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This is How a Good Teacher Teaches

With school now in full swing, we look back at an educational program that seems to be working in Slovakia – Teach for Slovakia.

by Juraj Konik 17 September 2019

This is the story of a former journalist who left Bratislava and went east to tug written-off children back to a normal life, even visiting them in places where other teachers have never ventured – their homes. This article won the Special Award for Solutions Journalism for 2018.

 

 

“Three – two – one. All eyes on me.”

 

Everybody in the classroom actually does remain quiet for a short while. However, later in the day, there are moments of utter rampage, an ungovernable combination of disturbance, sneering, mockery, contempt, and rhythmic drumming on the desks.

 

How much difference can one teacher make? Can he lift up the kids who have been written off, bring them up to the level of a normal life? And at what price? At the price of physical collapse and psychological burnout?

 

He is standing in front of them with long hair in a ponytail, a long beard, in skinny trousers, and a T-shirt that reads “Back in the day." On his arm, he sports more than 10 festival wristbands. Overall, he looks just about as good as his night's sleep – which is not very good at all: he gets only a few hours a day. But what counts is that he does incredible things with the kids while the other teachers wonder what to think about all of this.

 

Teach for Slovakia is a Western-developed concept, in which smart university graduates take a teaching job in a difficult school for two years. Every year, more and more people join the community of those who know the issues of the educational sector from direct experience in schools. After time spent in the field, they can then work to eliminate problems from different teaching positions around the country.

 

The state has opened up. It allows young graduates without a teaching qualification – albeit with intensive training – to teach at elementary schools and earn a standard salary. It lets them work alongside teachers who have been doing the job for many years and do not really have any reason to trust that such young people know what they are doing.

 

In eastern Slovakia, where this teaching concept has been running in schools for three years already, you will also find people who are full of doubts.

 

We went to observe a Teach for Slovakia teacher while he was working.

 

That bearded sleep-deprived teacher is Juraj Cokyna, a former journalist at the online daily news site Dennik N. Those children come from Roma settlements and also from average, Slovak, middle-class families. A great majority of them have already failed in school, and had to repeat the year before his arrival. These things are not going to change dramatically even after his two-year tenure comes to an end. Change will take time, but it's important to make a start.

 

Juraj Cokyna. Image by Dennik N – Tomas Benedikovic.

 

The Places Where One in Three First Graders Repeats the Year

 

We are in a predominantly Roma school, but it's important to stress that this is not only about the Roma and their settlements. Slovak schools need change almost everywhere, across the whole country. The educational sector is falling behind in mathematics as well as reading, and children do not understand the natural sciences. This is demonstrated in all the benchmarks measuring Slovakia against the developed world.

 

There are some clear statistics about the pupils with failing grades, who are repeating the class. In the school year 2015/16, more than 11,000 elementary school children failed their year, accounting for almost 3 percent of the total. This happened most often in the Kosice region in eastern Slovakia, where one in 10 elementary school pupils in the first level [grades 1 to 4] fails every year.

 

 

Video by Dennik N – Martina Koník

 

And the following statistic is the most hair-raising one – first-graders are the most frequent repeaters. In the vicinity of Banska Bystrica, Nitra, Presov, and Kosice, this is happening to a large extent. And again, the figures are most alarming in the Kosice region, where in 2015/6, 175 first graders – out of every thousand – failed their first year at school.

 

Let’s get even more granular: in the district of Michalovce, one in every four first-graders repeated the year, while in the district of Spisska Nova Ves, this increased to one in three. These kids are seven years old, and, in practice, it has already been decided that that they won’t even properly finish elementary school. They are written off.

 

Looking at these charts, you can understand Teach for Slovakia head Anna Symington-Maar, whose dream is that, one day, there will be schools in Slovakia where children won’t be getting (failing) grades of "5."

