03 August 2023

To teach children humanistic values, we must show them by our own example. Change is always worth starting with ourselves

Interview with Marta Bujakowska, English teacher, teacher trainer, and graduate of the School of International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont, US.

Author: Maria Mazurek,


Photo: Sebastian Leo Prado/Unsplash

What obstructs education?

Boredom. Children aged five or six absorb knowledge, are curious about the world, are creative, engaged, and usually very excited to start school. And then something goes wrong. We destroy something in them. The system destroys something in them.

In what way?

The child, although creative and curious, has a problem sitting down for 45 minutes at a desk and listening to the teacher’s monologue. They shouldn’t learn in this way. I remember this very well from my school days. I had a wonderful English teacher in high school. She was ahead of her time; she had an approach to education that is more common today. She engaged us in cooperation, the lessons were interesting, and a lot was going on. This teacher – and it was happening more than five decades ago – put aside textbooks and instead prepared fantastic lesson scenarios. We loved these classes.

Once, she got sick, and another teacher came to replace her. We read some dialogue and learned something by memory. I am okay with learning some things by heart, but it was a terrible bore. I didn’t know why we were doing it. I thought, “That’s exactly the kind of teacher I don’t want to be.” This, in a sense, worked as a motivator. Such motivation is common among teachers – those who want to be open-minded, engaged, and share passion. Some have their anti-patterns and then do a lot to avoid duplicating them. Which, of course, is very difficult.

Did you know as early as your school days that you wanted to become a teacher?

I come from a teaching family. My mother was a teacher, my grandparents, and other relatives. As a little girl, I used to play school, pretending to teach children. It was a natural choice for me; as a child I thought of myself as a future educator. However, before high school graduation, I wanted to do everything, but not that. I tried twice to get into theatrical studies – at that time, it was a freshly opened faculty at the Jagiellonian University, and only ten people a year were admitted, so my chances were very slim. I talked to my dad. He told me, “Marta, after all, you have teaching in your blood.” This conversation opened my eyes, and I decided to educate myself in this direction.

In turn, the choice of English studies was determined precisely by the positive experience of English classes in high school. My teacher once told me that I should become an English philologist. This surprised me because I went to a very strong class when it comes to English language. I was somewhere at the gray end. Today, I know what she meant. She saw something in me. I also have students in whom I see this.

“This” – meaning what?

Talent. This talent may have nothing to do with grades, achievements in competitions, or even general advancement in a particular subject. Instead, it’s about seeing the potential in a student. Spotting the diamonds, which can be polished and watched as they slowly become real treasure. This is one of the most beautiful teaching experiences: to spot potential and give it a chance.

I recently spoke with a poorly educated woman living in harsh conditions. She used beautiful language, had brilliant reflections, and showed great intellectual potential. Perhaps no one at school noticed this potential.

That’s likely. I’m friends with people who only finished vocational school, didn’t pass the high school diploma, didn’t go to university. It’s all right if it is their choice because not everyone needs to have a brilliant career, get titles, get promotions. However, it’s not good if people don’t have the opportunity to embark on such a path. If they are deprived of the chance. Unfortunately, it happens sometimes. We live in a country where school education is common and compulsory – and very well. However, from my observations, schools operate differently, and teachers are also different. Some choose the easiest path – to pigeonhole students and work with them according to the established patterns they know from their own school days. Do not allow what is new, different, or unknown. And yet, education is a change. Schools should at least try to chase the changing world.

And don’t they chase?

Not everywhere. In many places, for example, there is an absolute prohibition on using smartphones by students. I agree that students shouldn’t watch videos on TikTok or chat on messenger during lessons. However, the smartphone is a powerful and natural tool for the younger generation to use for knowledge acquisition as well. So, I believe that the teacher’s role is to show students how to use it safely and consciously and not to cut them off from smartphones. Some educators, unfortunately, show great unwillingness to change anything. What’s more, they can be enthused about how empty the school is during the vacations, how cool it is without children. For me, a school without children is sad and devoid of sense. As if someone ripped the heart out of it.

However, there are many educators – I see this because I regularly conduct pieces of training for teachers, including those from smaller towns – who go to various conferences, get further training, and are willing to devote their free weekend to a course or training, even though their colleagues laugh at it: Why are you doing this? Do you really want to?

What does it depend on whether teachers want to or not?

Environmental factors play a significant role. I think that enthusiasm is, in a sense, infectious. Committed teachers go for training, and when they come back to their schools, even those colleagues who asked, “Why are you doing this?” slowly change something in their heads. They realize that things can be done differently.

A lot also depends on relationships in schools. I conduct communication pieces of training for teachers from the Netherlands, Austria, and Poland. In communication classes, we take a look at the communication triangle: students-teachers-parents. It turns out that where there is trust and cooperation between these groups, the school is better, more meaningful, and friendlier for everyone. In Poland, however, competition is sometimes stronger than cooperation.

And it is the school that ought to teach cooperation.

Full agreement. It’s just that pedagogues who graduated from schools operating in a similar model teach there. And the circle closes.

How to change this?

If educators should teach cooperation – and in this, we fully agree – they should also show what this cooperation is by the example of their own relationships. This is the basis. There are countries where a teacher comes to school at 8 or 9 and spends six hours there, no matter how many classes he has in that time. This leaves space for forming relationships with other teachers, for cooperation, joint discussion, and forming a sense of social belonging. In Poland, teachers who start lessons at 10:30 a.m. and finish at 1:15 p.m. usually spend time at school exactly between 10:30 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. I’m not saying, God forbid, they don’t work outside of these hours – because educators’ work at home is also hard work, and they don’t have little of it. But they rarely spend time, for example, preparing classes or correcting students’ work in their work environment. And thus – they do not actively participate in creating a cooperative environment.

If we want to teach children commitment, cooperation, and social responsibility, we must not only talk about it but also show it. Change is always worth starting with ourselves.