22 June 2023

Piotr Walda: Stop punishing children for our own mistakes. It’s not right

Piotr Walda, history teacher: Sometimes I hear pedagogues saying, "This kid is so stupid, he didn't learn again." Zero self-reflection, asking the question: "What did I do wrong that the child did not learn?".

Author: Maria Mazurek,


What would you change about the school?
It would be shorter to list what I would not change. Let me be clear: the Polish school is dying. It needs to be completely rebuilt. I mean both the word’s literal meaning – new school buildings should already be designed differently, providing open spaces – and the metaphorical one. Primarily the latter.

What would this metaphorical school rebuilding consist of?
We need to return to the student-teacher relationship. It is the core of education. Take a look at the Socratic schools. The ancient Greeks attended them not because someone told them to but because they admired their master. That was enough. Extras were not necessary: the shade of a fig tree was enough as a place of learning. There were no exams, no rankings, no grades. There was curiosity about the world and an admired teacher.

Today, students do not admire teachers?
Less and less. And let me say something unpopular: it’s not just the system’s fault.

Whose else is it?

What is the problem?
In the shortest words? In the fact that many teachers are simply not fit for this profession.

What does it mean: not fit for this profession?
To not like children. You would be surprised how many teachers just don’t like children. And this is the absolute basis for this job; without it, it is simply impossible to do it well. School today is the third, fourth, and fifth choice of young people. The teacher waits with a smartphone in hand for an offer of a better job.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so if he earned more money at school.
The common belief is that teachers should earn more money. And I don’t quite agree with that. Do you think that if a bad teacher gets a 20 percent raise, he will become a good teacher because of it?

I think the idea behind the demand for teacher raises is based on a different assumption: if teacher salaries are higher, then more capable, open-minded, and creative young people will want to teach at school.
I completely agree that a teacher’s job should offer the possibility of significantly higher salaries. However, I disagree that everyone deserves a raise. Creating a meaningful career path for teachers would be necessary because the one that exists today is a formality. Professional promotion degrees should depend on experience, knowledge, and teaching practice – and not be achieved by an educator merely for working some years and filling out the appropriate paperwork. Subsequent degrees of professional promotion should be obtained by passing a demanding exam. This is how it is done in Spain. Similarly, it is necessary to make access to the teaching profession more difficult. Today it is pretty easy to become a teacher. All you need is a college degree paper – and not necessarily a pedagogical one, because pedagogical preparation can be completed already during school practice. Well, still a certificate of no criminal record and a document that a person is not present in the register of pedophiles.

Then what do you propose?
A change in the training system. Modern education requires interdisciplinary teachers with a holistic approach, whose actions are immersed in humanistic values.

How to do this?
Move away from the system of training subject teachers. The studies for future teachers should return. They could be divided into two stages: a three-year bachelor’s degree, where the student is trained to teach three or four subjects, followed by a two-year master’s degree, where he or she would gain pedagogical competence.

Educators of integrated education, that is, grades 1-3, are trained in a similar way. We recently spoke with Prof. Śliwerski. He claimed this is why early childhood education is quite good in Poland. The problem starts in the fourth grade.
I have been working as a teacher for 33 years; I observe a lot, and I am interested in education in other countries. So I know that certain things could work. And that – if only we created a strong lobby – in a fairly short time. Just look at the Scandinavian countries, above all Finland, where education reform has brought great results. We can take inspiration by handfuls from those who are already light years ahead of us.

Let me come back to the education system: those two-year supplementary studies consisting of pedagogical preparation should be combined with school practice. Such a student could work as a teacher’s assistant, forming a duo with the teacher – pardon the comparison; I’m a historian – analogous to the knight-squire team. Before such a student became a “knight,” he would have been thoroughly prepared for school work; he would have known its realities and made sure that this was his path. Everyone would be assured that he is fit for this profession.

What else would you like to see in a modern school?
It’s more about what needs to be stripped from education.

Bureaucracy. We still have a problem with it. Also: “testosis” and “rankingosis.” Modern education is entangled in tests, rankings, and exams. There are not enough humanistic values in it. We evaluate schools through the perspective of external rankings that serve no purpose and actually consider secondary aspects of teaching, unnecessarily strengthening only competitiveness – between schools, principals, teachers, and students. I repeat to eighth-graders graduating from primary school: “When choosing a secondary school, don’t look at the rankings, the external evaluation of a particular school. Look at the relationships within it. Go to the school you are considering and observe whether teachers and students respectfully relate to each other. Pay attention to the atmosphere there. Talk to students and alumni. Listen to yourself and answer the question of whether you will feel comfortable in this environment. Will you come to it with joy? That’s the most important thing.”

I would eliminate one more thing in education that is basically the source of all evil….

Let me guess: grades?
Yes. Of course, a student should get some feedback on what he has learned and what he has not, but such information should not take the form of grades. After all, what kind of information is this? The student gets a grade four, and he’s happy, but what does this grade four mean? What does it say about what he knows? Teachers use grades as a reward or punishment. More often, a punishment. And then, the student functions in an atmosphere of pressure and stress rather than curiosity and enjoyment of learning. A six or seven-year-old child usually goes to school full of eagerness to learn and curiosity about the world. And after “processing,” the school releases a young person full of anxiety, often suffering from depression, bored, and uninterested in knowledge. Fortunately, more and more schools are moving away from the grading system. Their graduates are not achieving worse results on external exams. On the contrary: they achieve better results on them.

Haven’t you tried to move away from grading in your school? Top-down regulations don’t actually prohibit it.
I have tried. It’s just that there is such a thing as a school statute. And for most colleagues, such a solution is not an option.

Because the grading, in a sense, passes the responsibility to the students. Sometimes I hear discussions in the teachers’ room like, “This kid is stupid; he didn’t learn again.” Zero self-reflection, asking yourself: “What did I do wrong that the child did not learn?”. For me, the biggest failure is when I give a grade one or two. Because it means that it was I who did not teach something to that young person. I’m the one who made a mistake. Let’s not punish children for our own mistakes. That’s not right.

We, the teachers, are the ones for the students. Not the other way around. Without them, we don’t exist, so we should treat them as partners. This should also manifest itself in seemingly trivial gestures. Sometimes I see teachers standing over a child, and the child looks up scared. How about getting down to his eye level and sitting together at the table? Let’s take students seriously. With respect. Reinforce what is good. Tests are usually circled in red – that’s how teachers used to mark mistakes. And I use the green pen method. I start with what’s good and only then come to information about what can be done to make it even better.

How do parents react to this?
This is sometimes a problem. I regularly meet with parents and tell them what the child knows, what he is good at, and what he needs to work on. And in the end, the question still falls, “Well, but what grade will my child get? Three, four, or five?”. Sometimes I answer, ” I have been explaining to you for half an hour what the child has learned. Is this grade really that important?”.
So I would start changing the school by changing the mentality: of teachers and parents. If this changes, we can bring humanism back to schools.