 

Where Teachers Have Strokes

 

It's half past six in the morning, and Juraj is half-asleep, moving around the large kitchen of a Kosice apartment. He shares the place with a few other teachers working for Teach for Slovakia at schools in the vicinity of the city. He is puffy-eyed, and with dark circles under his eyes that won’t disappear even later during the day. He has slept only a few hours.

 

At the other end of the day, in the early evening, around five, he returns home from school. He will doze for at least half an hour, then get up again and spend several hours preparing material for the next day's teaching.

 

For English lessons, he puts together pictures of cartoon characters, and prepares tests. For geography, he gets ready to assess the assigned presentations about Slovakia, while preparing a solid backup plan. He makes some cut-outs, and prepares an exercise for everyone. Long after midnight, he finally falls asleep for a few hours, and in the morning, he sets off for school in the village of Sarisske Bohdanovce.

 

An older female teacher from the same school admits that when she really could not handle the kids, she once suffered a stroke during a lesson. “I just got so angry.” She returned after a year and she says she manages teaching while taking medication to calm herself down. Does she now have the children’s respect? “I also have asthma. When I start having difficulties breathing and talking, they quieten.”

 

Just like in other schools, here, too, there are teachers who will not give up, even after several years in this demanding environment. They test new approaches and are genuinely interested in the kids. And then there also those who are resigned: they teach only as much as they are required to, and they are unwilling to take their job – and problems related to it – home with them.

 

It is not common for teachers to visit their pupils at home, and certainly not in a Roma settlement. Juraj Cokyna and Anezka, his predecessor, visit their pupils in the village of Mirkovce. Image by Dennik N – Tomas Benedikovic.

 

Praise Every Achievement, Never Tolerate Disturbance

 

Shortly after the bell rings into the turmoil of the class, Juraj says, “Three – two – one. All eyes on me.” This is how he starts every single lesson.

 

“…’cause I’ve got my style!” is the immediate, impudent comeback – completing the line from a well-known Slovak pop song by Dominika Mirgova.

 

Juraj is already used to this; the children do it quite often. This lesson is with the seventh graders – aged 14 to 16 – where he is also the class teacher.

 

This time, it was Margita who shouted out the second part of the pop song. Remember her name, as she is a typical example of a kid who has not been fully ground down by the system and is still capable of living a normal life – she only needs proper help. During a civil education lesson, her classmates labelled her a “politician.” She is the class captain.

 

The kids name other kinds of “politicians” or leaders, one by one: members of parliament, kings ... The teacher praises every active pupil, even if the answer is not totally precise. “Great, good answer.” He then corrects them, directs them to the right answer.

 

Above all, Juraj never lets them hide. During the English lesson, he gives out small plastic whiteboard tablets, for everyone to write their answer and raise it high above their head. This ensures that every individual is truly involved, and the teacher has a quick idea of who still needs some assistance.

 

The class walls display motivational quotations: “ ‘No’ is the wrong answer …” or “Everybody who tries hard enough has his or her place here.”

 

Juraj has also introduced a change his pupils dislike. If somebody is disturbing the lesson, he writes his or her name in the right corner of the blackboard, along with the time of the offense. If the perpetrator manages to keep quiet for the next five minutes, the name gets wiped off. If not, the name is circled and after the end of classes that day, the teacher calls the parents. If things get worse, he will pay a visit to the family.

 

Margita’s name makes it onto the blackboard that day, for explaining something in Romani to her classmate, talking right across the class. But after that, she takes care not to disturb the class again, and, by the end of the lesson, her name is gone from the blackboard.

 

Juraj does clash with his pupils but after several months, it is happening much less than at the very beginning. “Thank you for not shouting at us,” they wrote to him, on the class noticeboard.

 

The teacher does not sit next to the blackboard; he walks around the class, communicating with his pupils. Image by Dennik N – Tomas Benedikovic.

 

How Are We Supposed to Teach These Children?

