Czech Education, Part 2
I write this in Prague in the flat of a woman who does a lot of educational consulting, assessments, and curriculum reviews for various internationals or expats throughout Europe. You’ll also notice that it’s a Friday morning. However, though the school year doesn’t end till the end of the month, my Friday lessons at the conservatory have ended, which brings me to another edition of some description of the Czech educational system (the first can be found here). Disclaimer: most of this knowledge is experiential, so feel free to comment if you think I am off on any point.
I don’t have classes today because the lessons I usually teach are for graduates who have already or are currently doing their final testing. Most of this is in the form of oral exams. No, they aren’t seeing dentists; rather, there is a long tradition of oral testing. This is not only done for foreign languages, but also in Czech itself. They are open to the public for viewing and follow strict regulations. Often they have multiple sections. Some common sections include photo comparison, defending opinions, making an agreement, and some extended monologue. As you can imagine, this can be quite intimidating for students, and I even heard of one student who literally ran out of the testing area and had to be chased down. These tests are prepared for all year, and oral testing is a typical part of assessment. Moreover, prior to the testing, students get a couple/few weeks in which they no longer attend normal classes and they prepare for these tests at home.
This then leads to another difference in Czech and American education systems, a legal difference. In the Czech Republic, marks are not private. During my time at the conservatory, I found out on the day I went to enter my final marks (by hand onto an official-looking large sheet of thick paper) that the conversational marks (my classes) and the regular English marks would be noted as a single mark in the book. I then went to consult with teachers and agree on marks. I told my students after the fact that their grade consisted of a combination of their performance/effort in each of the classes and that I could tell them their marks that they would get from the conversation lessons if they wanted. In an American classroom, this would probably consist of students quietly working on some other project while one-by-one I showed students their marks, careful to conceal all other students’ grades. Here, the students’ response was, “Okay, so tell us.” My little American self was surprised. Read the marks? Out loud? In front of everyone!
Yet this is what the students are accustomed to, and in a way it is a testament to the teacher’s fairness. We all know that students tell each other their grades in the States anyways; here, the teacher saves them the hassle and also shows a framework for how grades are earned. Students know how much the others study and they can see whether this is reflected in the marks or whether there is favoritism going on—granted, students aren’t seeing all the tests/work, but there’s something freeing about this transparency. (No, I won’t apply this tactic in the States, or I would get a lawsuit on my hands.)
Another contribution to the overall environment of the school is the arrangement of classrooms and offices. In the States, teachers (typically) have their own classrooms, which simultaneously become their offices. Here, rather than teachers living on little islands which their students travel to, teachers typically share offices. At the gymnázium, my office is shared with two others, at the conservatory with five others (sometimes leaving me sitting against a wall with my head doing battle with the coat rack). Classrooms are often dedicated to subject areas (language, geography, biology, etc.), but students spend their 10 or so minutes in between classes in corridors or classrooms until class time. When the bell rings, the teachers leave their offices decked out with CD players, books, tests, and dry-erase markers. They enter the class and the students stand up until the teacher asks them to sit. Class then begins. At the conservatory, most of the classrooms are locked, so I have to go to the receptionist and check out a key, returning it after class. Because so many teachers use the keys (and don’t always return them promptly), I have had many journeys knocking on offices and making inquiries, traveling up and down stairs and through long corridors, and had many conversations in imperfect Czech in order to track down the keys to my locked classroom. At one point this resulted in having class in a corridor, another time my students and I had class in the courtyard. I have also had days where I am running up and down stairs and corridors in attempts to find a given classroom.
Besides the physical discomfort of having offices rather than classrooms, this also affects teacher-teacher and student-teacher dynamics. This system has many disadvantages. Firstly, it eliminates the lovely in-between time in which “idle” chatter occurs between teachers and students and relationships are built. Secondly, it limits the complexity of set-up for activities, both because the teacher would be prematurely entering the classroom and because clean-up time would be limited due to the teacher having to run off to another class. One advantage, however, is that it allows teachers to be more connected with each other by sharing offices. Teachers are much more connected here than in the States through this intermediary time in offices. Perhaps somewhere out there we can find a compromise that would facilitate both consistent teacher-teacher interaction and student-teacher interaction.
To be continued . . .