Students as partners (an interview with Open Gate’s head teacher, Kateřina Kožnarová)

The Open Gate Grammar School and Primary School in Babice provides education for young people regardless of their background. The Kellner Family Foundation offers financial support for children and young people from children’s homes, foster families and single-parent families, as well as families with low incomes. Students work with teachers to choose teaching methods that will let them achieve their learning targets, and tuition reflects individual teaching styles and tempos.

Open Gate opened in the 2005/2006 school year. In January 2009 the eight-year grammar school was accredited by the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, allowing students to take the International Baccalaureate. In 2010 the first grade started at the primary school, and one year later the entire junior years of the Czech-English primary school were added. The gym and playing field have undergone extensive renovations, with new surfaces added together with a court for soft tennis, badminton and petanque. Head teacher Kateřina Kožnarová found the time for a brief interview.

What do you classify as modern teaching methods and aids?
For us a modern method is one that gets students 100% involved in education, and they themselves can influence the learning process to some extent. At Open Gate we call it Student-Organised Learning. Currently there’s a boom in the use of information technology to support learning, and interactive whiteboards and exercises in virtual environments are now standard at good schools. The best schools are thinking about how to get students to realise for instance that a smartphone is a tool that can connect you with someone on the other side of the world, but separate you from the person sitting next to you.

It probably isn’t easy to gain students’ respect nowadays. What do you think is the key to success?
Understanding that the teacher’s status is very different now. The idea of infallible teachers who approach their students from a position of authority, and expect obedience just because they’re teachers, can’t hold up. Teachers have to earn their authority – which may include admitting they’re wrong, laughing about it, and showing students that despite their unquestionable expertise, they’re only human after all. For me it helped to remember what being a student was like, and trying to see the world as my students do, at least for a little while.

What do you think is the worst or most unfortunate trait for a student?
A good teacher should be aware of all of a child’s characteristics as part of the whole personality, which needs to be developed. Personally I think it’s a shame that so many children nowadays have such low self-esteem. That’s guaranteed to hold back anyone’s development. To a large extent it’s because of social networks, which create a misleading impression of how other people live. Often children can’t see through it, and they’re comparing themselves with something they admire but which doesn’t actually exist.

What do you think is the worst or most unfortunate trait for a teacher?
Egotism, wanting to be admired, the inability to adapt their teaching to students’ individual needs, and a resistance to innovation. Today we’re experiencing an extraordinarily rapid generational transformation, and teachers constantly have to revise their methods. The approach to educating students is changing very rapidly.

Have you ever come across students who – as it were – have changed before your very eyes? I’m thinking of a student who’s undisciplined and hot-headed, with little respect for authority, but who while studying realises what’s important in life?
We get stories like that much more frequently than other schools. Thanks to The Kellner Family Foundation we often get students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and at our school they have an opportunity for personal development. I’m in my eleventh year at the school and I’ve seen many examples of what you’re talking about. The most important thing is that our former students can see how much they’ve changed. Recently one of them was watching a video made in his first year at the school. We spent the whole evening talking about how much our school had given him, what incredible personal progress he’d made, and how he’s still benefiting from it today. We’re proud that our students leave the school as cultivated and responsible people. That adds the most beautiful dimension to our work.

How would you rate your school?
You should really ask the students. We treat them as partners in education, so we give them plenty of opportunities to contribute to learning. Although studying here is very demanding, over the long term they’ve achieved the best results in the world, for instance in the International Baccalaureate programme, which covers their last two years of study and ends with a series of demanding exams. We were the first Czech school to complete the demanding certification process. We also pay a lot of attention to learner support. Our counselling services help students to stay happy and cope with pressure, as well as coordinating care for gifted students. We’re an innovative school and we develop our students’ capacities for lifelong learning. Anyone interested in Open Gate can come and have a look on 18 January 2018 from 1 p.m. onwards, when we’ll be having an open day.

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