 

The school in Sarisske Bohdanovce used to have excellent results. “Only six years ago, we were the seventh-best elementary school in the entire country in the 9th Grade Monitor [a benchmark test performed in all schools across the country],” explains Magdalena Lorincova, the deputy head. The number of Roma children from the surrounding villages kept increasing, while the local parents started moving their kids to other schools – and the ratio changed.

 

In nationwide testing of fifth grade pupils in 2016, the average score of the school in Bohdanovce ended up being significantly under 30 percent in math as well as reading. The nationwide average in both those subjects was more than twice that.

 

The results of this school  – with almost single-percentage-point precision – replicate the results of approximately two thousand “children from a poverty-stricken environment,” a group that was specifically monitored by the government for the first time in this measurement.

 

The Slovak results for fourth graders from a poverty-stricken environment are the worst in the EU and OECD countries.

 

One of the underlying causes is quickly defined by the teacher of physical education: how are we supposed to participate in competitions with the kids if they don’t even have anything proper to wear? Children do not attend school and when they come, they are often tired, lacking in concentration. Parents are not interested in what their kids learned at school and they don’t support them at home. The children have no role models.

 

“I want you to see class 5B. With that class, you never know how things will end up,” says Juraj, referring to the English lesson for one particular class.

 

What follows might almost be a manual for gaining the attention of children who are a tough nut to crack for almost any teacher. It is a fight for their attention.

 

“Ignore her,” suggests Juraj to a pupil who is continually disturbed by his classmate.

 

The teacher shields his mouth with his hand and speaks privately to two pupils sitting behind one desk, while others continue working on their assignments.

 

With a hand gesture, he calms another boy sitting in the front row.

 

He later leans over to another one and whispers something.

 

All this time, he is writing names on the blackboard and dishing out lots of praise.

 

He does not lecture from in front of the blackboard and does not shout. Well, sometimes he does. “Just yesterday, I shouted at them. I didn’t manage to hold myself back. I felt very sorry afterwards,” Juraj admits.

 

“OK, OK, I am managing this. I am on it,” whispers Juraj to himself, when things seem to be getting tough for him.

 

Patricia ignores the entire English lesson, but Juraj manages to get her up to the blackboard, and when she writes an English word correctly, the teacher praises her without the smallest hint of irony. Suddenly, everybody wants to write on the blackboard.

 

“Is it correct, Mr. Teacher?” The kids are begging for his answer, and suddenly we are looking at a totally different class.

 

These aren’t methods specifically developed by Juraj Cokyna. This is from Teach for Slovakia, a sophisticated system developed for teaching children who need attention. That is, for all children. It is also based on a book by Doug Lemov, a Harvard graduate who started his career as a teacher at a school in a poor Boston suburb. He could not manage to teach the problematic kids, and instead of sticking to the syllabus, he had to spend most of the lesson calming them down.

 

Then he travelled around schools in poor neighborhoods and observed the teachers who were the best at coping with the challenges. He analyzed their methods, labelled them, and let hundreds of teachers provide their comments. This resulted in the book Teach Like a Champion.

         

What is Teach for Slovakia and how can it teach children to think? 

 

Under the program, teaching is not performed by qualified teachers but graduates of various universities who are rigorously screened and then undergo an intensive summer course. They work in the educational sector for two years and during that time they receive support and training. 

 

The basic idea is to ensure that the teacher moves his or her pupils forward in those two years, despite all the odds and challenges, and then, having gained this experience, he/she can work on systematic improvement in Slovak schools. 

 

Teach for Slovakia has a sophisticated system of methodology: the teacher dedicates individual attention to the children, making an effort to motivate each of them; children receive feedback at every lesson; the teacher communicates with the parents, even if they live in poverty-stricken Roma settlements and also tries to provide some inspiration for the existing teaching staff to reconsider their routine methodology. 

