07 September 2023

Jolanta Okuniewska: Every true teacher has reflexivity and flexibility

Interview with Jolanta Okuniewska, early school education teacher and teacher trainer. She has received numerous national and international awards for her teaching activities, including the Medal of the National Education Commission and the Title of Honorary Professor of Education. She was a finalist for the "Teacher Nobel Prize" - the Global Teacher Prize.

Author: Maria Mazurek,

"Carpet methods". Photo: Unsplash

What do you love this profession for?

For the fact that I have an impact on the lives of other people – an impact on children who I can shape so that they grow up to be happy people.

Doesn’t this responsibility overwhelm you?

When I started working, I didn’t think I thought about it that way.

In what way?

That it was a mission. It was only years later that I realized the importance of this job. Not only for me, who chose this profession for myself and who loves it. For society as a whole. But to answer your question, I don’t feel overwhelmed by it. On the contrary, I consider the teaching profession the most beautiful in the world. Developing, also for me. Watching how a child matures, how he blossoms – gives great satisfaction. I try to feed curiosity in students, but also, thanks to them, I still have it myself, after so many years of work. The work of a teacher allows you to sharpen your brain, to grow, and to be active. At school, no day is repeated.

And yet, many people in this profession burn out. Why?

The problem of professional burnout is a sign of the times, and it affects other professional groups as well. Life is getting harder, faster, and more demanding. The pressure negatively affects our well-being, which in turn affects our work.

In addition, the situation of teachers in terms of cooperation with parents has changed: today, they have more rights and more decision-making power. They feel they are partners. For some educators, this is difficult because no one at the university taught us how to talk and cooperate with parents. You have to develop such policies yourself and learn them yourself.

Did you develop these policies?

Yes. And I believe that’s why I’ve never had any significant problems communicating with my parents.

What are these policies?

I treat the parent as a partner, an ally so that he is aware that we are on the same page and working together for the child’s benefit. Besides, in contact with parents and children, I try to be sincere and authentic. I involve parents in various activities, in organizing events or trips. It is necessary to give the parents room for input, and when they come up with suggestions – appreciate them.

Empathy, putting yourself in the role of a parent, also helps. I ask myself: if I were a parent, would such behavior of a teacher please me? Would I want someone to speak this way about my child? When I meet the teacher, would I want it to be a 10-minute conversation in the corridor, in the noise, during the break, or would I prefer the teacher to invite me in the afternoon for a quiet, intimate conversation?

And yet, sometimes, there will be a parent with whom communication is particularly difficult, even as the teacher tries to show empathy. What then?

You can ask for support from a psychologist. As I mentioned, teachers are usually not trained to work with a difficult or, as you say, a demanding parent. Just as no one has taught them how to take care of their own well-being, find a work-life balance, and not transfer difficult situations to the home.

Returning to the teachers’ worries, some also complain about the development of new technologies.

Technologies are great. There was a time when I was fascinated by their use in education. I worked with them in classrooms back in 2012, when they were still a new thing for kids and something very exciting. However, times have changed, and kids today have almost unlimited access to smartphones, also outside their parents’ control. So I thought to return to “carpet methods,” more contact of a living person with a living person – because it is the latter that is missing the most today. We continue to use tablets, the Internet, and apps during classes, but to a slightly lesser extent.

So, have you changed your work methods on reflection because the outside world has changed?

Yes. It is necessary to be an acute observer and react flexibly. Our work should undergo evaluation and reflection on whether what I’m doing continues to make sense. I don’t see anything unusual in this. Do you see it?

What I see is that many teachers prefer to pretend that the world hasn’t changed and do their work almost the same way for three decades.

I think every true teacher has reflexivity and flexibility. Our role is not only to “teach,” which is included in the name of our profession. It is also to accompany students in how they change and how the world around them changes.

What does it actually mean to accompany?

To be near children. There is now such a term as “attachment parenting.” I like to talk about “attachment teaching.” It includes nurturing, respecting the child, and following his needs. When I started working, there was no such philosophy at all. Likewise, when I became a mother, there was no philosophy of “attachment parenting;” raising children consisted of replicating the pattern of parenting that one took from one’s family home. Subconsciously, I felt that it was possible to do things differently. More intimate. Today, with the development of psychology, we know more about it.

Based on this intimacy, I take great care to work with students every day. I accompany them. With me, children can express themselves practically unhindered. I respect their opinions, give them choices, emphasize children’s strengths, and support their efforts. For years, I have not evaluated numerically but descriptively, reinforcing the child’s sense of worth, highlighting their strengths, and only then – saying what they could do even better. I try to support, not judge.

Where did this reflection come from?

I have always wanted my classes as a teacher to look the way I want my children’s school classes to look. When I face a student, I often see them as my child. When I have a point to make, even a critical one, I am very careful not to leave the student with a sense of defeat but to show the way forward.

You mentioned “carpet methods” in your lessons. What do they look like?

At my place – and that of my shifter, with whom I share a classroom – the chairs have been set up for years in an “unschooling” way, combined into larger tables at which the children cooperate. Such an arrangement also leaves more space for the carpet, where we talk, learn, and spend time together. Children return to the desks only to practice what they have learned on the carpet.

How do children react to such a classroom arrangement?

There is a similar arrangement in the kindergarten. For them, therefore, it is a matter of course. Instead, they react with surprise to the row arrangement of desks, which still dominates in Polish, and not only Polish, schools. Fortunately, there are more and more teachers who want not only to teach but also to accompany. To be near. For the students.