News| An interview with Ilona Urbanová, Director...

An interview with Ilona Urbanová, Director of Helping Schools Succeed

19. February 2020 Mrs Ilona Urbanová has been the Director of Helping Schools Succeed since September 2019. She joined at a time when everyone involved in the project was looking back at the ten years of its existence and thinking about its future development and the best way to use the huge amount of experience amassed. Under her leadership, a new strategy for the project’s future direction, referred to as Helping Schools Succeed Plus, has been created in recent months. She is no newcomer to the field of education – she used to manage a private language school and also took part in founding a high school. She will certainly put her wealth of managerial experience to good use at Helping Schools Succeed. We asked her about her first impressions and the direction she will steer the project in along with her team of teaching experts in the years to come.

You joined as the Director of Helping Schools Succeed several months ago. Have you become familiar with the project and the entire team?
Helping Schools Succeed is a project built around an in-house team and cooperation with many external collaborators. The most important things happen in schools and during shared events. Accordingly, I spent most of my time “in the field” – observing, listening and having one-on-one conversations with team members – literally from the very moment I came on board. My colleagues were kind enough to advise me on the realities of the current Czech public education system and patiently explained the project’s theoretical basis and practical aspects. Today, I can say that I know Helping Schools Succeed well enough and that the people on the team are no longer just names in e-mail addresses – I can also see their faces, abilities and stories.

How did you learn about the Helping Schools Succeed project?
It was by coincidence, really. I have been taking a three-year therapeutic training course, and one of my colleagues asked me an intriguing question on the last day of June last year: “Ilona, do you know someone like you?” I gave her a few names, but it sparked my interest in the project. I started looking up more information about its activities because the field of education has been my lifelong interest. Eventually, they approached me with an offer to take up the leadership of the project.

Is there anything that surprised you after you came on board?
I was very pleasantly surprised with the practice that I saw in the classrooms in the participating schools, with how the teachers work in those schools and with the children’s output in reader and writer workshops. I was literally positively shocked to see children reading books with enthusiasm, making thought maps, writing their own stories, debating eagerly and asserting their opinions soundly in our era of excessive reliance on technology. This reassured me of how hugely meaningful this project is. It is really amazing to see the enthusiasm and inventiveness of the team of instructional coaches and other expert collaborators.

By contrast, I was somewhat disappointed by the fact that it is not at all common for school directors and teachers to share best practice and open their classes up for sharing insights with other teachers.

You previously worked primarily in the field of adult education. How quickly did you become at home in public primary education and teaching children?
This environment is not entirely foreign to me, even though I spent more than a half of my professional life managing human resources and business corporations. I led a public language school until 2004 and I also founded a four-year high school with extended language teaching, the Beskydy Mountain Academy. Through these activities, I got to work very closely with many excellent teachers both from abroad and in the Czech Republic and I broadened my knowledge of school management. I was able to see many inspiring schools in Europe and the US back in the 1990s. That was my first encounter with project teaching, teachers being able to encourage critical thinking in students and support for reading literacy. In fact, this is what prompted me to found the aforementioned high school. As a mum of three kids, I was always eagerly interested in the quality and standard of the Czech education sector, and as a parent I was always actively involved. So, children’s education has never been foreign to me. One of my sons is even a high school teacher. Thanks to all that, I already knew what it was all about, so to speak, before joining the project.

Will the project change with you at the helm?
I have no ambition to make radical changes to the project, and there is really no need to. That being said, I would like to see more Czech primary schools sharing our vision of “each child should learn with full involvement and with joy”, as would Renáta and Petr Kellner who first started the project and have been supporting it through The Kellner Family Foundation. There are currently 23 primary schools involved in Helping Schools Succeed. Financial support is channelled, among other things, into the equipment for schools, language teaching, teacher training, school assistants, collaboration with parents and so on. These days, schools can obtain funds for these purposes from other sources as well. This is why, beginning with the academic year 2020/21, we want to focus our support for schools on the activities where we see that we can make the biggest impact in terms of changing the teachers’ attitude, resulting in a lasting effect on the way students learn. This means developing reading and writing literacy in students as well as peer sharing of know-how between teachers. This way, we will be able to involve some 100 schools from across the Czech Republic in the project. Those of our current project schools that have decided to cooperate with us in the next stage of the project will play a leading role in this new approach by sharing their experience with the newcomer schools. Those project schools will receive both financial and personnel backing from us. In turn, each of those schools undertakes to bring more schools on board over the course of three years and share its experience with them with our help in the form of open classes and regular peer sharing of best practice. We approached all our current project schools with the offer for this type of cooperation. I am happy to report that we have received an affirmative response from most of them, so I believe that we will achieve our objective of involving an additional 100 schools in the cooperation.

How will you choose the new schools to join the current project schools? What criteria must a school meet to join Helping Schools Succeed?
The essential requirement for our activities to meet with a meaningful reception is the attitude of the school directors and a culture that embraces open classes and fosters the notion of teachers teaching each other. We cannot tell if this is in place just from a school’s application without having had any previous contact with the school. So, we will initially approach the schools that are already working with our current project schools on various levels and/or schools whose teachers are involved in our projects. For your information, we have a list of more than 300 schools to choose from today.

What would you personally like to achieve in the project during your first year?
My personal goals for this year include primarily stabilising the team and setting up the process of communication with the newly joining schools.

You have many years’ worth of experience in the field of human resources. Will you use your insights and experience at Helping Schools Succeed, for instance in choosing co-workers or motivating the directors of the schools involved?
I believe that my experience in personnel management will come in handy for the project. With that said, what our project really needs – like any other project, in fact – is well-functioning communication, open relationships and trust.

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