 

For example, in a lesson, you give the children an assignment with a quick solution, and you count the seconds until it is fulfilled. The deadline should be set so that even slower children can manage. Those who are not discouraged by failing to fulfil this task are more likely to get involved. 

 

Every teacher has their own tricks and routines. For example, Juraj Cokyna from Sarisske Bohdanovce starts every single lesson with the words: “Three, two, one – all eyes on me.” 

 

Bryan Belanger, a math teacher who started his career in New York State public schools, always greets his students with a “good morning” and immediately asks them the answer to the first question in the test he makes them do at the start of every lesson. He labels this routine “Rock, paper, scissors.” He counts to two aloud, every student beats the desk three times and then holds up a number of fingers – between one and four – for what they think is the correct answer. 

 

This routine forces pupils to answer simultaneously. The teacher then names the ones who might want to go back and change their answer. Then he praises everyone, saying something like,“Great. This is a real improvement from yesterday.” With both reactions, he shows that he really cares about the answers, and that he's following every single student in the class. Finally, he selects one student with the correct answer and has him or her explain the answer to everyone. 

 

When the teacher wants absolutely everyone to get involved, he or she hands out small whiteboards with a marker so that in an English lesson, for example, every pupil can write a word on the board. They all have plenty of time, and the teacher can quickly see who is making mistakes and can give the children the opportunity to correct themselves. 

 

New York-based teacher Roberto de Leon teaches his pupils reading comprehension. They read “The Phantom of the Opera” together aloud, wearing red cloaks. One of the children even gets to wear the mask to read the frightening Phantom’s monologue. “Close your books,” says de Leon suddenly. “Did you concentrate on the tension or the text itself? Whom was the Phantom writing to?” 

 

Katie Bellucci, a math teacher from Troy Prep Middle School, also teaches her students to admit to having made a mistake. When her students made a mistake in an equation – wrongly dividing 20 by two – they calculate the correct answer together, and Katie asks: “Hands up, who changed their minds about the original result. Raise your hands high and proud. You have just figured it out!” she tells her students. 

 

The teacher avoids sarcasm even when an answer is wrong, and teaches other children not to mock their classmates. If students answer unsatisfactorily, the teacher will first praise them for making a good start, and then encourage them to continue. When giving praise for a good answer, the teacher will emphasize the things that went well. 

 

Eye contact and gestures matter a lot. The teacher moves around a lot, watches from various angles to see who gets involved and how, uses gestures to quiet those who should not be talking. Those who are disturbing the class and not paying attention will be warned by the teacher in a low-profile manner, for example with gestures alone, or a soft touch, or a quiet comment. 

 

You cannot leave it to the volunteers  to give answers. Sometimes you need to put questions to specific individuals, even if they do not volunteer. This creates a positive tension in the class – that any student can be called on to answer a question, at any time, so everyone has to pay attention. Jon Bogard, a math teacher from the Sci Academy in New Orleans, does it this way: Calling on a student who did not raise her hand, he says with a smile,“Chelsea, in your mind, you actually did raise your hand, I can see that!” 

 

Thanks to the teacher’s constant movement, all the students know that the teacher might end up at their desk at any moment. The teacher smiles, encourages, changes the tone of the lecture, and constantly strives to hold  the students’ attention. 

 

Yasmine Vargas teaches “Habits of Discussion” to first graders. She gives each pupil the opportunity to speak. They are not supposed to give answers to the teacher but discuss things with their classmate, explaining why the other is wrong, and what they think about the text they have read. Yasmine has taught first graders in Newark, New Jersey, for many years. More than 90 percent of her pupils were long-term over-performers when benchmarked against national average grades, and she later became the school head. 

 

Teaching must be adjusted according to what the children know. “What is the name of the island, where many people go to get a job?” asks Juraj Cokyna. Kids from a special needs class – who had not recognized it on a map – realized from that clue that they know the answer: that island was Britain. 

