Hello everyone! We are Kathryn Painter and PollyRose Philpot. We have just graduated from Furman with our bachelor degrees in elementary education and will begin jobs as full time elementary school teachers in August. PollyRose is starting graduate school at Furman this summer to get her Master’s degree in early childhood education. Kathryn plans on teaching for a while before pursuing a Master’s degree in special education.
This morning we visited Vratislavova, a primary school (grades 1-9) in the center of Prague. Many of the students were away on a week long nature trip, which is a tradition students in the Czech Republic have been taking part in for many years. Although most of the classes were gone, we still got to observe several classes and had the opportunity to speak to one of the teachers. In an introductory meeting, the English teacher told us that Vratislavova has 15 classes total. The 1st through 5th grades each have two classes, and then there is one class each for 6th - 9th grade. The class sizes average about 20 students each. The school is mainly made up of students from the surrounding area, but can also take other students when they have spots available. The students who come to the school have diverse socio-economic statuses. During our time at the school, PollyRose got to see a 1st grade math class and Kathryn saw a 1st grade Czech language class. Here are our experiences:
The Czech language lesson was for 1st grade students who are just learning to read and write. The goal is that all 1st grade students will be able to write all the letters and read by the end of the year. The class I saw was rather traditional, in that students were sitting in rows and the teacher stood at the front of the room giving directions and leading the class. The lesson was a phonics lesson that focused on the accented e in the Czech language. The teacher had this letter on the board and placed various consonants in front of it to make different sounds. The kids repeated these sounds after her. The teacher also wrote longer words on the board that included the accented e. She read the words aloud to the kids and they talked about their meaning. The teacher instructed the kids to open their workbooks to the page that contained the lessons on the accented e. This page had other words that contained this letter, as well as short writing activities for the kids to complete on the letter. There were also some sentences written out in the workbook that used words containing the accented e. After completing the workbook pages, the kids opened their cursive writing books and began working on the page for the accented e. The teacher modeled some of the words on the board. The cursive writing books had words written on the left hand side and lines for kids to practice copying the words on the right hand side. There was a set of twins in this class who could speak English, and one of the boys told me that in the Czech culture it is very important that you can write well in cursive. He showed me his booklet and I saw that the teacher grades every page they complete and assigns a score of 1 to 5, 1 being the best and 5 being the worst. Although the kids are graded for their work, they are expected to write in pen and cannot make mistakes. During the middle of the lesson, and again at the end, the students stood up to recite a poem they are working on memorizing. They used hand motions that went with the poem as they recited the words. The students remained focus and on task for the 45 minute lesson, but as soon as it was over they ran out of the room and into the hall where they could laugh, yell, and be themselves for about 10-15 minutes before the next lesson began. They were not expected to walk down the hall quietly in a perfect row like we ask of our kids in America.
The math lesson I observed was for first grade students ages 7 to 8. When we entered the classroom the students were finishing up one of the many breaks they receive throughout the school day following each 45 minute lesson for 10-20 minutes. When the lesson was about to begin the teacher rang a bell on her desk and the students went from silly to serious very quickly. The lesson started with a song that the children knew very well and I assume they sing daily. The teacher proceeded to ask the students activating questions to get them thinking and she called on children to answer. The first activity used number cards from 1 to 20 that each student layed out on their desk. The teacher would hold up an addition or subtraction problem and the students would hold up the answer. The students had a number line taped to their desk to help them if needed. The second activity used a small cardboard box that looked like a public bus. One student held the box over her head as she traveled around the room collecting and dropping of “passengers” at each “station”. The passengers were small bottles with people on them and the stations were three other children placed around the room. After the bus had made all the stops the students had to figure out how many people were still on the bus. The third activity started with problems on the board that asked the students to fill in a number that was greater than less than a given number (for example, _<12<_). Four students were called to the board to fill in the blanks for each number. The fourth activity consisted of the teacher asking the class to recite the numbers from _ to _ (for example, 9 to 16). The fifth activity used the children’s math activity books. The teacher played a recording that introduced the scenario of eight snails in a race. The children had to figure out where snails 3 and 6 were in the race based on the information they heard. The students also had to fill in a number pyramid that used addition. The sixth activity required popsicle sticks that the students used to create a large box with four smaller boxes inside. The students were told that they needed to remove two sticks to create 2 rectangles. The students demonstrated four possible ways to do so no the board after figuring out the answer themselves. The seventh and final activity used four manipulative blocks. The students were told that they needed to use the four blocks to create a building with three floors. The students demonstrated all the ways to do so on the board to check as a class. They drew overhead views of the building to show the three floors. This math lesson was fun, engaging, and well organized. All of the materials were easily accessed so no time was wasted and lots of material was covered in a variety of ways.
