, has prepared an original presentation, employs new methods, etc. invites colleagues to a “visitation” in the class, and then they analyze everything together. Without any envy.

(Author: Michaela Šmerglová, excerpt from the text)

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