 

Sources: Doug Lemov: “Teach Like a Champion”; the Guardian: “The Revolution that could change how your child is taught”; observation of lessons in Sarisske Bohdanovce.

 

“I Worry About Him.”

 

“I worry that he may suffer a collapse,” admits Magdalena Lorincova, deputy head of the school in Sarisske Bohdanovce, discussing their teacher from Teach for Slovakia. Lorincova has been working at this school for many years, teaching math, and is not a boring teacher. For example, she recommends simple mathematic computer games from the school website to the seventh-grade students. “A year ago, I didn’t believe in this program,” continues the deputy head.

 

Now she’s a believer, and acknowledges that Juraj is fully committed to the children.

 

Even if you don’t believe the hearsay that teachers are at home from work by noon, that they have frequent vacations and two months off in the summer, not many people would actually expect so much hard work out of a teacher. Top of the list is the strain of teaching five to six lessons with generally only a five-minute break in between: this school has had to significantly cut breaks to fit in all the teaching time between the morning and afternoon buses to and from Bohdanovce.

 

Just try to make the mental switch – with just five minutes' break – from an English lesson with noisy fifth graders, to a geography lesson for kids with special needs, who have trouble putting together proper sentences, let alone recognizing continents.

 

After lunch, the school is empty but the teacher needs to do the attendance paperwork and grading … and then organize afternoon extra-curricular activities for pupils, extra lessons, tutoring ... and sometimes it is necessary to visit the parents. Then the commute home, a short sleep, dinner, and preparations for the next day’s lessons, well into the night.

 

How easy do the teachers’ pleasant lives sound now?

 

“So That Kotleba Doesn't Come Here to Kill People!”

 

During the civil education lesson, the children sit in groups, and every group is establishing its own country. “What do we need in our country?” Firefighters, teachers, an army.

 

In another school, they probably would not even know there was such a thing as an “activation labor coordinator.” Other children would hardly mention social workers.

 

This is a school with a Roma majority. Just to be clear, Teach for Slovakia doesn't only help Roma children. Quite the opposite – the program usually sends teachers to schools that are not attended by large numbers of kids from Roma settlements.

 

Back in the classroom, the teacher asks, “What else do we need in our state?”

 

“Security guys! So that Kotleba doesn't come and kill people!” one of the boys shouts [referencing Marian Kotleba, an extreme right-wing populist politician, leader of the fascist LSNS party].

 

In Sarisske Bohdanovce, they know very well who calls them – even these little children – parasites.

 

Yes, the kids are often troublemakers. Repeaters. However, when you accompany their teachers on a visit to their homes, you won’t find families of parasites, just families trying to live a decent life. Just like in the settlements of Varhanovce and Mirkovce. But another thing you will see is families living in conditions similar to those of the Middle Ages. Teach for Slovakia also sets out to save the children of these families.

 

The settlement in Varhanovce. Image by Dennik N – Tomas Benedikovic.

 

“She's Smart, but She's Better off Staying at Home”

 

Remember Margita? The class captain from the beginning of our story, lively and energized, her voice is often heard during lessons, and she doesn't always shout out the things she was asked for. She is not a repeater and, unlike many other classmates, she has the chance of a decent future.

 

Margita has a strict father. At least this is what we conclude from what she and her mother say. Most of the time, he is away from home because of work assignments as a builder. He works “for the Vietnamese,” building houses as well as roads for the Vietnamese community. He only has a work performance agreement – a less advantageous, albeit legal, form of short-term labor engagement – but he brings home around 200 euro ($227) every Friday and he does all the manual work around the house. The house must be clean, and the children must attend school. He built a large house on his own, every family member has their own bedroom, and the house features something that is rather unusual for this type of Roma settlement – they have a bathroom and kitchen with running water. Moreover, Margita also has a laptop in her room.

 

It is a decent house with a decent family in the middle of a poor Roma settlement. And the children are written off just because of the place they come from and the way they look.