After eating lunch at the primary school we made our way to Charles University where we received a detailed overview of the history of Prague and the logistics of the university. Charles University was founded by Charles IV who is also the king that the Charles Bridge is named after. The university began in 1348 which makes it the oldest higher education institution in the area. We examined the education system in the Czech Republic and discussed the potential social problem that can be created by the sorting that happens so early in the education system. After 5th grade, at the age of 11 years old, a student who passed the Maturita exam may be selected to proceed to secondary school. This would mean that the students would spend 8 years in secondary school rather than 4 like a student that continues through lower secondary school and finishes 9th grade as a 15 year old. A student can also move to secondary school after 7th grade if they pass the Maturita exam and attend for 6 years. The students that are able to enter secondary school early usually come from a more affluent and educated household. They are provided more opportunity to succeed and they are more likely to continue to higher education (Bachelor’s or Master’s). Teachers in the Czech Republic must complete 5 years of study for primary school which includes their Master’s degree. A preschool teacher must only complete 3 years to achieve a Bachelor’s degree. Charles University is 1 of 26 public universities/colleges in the Czech Republic. The university consists of 53,848 students and is free for all students from the country. During the Bachelor’s degree the teaching candidates receive mainly content knowledge through their courses and the Master’s degree contains 8 weeks of hands on experience in the classroom.
When comparing our experiences today to what we saw in Finland, and what we have experienced as teachers and students in the U.S., some similarities and many differences are apparent. First, we believe that the Czechs and the Finns have more similar education system structures than we do in the U.S. They both have periods of public daycare and preschool (ages 3-5), followed by one year of preparation for school (age 6). Grades 1-9 (ages 7-16) are compulsory. In Finland, students have a variety of options for what happens after 9th grade. They can attend an optional 10th grade, go to an academic upper secondary school, go to vocational school, or go to university. In the Czech Republic, students also have options. They can begin gymnasium, an academic focused school that can start either after 5th, 7th, or 9th grade. Typically, the more academically gifted you are the younger you go to gymnasium. The Czechs can also go to vocational or technical school for upper secondary. To go to university, you must pass the matricula and earn a certificate showing you have finished secondary school. Then, you must apply to a certain program or faculty within the university by taking an entrance exam. These systems are obviously different that the one we have in the U.S., where we have elementary, middle, and high school with either community college or college/university after high school. Public schools are typically valued above the private schools in Finland and the Czech Republic, but private schools seem to play a more prominent role in the U.S.
Additionally, the Czechs and the Finns both seem to value education more than the U.S. This is evident in the teacher education programs in the two countries. In Finland and in the Czech Republic, qualified teachers must have a Master’s degree to teach, where as the U.S. only requires a Bachelor’s. While the Finns pay their teachers a very respectable salary, the Czech teachers we spoke to do not believe they are paid very much at all. Of course, teachers in the U.S. are certainly underpaid and under-respected. Both the Czech Republic and Finland offer free public education all the way through university and getting a PhD. Although public education is free in the U.S. for kindergarten through 12th grade, U.S. students must pay for public college and university degrees.