21 September 2023

Leszek Olpiński: Teachers often choose quiet quitting. I did it my way

An interview with Leszek Olpiński, philosopher, physicist, former teacher (he worked in schools for 22 years), and today: educator, social skills trainer, and coach.

Author: Maria Mazurek,

Photo: Unsplash

Do you miss school?
The kind of school we have now: no. I still do what is most beautiful in this profession: teach children. For all the rest: bureaucracy, frustration of teachers, exhaustion of students – there is nothing to miss.

Your quitting of the school was high-profile and media-oriented. Why?
Many teachers quit quietly. Unnoticed. I chose a different path. My departure from the school was a protest against the condition of education. And the condition is very poor. I wanted to manifest it. I also wanted to draw attention to the problem of teachers leaving – there will soon be a great lack of educators. At this point, it is already very noticeable.

For how many years have you been teaching in school?
More than 20. I have been professionally involved in education since junior high schools were established in Poland. The assumptions of this reform made sense: education was supposed to move in the direction of teacher and student autonomy, individualization of the teaching process, a holistic approach to subjects, and looking for connections between knowledge and competencies in different subjects. I was happy about this. It seemed that the change was going in the right direction. Unfortunately, it went in the opposite one. The critical moment came when junior high schools were abolished. The core curriculum, which had been implemented during the three years of junior high school, was in many cases “condensed” to two years of education: in the seventh and eighth grades. As a result, the amount of material to be mastered by memory has increased significantly. The work has become much more difficult. Especially for children.

And for teachers?
Because of the huge number of requirements in the core curriculum, we are not able to conduct classes in such a way that the children understand this material, become interested in it, and leave the lesson satisfied. This is demotivating for us. Instead of explaining the world – we make demands. As a result, more and more children use tutoring, and instead of developing their passions or simply relaxing – they sit over textbooks and study. If we treat the time spent studying as a kind of work – children today sometimes work two full-time jobs. For a seventh- or eighth-grader, a full-time job and a half is actually the minimum. Students are required to absorb a lot of knowledge – most of which will prove useless to them and some of which will become completely outdated – instead of being taught what is much more important: competencies such as communication, cooperation, and critical thinking. You ask what this means for teachers. I will answer: powerlessness, anger, frustration.

Added to this is the attitude of the authorities – at various levels, but especially the central government – towards teachers. We simply feel disrespected and underestimated. To earn a decent salary, a teacher must work well beyond the usual working hours: teach in several schools, make extra money from tutoring, etc. This is overwhelming. In addition, the teacher’s autonomy is being significantly reduced. The requirements for creating various types of documentation have intensified. At school, you have to have paper for everything: because an inspector from the board of education demands it, because the principal asks for it. As a result, the teacher, instead of dealing with what he is there for – passing on skills, accompanying students, supporting them – deals with papers. The symbol of these changes is the “Laboratories of the Future” program. Again, the assumption was laudable: the Ministry will equip schools with virtual reality goggles, robots, modern audio-visual accessories, and various specialized tools. Only that the bureaucratic requirements have meant that schools, instead of making meaningful use of this equipment, have to fill out piles of paperwork on how they use it. This does not bring us closer to modern education. On the contrary, it distances us from it.

I came across your comment that when you started teaching physics, the core curriculum fit on one A4 page. Now, it takes up eight.
Initially, the core curriculum was a set of rather general guidelines for what students should know as they complete the next educational stage. But, as standardized, external final exams were introduced, this catalog began to change, introducing increasingly detailed guidelines for the content of the curriculum.

Everyone – parents, teachers, educational experts, not to mention students – complains that the core is overloaded. And yet, nothing is changing. How is this possible? And who is actually responsible for it?
The Minister of Education and Science is responsible for the core curriculum.

But after all, he does not create it with his own hands. He has experts at his disposal. Why do they agree to this?
As far as I know, the minister is completely free to choose experts to create the core curriculum. I’ve also heard that experts with a different vision are simply not listened to – and consequently, they resign from their jobs at the Ministry of Education. So, the minister hires those experts who share the visions he presents. It is not insignificant to create opportunities for oneself to control the teacher – if there are a lot of items in the core curriculum, it is easy to check whether the topics in the report correspond to it. If these points were (as they used to be) only a few and they were presented in the language of the goals, the Ministry or the Board of Education would not have such opportunities.

Another issue is pressure from academics. They often – wanting to have better-prepared students in their courses – lobby for an increase in the scope of material in particular subjects. Unfortunately, in my opinion, they lack broader reflection and the simple observation that the core curriculum covers all students, and only a small part of them will continue their education in a subject-related field.

We talk about an overloaded core curriculum, removing teachers’ autonomy and bureaucracy. It’s just that to the extent that teachers have freedom – for example, in choosing teaching tools – they often don’t use it at all. I ask for an honest answer: do teachers have nothing to reproach themselves with?
They have no small amount to reproach themselves with. It is easier and faster to teach the way you have taught for many years. Come, give the same lecture, give the work, and do not invent engaging activities, modern methods, do not look for interesting materials. Teachers can beat their breasts, but I think that if they could devote themselves to teaching full-time in one school – and not go to two or three schools or look for additional work to make a decent living – they would be more willing to develop themselves and reach for interesting teaching methods. I happened to teach on experimental material, invented my own tools, and made sure that students worked in groups – but I can’t say that I was a perfect teacher either. That I have nothing to reproach myself with.

And what do you have to reproach yourself for?
I lacked the time to approach students individually. To talk to everyone, to get to know them, to adapt teaching tools to their needs. Now, finally, when I teach outside the school, I have time for this. I know each of my students; I know their passions, strengths and weaknesses, and who they are. I’m finally working the way I’ve always wanted to.

We know that the school needs a change. Just how to bring about this change and carry it out wisely?
The starting point has to be a real public consultation so that all interested parties – I know, in the case of education reform, this is a really large group – can express their opinions and then accept the reform plan. For this, you need a real social dialogue, which never actually existed in Poland. This must be an unprecedented initiative. In addition to teachers, educational experts, parents, and students, learning specialists would also have to be invited to the consultation. After all, the ability to acquire new knowledge, not knowledge itself, is what students should leave schools with. That would be the first of three steps.

And the next?
A change in political will. Without it, it is impossible to change the system. We need politicians for that. We need good, safe laws.

What do you mean: safe?
One that will not be easily affected by political change and the wishes of one person. At this point, the minister is able to decide on his own to introduce a new subject with a new core curriculum virtually from month to month. We need a system that is resistant to such moves. We need stability and security, first and foremost, for children.

What is the third step?
Coming up with a sensible mechanism for financing education. Schools need investment – not so much in equipment, but in people. So that teachers can educate themselves, develop themselves, and feel the need to change their working methods. So that they don’t stagnate in the familiar, don’t end up in schools because they don’t have a better idea of themselves. If a teacher does not develop, how are his students supposed to develop?