Neither a partner nor an ‘Igor Hnízdo’

They have been “dancing” between the teacher’s desk and the blackboard for about a quarter of a century. And according to first-level teacher and deputy principal Jitka Palanová and instructional coach Jana Štybnarová from the Zdice Elementary School, quite a lot has changed in Czech classrooms over that time. How has teaching adjusted to an era when almost any first year schoolchild can find anything on the Internet within seconds? How do today’s pupils differ from those twenty-five years ago?

Complaining about the “spoilt youth of today” is an evergreen in debates.

Is the deteriorating discipline of children really so alarming?
Jitka Palanová: I definitely don’t think that children were better-mannered in the past. I went to a school on a big housing estate; my class was 1.F and I remember well how wild we could be. We had five pupils who failed in our class and things reflected this. Teachers wrote comments for our parents, as is the case with schoolchildren these days.

So teachers’ comments are not obsolete… How do today’s pupils earn them?
Jitka: We have a list of rules posted on the door in every classroom, which the children themselves have laid down in order to feel good at school. These rules must be followed. When the situation becomes intolerable, we will not hesitate to write a comment.
Jana Štybnarová: The new thing is that the class discusses how the situation should be addressed after every such incident. We are trying to build a sense of responsibility in children this way. They naturally keep testing the limits by breaking the rules. Everyone can express their views on the problem, which improves the atmosphere in the classroom.

The online generation is sitting in your classroom now. Easily accessible information is everywhere. How does this show at school?
Jitka: In certain areas, children are more knowledgeable than teachers. The teacher’s role in the classroom has changed as a result. The teacher no longer claims to know everything and becomes more of a guide instead. The teacher has to create a lesson that will really give something to the children and make sense. And that’s really quite difficult. Teaching is not like ‘I say this is the way it is and that’s it’. During this period in their lives, children are like sponges and want to absorb knowledge. If teachers only presented something to them without letting them obtain information proactively, children would lose the appetite for learning.

However, does such a ‘guide’ enjoy any authority?
Jitka: A teacher needn’t be a stern ‘Mr(s) Know-all’ to earn children’s respect. Consistency is the key. If a teacher can teach them, is readable, has clear rules in place with pupils and can ensure that they follow them, the teacher will earn authority.

Is the teacher more of a discussion partner for children today?
Jitka: I wouldn’t say that either. The relationship doesn’t necessarily have to be on a friend basis. The teacher is neither a partner nor a tough guy such as the Igor Hnízdo character [in the film The Elementary School]. The teacher’s primary task is to spark inner motivation for learning in pupils and ensure that they can experience success and the joy of making progress. And that they do this of their own free will – not because their parents or teacher wants them to. We are trying to change the hierarchy so that it is the pupil who controls their own learning.

Attracting and, mainly, maintaining schoolchildren’s attention in an era with such abundance of stimuli must be extremely difficult. Is there anything that guarantees you their attention?
Jana: Dialogue works well. The teacher asks the pupils what they know or think they know about a topic. One pupil says something. Another one opposes that. At that point, the class becomes spontaneously interested in how things actually are in reality.
Jitka: Hejný’s math teaching method is great too. It is based on the children themselves trying to derive the solution to the problem. Children do not follow any set formulae – they explore and try new options to solve the problem. They learn to be attentive and, even more importantly, persistent. These children are among the most successful in math competitions because they don’t give up.
Jana: You will also have the pupils’ attention if you give them room to ask questions about issues they are interested in. Maybe the teacher doesn’t know the answer sometimes, but that’s not a problem. We use this system that we could call ‘parked questions’ in classes, where the question is written down and then discussed later when everyone is ready.

It sounds a bit like revisiting Comenius’s idea of “school through play [schola ludus]”.
Jitka: I don’t think so. Children really work in classes. But it is true that when I first started out twenty years ago and worked with children in groups, discussed things with them, rehearsed theatre plays with them and so on, I was a black sheep because I was “merely playing” with them. The idea that these methods actually do contribute to pupils’ better learning is accepted now.

You speak of debating, dialogues and trying to figure things out. Is there any space left for cramming in the schools of today?
Jitka: I don’t think you can leave out memorising completely. There are certain areas where it is appropriate. For example, children simply have to memorise ‘the listed exempt words’ [in Czech]. Active learning methods are appropriate in other cases.

Reportedly, schoolchildren often know in advance when and in what topics they will be examined. Don’t they neglect learning on an ongoing basis as a result?
Jitka: This type of examination is not a rule. Nevertheless, when children know the exam topics in advance, I don’t think that’s wrong. Why should we want to catch them off-guard when we can make them show what they have actually learned?
Jana: In addition, fear does not support the learning process in any way. When children do something in stress, a pupil who would normally know the subject matter will often fail. By stress, I mean both surprise exams and the threat of a bad mark.