 

Margita with her mother, in front of their house. Image by Dennik N – Tomas Benedikovic.

 

Margita’s mother says her daughter will be a makeup artist and hairstylist, as she likes to arrange her siblings’ hair. Her parents would like her to open a makeup and hairstyling parlor in their house.

 

Even though she is smart, her family doesn’t really expect her to succeed outside their world. A beauty parlor in the settlement or a car garage down in the village – these are roughly the limits of their imagination.

 

And what about your son going to work to Kosice? What if, in time, he opened a small business there? “We want him to stay here, with us.” This is what we often hear, in both the poor houses and the wealthier houses.

 

“No Teacher Has Ever Come Here”

 

Margita’s family house is surrounded by brick houses that you would probably classify as shacks.

 

In one of them, there lives a family in two simple rooms: a mother of five, aged 33 but looking older then her real age. She had her first child at the age of 15.

 

Her daughter who still attends elementary school has already brought home a boyfriend (in Slovakia, elementary schools comprise grades 1 to 9, typically aged 6 to 15). He lives with them in this small space, and often persuades her not to go to school. He doesn’t attend school either – why should he? He is already over 15.

 

Peter, the girl's brother, is more of a success story. His teachers believe he could get as far as graduating from high school. He is already in secondary school, training to become a bricklayer. When he hears that with the high school exam, he could have his own construction company, he can hardly believe it. Does that mean he would not be working for someone else – not being subject to the short-term labor agreements, like all the other builders from the settlement?

 

Juraj Cokyna is a genuine phenomenon in the settlement. The father of one of his students says that no teacher has ever visited them. Nobody visits the settlement. And he knows that very well as he is always at home.

 

That was Varhanovce, a relatively livable Roma settlement. However, some of Juraj’s pupils also live in Mirkovce, up on the hill, which is the real end of the world.

 

How Slovakia falls down in international PISA testing of ninth grade students, in Math, Reading, and Natural Sciences. Image by Dennik N – Tomas Benedikovic.

 

An Englishman From the Settlement

 

The village of Mirkovce has probably the worst Roma settlement in the area (many Roma settlements are formed like detached “annexes” to villages inhabited by the white majority.) As you go up the hill, the stuccoed houses gradually give way to houses without plaster, and then to wooden shacks held together by pieces of wood and nails – and you think to yourself that this is probably as bad as it can possibly get. At the top of the hill, there is an apartment building, which from a distance looks dilapidated, derelict. Some of the walls have been damaged by fire. The windows are just empty holes. Here and there, there is a water pipe sticking out of the ground, because there is no running water in houses like these.

 

Men stand clustered in a small group, many of them toothless and with tough-looking tattoos. They don’t seem particularly happy about the aliens who've come for a visit.

 

Tomas also lives in these genuinely medieval conditions. He is one of the smartest fifth graders from the school in Bohdanovce. With his family, he spent three years in Leeds, in the United Kingdom. Many teachers of English might envy his genuine British accent.

 

At school, he sits in the front row and keeps shouting out the English words, sometimes adding something in French. Then he sits back, lets others attract attention, and just quietly watches the lesson.

 

Tomas wants to be a mechanic. He has not repeated a year yet and he stands a good chance of finishing elementary school.

 

If he went to secondary school, he would gain vocational training as a mechanic, repairing cars in the city of Presov. But he wants to stay and live here in Mirkovce, where his friends are.

 

Water from melting snow and ice trickles slowly down the hill on which the settlement stands. Children in stained T-shirts and sweatshirts ride around on plastic motorbikes, pulling a large plastic suitcase on wheels behind them – like a toy. Later, they use the suitcase to sled down the hill. Dozens of children who haven’t been given a chance to escape from here – yet. No teacher – and no one else, for that matter – will ever come here to see most of them.

 

If You Had a Time Machine

 

What does Cokyna say to all these kids, all of whom he found already destined for failure? He does not moan about the world being unfair to them. He pushes a little and attempts to inspire them with a sense of responsibility for their own lives.

