18 May 2023
Edyta Kłeczek: One of the fundamental mistakes in relationships with students is an assumption that we don’t need each other
Interview with Edyta Kłeczek, historian, an English teacher at a primary school in Brzeźnica near Skawina (Małopolska), school coordinator of the Erasmus Plus and English Teaching programs, and ambassador of the IDS Program established by the Holistic Think Tank.
What do you like most about this work?
Contact with children. People. I’m the type of person who recharges his batteries by talking to others. What I also like about my job as a teacher is that my brain doesn’t get bored. It is constantly working at high speed.
What do you mean by that?
First of all: a teacher all his life needs to further his education. Especially a village teacher, who often teaches not one, but several subjects – and has to graduate from each. Besides, the state of knowledge in various fields constantly changes; these are not closed sets, even in sciences such as history or English. If we want to stay up to date – both with subject knowledge and that of didactics – we have to study all our lives. That’s fine with me. And here’s something else: every child, every class, every yearbook is different. Every day at school is an adventure. If I want to keep up with the kids, I have to get curious about their world; try to understand what they live, what they talk about, and what is fashionable.
How do you find this out? From TikTok, Snapchat?
No. The most inspiring thing is contact with a live person. Conversation. Sometimes I hear a word or topic and ask questions. I don’t pretend to be an omniscient educator. I don’t think today’s youth are less nice than we were. I give myself space to learn from them. For example, I ask: “I hear that you constantly use the word essa (a Polish youth word, used as a sign of approval or joy – ed. note). What does it mean?”.
Do they answer eagerly?
Very much so! They enjoy how the teacher shows interest in them. They hunger for it – even if they try not to let it show. One of the fundamental mistakes we can make in our relationship with children is to assume that we don’t need each other. That we, adults, can’t learn anything from them and that they, the new generation, live in their bubbles that they don’t want to let us into. All this is not true. We need each other. Only sometimes, the teacher doesn’t have the opportunity to build a relationship with his students.
Doesn’t have the opportunity, or doesn’t he want to?
I would answer this way: the system is not conducive to building relationships. The core curriculum is so extensive that the teacher must chase during the lesson with material to implement it. I don’t want to say that what happens during the class – is not valuable. But when it comes to getting to know students, building relationships, nurturing soft skills, or life-enhancing values in young people – what is most precious happens outside those 45 minutes between bells, mainly on trips and during projects. So in our school – and this is a countryside, public primary school – we participate in many of them. Tomorrow, for example, we will be doing a culinary workshop in English. We’ll learn how to prepare hot dogs and banoffee pie (it’s a delicious pie made of bananas, cream, and caramel) with the students. And at the same time, we will practice English.
Tomorrow is Saturday.
These types of workshops or projects have to take place beyond lessons. But students are very eager to participate in them. They like them. It’s not true that children are lazy or don’t want to learn. Sometimes they are just tired and bored with memorizing thousands of detailed facts that will probably never be useful to them – and even if they would, it’s effortless to look them up on the Internet. The world has changed, and schools have not kept up with this change. I am not a fan of unreflective criticism of schools. There are many beautiful, necessary things happening in them. However, it is hard not to get the impression that the priorities are not right. Rankings, the pressure of exams, and the focus on the result – serve neither schools nor students. The exams are “tailored” to one particular model of student – the one who can memorize a massive amount of material. And yet memory is only one of the many components of intellectual development, not to mention social or emotional development. Second: very active students, who have passion, who achieve excellent results in sports, for example, or who have above-average artistic talent – have less time for memory learning because their calendars are simply filled to the top. For this reason, already, they are at a loss in preparing for exams.
And this is what everyone demands of us in the first place: preparing students for exams. We are held accountable for this by parents, the Board of Trustees, and rankings. Teachers of private schools, such as Montessori, are in a slightly different situation. If we, public school teachers, want to prepare students not only for exams but also for life, we have to give much more of ourselves than conducting lessons and completing the core curriculum. Fortunately, many teachers want to devote their free time and energy to organizing extra-curricular things with kids. At our place, the teachers are very active. We have a lot of trips with students, including abroad. Our school participates in many projects, including Erasmus Plus, English Teaching, and Humine. This school year, as part of English Teaching, we are looking at the life and role of bees. The program includes a trip to an apiary, writing poems about bees, preparing “bee” T-shirts, and an exhibition. Let me show you a picture (pulls out a smartphone). Guess what it is? I bought antennae and artificial eyes for the technical workshop. We’ll make bees out of toilet paper, colored foam, and these details.
We do a lot of creative things at school. For example, I prepared a comics version of “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Black Cat” with my students. In English, of course.
Did they draw these comics?
Even better! They acted in them. They dressed up, posed for pictures, then we put it together, adding the text clouds. For the scene from the wedding, the students posed in the church. The priest helped us. For the scene from the inn – in a local pub. We like such things. They build a sense of community, cooperation, and responsibility for the group. And in addition, they consolidate the material very well. We remember better the material we learn with curiosity and feeling positive emotions. And with such projects, there is always a lot of laughter, emotion, and pleasant adrenaline.
You also teach using the CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) method. How does it work?
It’s a method in which students learn subject knowledge and a foreign language – in my case English – simultaneously. In the traditional approach to language teaching, grammar or vocabulary material is often learned through disconnected, shallow dialogues or examples. The idea is to – colloquially speaking – kill two birds with one stone: impart knowledge of geography or history and a foreign language at the same time. For example, you can conduct a lesson in geography, comparing rivers and seas, and at the same time – teach children the gradation of adjectives in English. Or tell the story of the Warsaw Uprising in a foreign language. It might seem like “loading” students with a double dose of material, but since it involves two fields – children do not have this impression. They are happy to participate in such activities.
Do you remember your first day at school as a teacher?
Yes, on September 1, 1999. Since the beginning, I have taught in the same school I attended as a child. Only at that time junior high schools were established, and one was also separated from my institution. The first tutorship, the first year of my teaching work, and the first “experimental” year of operation of junior high schools. I had no idea what awaited me.
What would you say to yourself today from those 24 years ago?
I would have talked to myself about organizing lessons more efficiently and better. And I would also tell myself that if a class doesn’t go as planned, it doesn’t mean it’s worse, and I’m doing something wrong. I have learned to let go and be flexible as I get older.
Did you cry after that class?
I don’t know if I want to talk about it publicly.
That is, you cried.
A teacher’s job is to work with another human being, whom we discover, cheer for, care for. Someone may say that emotions in the work of an educator are a sign of a lack of professionalism. I, for one, believe that schools should be built on human relations. And if this is so – there is no escape from emotions. They are also what give meaning to the work. Of course, not everything in schools works well. Of course, the work of a teacher has many defects. Of course, there are moments of doubt for me. But as long as it is the good moments that prevail, and as long as I feel that through my work, I am doing something good for these young people – then it has a deep purpose.