I understand that you prefer avoiding giving marks, is that correct?
Jitka: We introduced verbal evaluation in the first and second year classes two years ago. It was mainly intended to avoid making the children feel that school is all about collecting straight ‘1s’. It has proved its worth. Everybody works with joy and there is no threat looming over them.

So how do you rate them?
Jitka: We work primarily with criteria-based evaluation. For example, in the case of reading, we say in advance that we will focus on being loud and intelligible. Children will indicate on a colour scale how they think they will do. Then they focus on the two criteria and when they are finished with ‘the performance’, they rate themselves or they rate each other.

Does Charlie tell Pete that his reading was nice?
Jitka: No. We teach them to explain what specifically went well and what didn’t. Jana: It makes more sense to children this way. They know what they need to work on. It’s not like when they receive a ‘2’ mark without really knowing why. By the way, pupils are rated by criteria in higher classes as well. This is one of the things that we introduced here when our school became part of The Kellner Family Foundation’s project known as Helping Schools Succeed four years ago. We cannot really imagine working without this style of evaluation anymore.

Did the involvement in the project bring any other novelties?
Jitka: In addition to financial support and the opportunities for educating the teachers, our school has also gained more personnel, which it could not afford before. These are, for example, an instructional coach and teaching assistants. Teaching assistants gradually turn into tandem teachers.

What should I imagine this means?
Jitka: Two teachers, even with different specialisations, get together and prepare a class together. Logically, two brains each with a different focus come up with more ideas and there is also more room for working in smaller groups. The class is more efficient and interesting as a result. Jana: In addition, teachers share experiences this way. Thanks to the project, teachers have opened up their teaching for their colleagues in other ways as well. They sit in on others’ classes and provide feedback to one another. Simply put, the classroom has ceased to be the sovereign territory of a single teacher.

Do such visits disturb pupils? Don’t they tend to show off?
Jana: Children are accustomed to it. Our colleagues from other project schools visit us too as part of the project. Teachers also often video their classes and analyse them, seeking to improve their teaching. We also have open classes where parents can come and sit in. So, our pupils won’t be taken by surprise easily.

Speaking of parents, how has their interest in what’s going on at school changed over the years that you have been teaching?
Jitka: In the past, parents never discussed changing anything with teachers. Nobody dared. What the teacher said was the law. Now, parents are involved much more. They have more opportunities to communicate with us.

Can’t this be more of a hindrance at times?
Jitka: When they are sensible people who can see beyond their own child and understand that a class is a big community, when they are really engaged, then we’re really happy. And it works well in most cases. They help us when we are preparing our school ball, Christmas fairs and residential field trips, they do picnics with classes and come and read books for first year children.

Every child has a mobile phone today. Do they use them in school?
Jitka: Our School Regulations say that pupils may use them to search for information on the Internet if the teacher allows this. Other than that, handsets are off during classes. This rule is generally observed.

Aren’t you sometimes worried about the power that schoolchildren have over you with their mobile phones?
Jitka: I’m not. When I enter the classroom I know that the class will be what I make it. The children whom I teach at the first level of elementary school want to work and don’t sabotage the assignments I give them. Of course, this is more problematic with older pupils, but it all depends on the classroom climate anyway – and that is set by the teacher regardless of mobile phones.

Jana Štybnarová (48) graduated as a teacher for the first level of elementary school from the Faculty of Education of Charles University in Prague. She initially taught at an elementary school and later worked at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, where she focused on issues of evaluation. She is also educated in systemic supervision and coaching and trained as a Critical Thinking instructor. She now works as an instructional coach at the Zdice elementary school. She has two children.

Jitka Palanová (52) graduated as a teacher for special schools from the Faculty of Education of Charles University in Prague. She spent 3.5 years as a governess in a children’s home, and then 23 years as a mathematics teacher at the first level of elementary school. She is now the deputy principal at the Zdice elementary school. She has two children.  

On the Helping Schools Succeed project
The Kellner Family Foundation’s Helping Schools Succeed project was started in 2010. Thanks to the project, selected public elementary schools all over the country receive technical assistance and financial support meeting their own needs and are learning new teaching methods. KFF currently works with ten teaching staff teams and with teachers in dozens of additional schools.
The project includes: ZŠ Kunratice (in Prague), ZŠ a MŠ Mendelova, Karviná (the Moravian-Silesian Region), ZŠ Zdice (the Central Bohemian region), ZŠ a MŠ Horka nad Moravou (the Olomouc Region), ZŠ Tomáše Šobra a MŠ Písek (the Southern Bohemian Region), ZŠ Staňkov (the Plzeň Region), ZŠ Liberec, Křížanská 80 (the Liberec Region), 2. ZŠ – Škola Propojení Sedlčany (the Central Bohemian Region), ZŠ a MŠ Dobronín (the Vysočina Region), and ZŠ a MŠ Hranice in Šromotovo (the Olomouc Region).




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