 

This is one of the ways to do it. “Imagine you have a time capsule,” he says to his students, many of whom have already repeated a few school years and who may soon even stop attending school altogether – being 15 years old, though still only fifth graders.

 

“Imagine you return to the class where you had to repeat the school year for the first time. What would you do differently? If you knew that you might get to secondary school and your life would be totally different, would you try harder?

 

“I will tell you a secret: you still have this time machine. Look at your younger brother. He doesn't have to make the same mistakes you did. Why don’t you help him?”

 

And how does Juraj Cokyna motivate himself? What does he actually want to achieve? His answers are specific enough to express in figures. He wants to increase the literacy rate of his pupils by 20 percent, compared with September 2016. As mentioned above, the fifth graders from Bohdanovce performed miserably in the nationwide tests, achieving less than 30 percent on average, half the nationwide Slovak score.

 

When you talk about Slovak schools with Juraj over a beer, he often gets irritated. He believes the Slovak educational system is out of touch with reality, teaches a load of rubbish, and is lagging behind overall.

 

“Are we teaching the children to work with their hands? In 20 years’ time, they will be replaced by machines, they will be redundant. Why do they have to memorize entire multiplication tables, without being shown how the calculation actually works? Why do we reward them for knowing the largest volume of facts that they've only memorized? We need to teach more humanities, teach them to think, to connect the dots so that they are able to work in any position in the future.”

 

“Do they feel good with you, in your lessons?” This question catches Juraj a little bit by surprise. “I think they actually don’t. Because I have to keep enforcing the rules.” He adds that he tries to explain to them why this is so important, so that this doesn't end up being just another set of rules and obligations the children don’t understand.

 

Government Reforms Are Coming, for Real This Time

 

This is the insight of a teacher who entered the system from the outside. How does the government plan to tackle these issues?

 

How, for example, can we help children in Bohdanovce who have already repeated a year once or twice by the time they reach upper elementary school?

 

At the Ministry of Education, a large-scale reform is in the pipeline, which includes a focus on children from poverty-stricken backgrounds. In many ways, the suggestions of the ministry experts are similar to the methodology used by Teach for Slovakia: more active schools with an individual approach, teamwork, and encouragement of responsibility.

 

Zuzana Zimenova, a parliamentary member and an analyst from the Nove skolstvo (New Educational System) web portal, is a former advisor to the education minister. She suggested completely getting rid of the practice of repeating school years – which is in line with what Anna Symington-Maar, Teach for Slovakia's head of program, wants. Zimenova says the school system wrongly blames underperforming pupils for their poor results. “Repeating the year is not a real solution for any of these children, as it only brings them back into situations in which they have repeatedly failed and from which they cannot seem to find a way out,” she reasons. However, Zimenova is no longer one of the minister’s advisors.

 

Will the state intervene forcefully, to prevent this from happening? After all, the draft reform only references a vague intention that schools should do their best to ensure that the smallest possible number of children repeat years in lower elementary school – grades 1 to 4.

 

“A child, especially in the first level of elementary education, should not perceive repeating a year as his or her failure,” according to the Ministry of Education.

 

Official policy agrees in some respects with Teach for Slovakia's vision, with the intention “to improve the quality of schools so that every single child receives a quality education to [provide] the chance to succeed in life.”

 

Symington-Maar says that all their programs around the world work in strong partnership with public institutions, noting: “the key systemic changes that we strive for can only be achieved openly, not by using guerrilla methods outside the framework of the state.” In Slovakia, for example, former President Andrej Kiska, the minister of education, the national school inspection authority, the government plenipotentiary for Roma communities, and the head of the Bratislava region all became involved with Teach for Slovakia. They help financially, providing internships and supporting Teach for Slovakia – for example in the planned project of building the organization’s own school.

 

Turning Excuses Into a Lesson on Responsibility

 

And now one final example that teaching children involves more than just basic facts from a textbook.

 

What can you give to ninth graders who are about to leave school soon, given that you cannot really influence their lives that strongly, because you have only known them for the last couple of months of school? The fact that they have made it to the ninth grade means that most of them have never been repeaters. But they are not the smartest kids, going to elite schools, either. They have no respect for authority, they haven’t managed to learn a great deal yet, and their families are not exactly the wealthiest.

 

 

Video by Dennik N – Martina Koník

 

Roughly one in three kids in this ninth-grade class is of Roma origin. Over the last eight years, their classmates have been disappearing, dropping out gradually, or repeating grades. Out of three or four classes at the beginning, there is only a single, fragmented one left.

 

A ninth-grade geography lesson with Juraj Cokyna isn't held in front of the big map, but in the computer classroom. Three groups are supposed to offer a presentation of the most beautiful places or landmarks around the city of Kosice, and experience teamwork on a project.

 

The assignment a few days ago was: “What would you show 'John' from the UK, if he wanted to see a cave or a waterfall around here, or if he wanted to experience a river trip on a traditional wooden raft? Put together a few photos and add a short descriptive text.”

 

It turns out that “John” will have to fend for himself when he visits Slovakia, because almost everyone failed to do their homework and didn’t prepare the presentations.

 

The excuses are cheap: “I was sick.” “We couldn't get in touch.” “But why? You're all on Facebook.” “Well, we just couldn’t.” “I didn’t feel like doing it.” “I had no time.” “I had other homework.”

 

But Juraj has planned for this. He expected this result and also the excuses.

 

He takes all the kids out of the computer room, back to the normal classroom, and writes new questions on the blackboard. “Why didn’t I prepare the presentation? What should I have done differently?” He has all the pupils read out their answers. The atmosphere is tense. Juraj has a stern expression on his face. He is not usually like this. The kids are puzzled, ashamed.

 

The teacher knew in advance that this was not going to be a geography lesson, nor a lesson about how to prepare a simple presentation on a PC. Instead, it would end up being a lesson about something much more substantial. A lesson about who is responsible for their lives.

 

Andrej was the only one in the entire class who prepared the presentation about Slovakia. Even though he sent John, the imaginary British tourist, to Orava and the Small Carpathian Mountains, which are relatively far from Kosice – instead of to the nearby Dunajec River and the Slovensky Raj mountain range – he was the only one who at least tried. He had stayed in the classroom after school and found a couple of photos and texts on the internet.

 

When asked why he prepared the presentation, he replies, “It was our homework.”

 

When asked to evaluate himself, Andrej gives himself a grade of 3 – the middle grade between 1 for excellent and 5 for failed – and that is the same grade his classmates give him.

 

Speaking over the end-of-lesson noise of children leaving the classroom, Juraj Cokyna says: “Andrej, you got a grade of 1!”

 

Only one word remains on the blackboard, underlined. Responsibility.

 

Andrej is a Roma boy from Mirkovce, the terrible settlement up on the hill.

 

Three, Two, One – and Finish

 

Three – two – one. All eyes on me.

 

Imagine you have a time machine.

 

Imagine you are a child again and you don’t have your own bedroom at home, no table to sit at and study.

 

Your home does not have running water, nor a single book, and your parents don’t know how to read. Imagine that you live in a single room with all your siblings, parents, and grandparents.

 

Simply imagine you were born in a Roma settlement. Where would you be today? … And what would help you?

 

 

The names of the children have been changed.

 

You can read more about Teach for Slovakia here: The New York Times Magazine, the Guardian, teachlikeachampion.com, blog of Juraj Cokyna

Juraj Konik is an editor and reporter at the Slovak daily Dennik N, where the original version of this story was published. Reprinted with permission. For subscription information for Dennik N, see this link. Translated by Jakub Minarik.

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