Zuzana Barančoková is an out-going, smart, extremely active, and fun person. Just the kind you would like to be your teacher. Guess what? She is a teacher. Zuzana graduated from our department last summer, in combination with the French Language and Literature, and is now spending her year of Comenius Assistantship in the UK. PERSPECTIVES asked her about the first experiences, the journey that led up to London, and her future prospects.
Perspectives (PP): Where exactly do you work and what exactly do you do?
Zuzka Barančoková (ZB): I work at a primary school called “Brookfield Primary School” in the district of Camden, London. As a Comenius Assistant I am responsible for helping teachers in their lessons and for preparing teaching materials. I am a primary language assistant, which means I assist in almost all French lessons. I observe the teaching techniques that teachers use in explaining new topics, I help children out with worksheets, or when they engage in a conversation with each other. In all of these lessons, I am just an observer and helper. However, I run a French Club for a couple of children interested in learning more about France and its culture. As the children learn the basic words and phrases in French in the lessons, I try to teach them about France, its culture and traditions. We cook French dishes as well (we once made French pancakes called “crêpes”, which was a great success among the kids). I also have a couple of Maths lessons where I help children who need more explaining or additional help. I have guided reading sessions with children who have difficulties with reading or need to be paid extra attention. Some of the kids are not of English origin and English is not their mother tongue, so they need extra reading and understanding. I also run a children’s group called “Circle of Friends” which is a programme aimed at helping children integrate into a class or to solve problems that occur in class like bullying.
Now I am also assisting in a secondary school (William Ellis School) to see how teachers teach and how children behave in secondary schools. I am planning to open a Slovak Club so that children will get to know about my home country, its traditions and maybe even a couple of essential phrases, such as “ahoj”, “ďakujem”, “ako sa máš”, “prosím”. A lot of children still think I am French because I speak French to them. I know that it can be confusing for them. Once they hear me speak English, then they hear me speak French to them during the French lessons, and I am actually Slovak with a completely different mother tongue.
PP: How did you get into the program?
ZB: Well, my friend was a Comenius Assistant two years ago in Brighton. I came to visit her, and she told me everything about being a Comenius Assistant. She said she had learnt new things, had an opportunity to teach a couple of lessons, learnt how to interact with children, and she even went on field trips with them and said it was fun. All this tempted me to try to apply for it as I was already studying to be a teacher and thought this might bring me more experience with children, school, and teaching. Also, I would get to live in a foreign country which I always wanted to and would get to travel a little bit to make the most of my stay there. The actual process of applying requires visiting the website of the National Association for International Cooperation, downloading the application form and filling it in, plus a few motivation letters. Simple as that. (smiles)
PP: What is the biggest advantage of the program you have experienced so far?
ZB: Hm... I think it is being surrounded by English-speaking people. The teachers in my school come from all over Britain and even from Australia, so it is very interesting to listen to their various accents. Also, the interaction with children is great, and I gradually learn how to handle various situations that occur during the lessons or breaks. I get to see various lessons and each teacher guides his/her lesson differently so I have an opportunity to see all and compare and make mental notes such as “I might try this later in my lesson” or “this works with these kids and not with these” or “this is not good, I will try to avoid it in my lessons”. I am not a normal teacher, not even a normal teaching assistant, so I do not have their responsibilities (or their rights). I do not work as hard as the teachers do. It is something between teaching and an internship. I was not ready to go straight to work and teach after I finished my studies and this seemed like a good option. It does not mean that I do not work at all. I just work in a different way and learn a lot. I have more time to myself, which I use to explore the surrounding area and make trips to get to know the city and the country. I have already visited Oxford and Edinburgh, been on a quick tour around Scotland, and I am planning to visit some more places.
PP: What are the downsides of the program?
ZB: I did not have much opportunity to present my country, as this school is more oriented towards teaching French. That is why they chose me. I studied and majored in the French language. They do not have experience with assistants from small countries, such as Slovakia and some of them have never heard about the Slovak language, as their previous assistants came from either France or Germany. I hope this will all change when I open my Slovak Club in January. Another thing is that I know that I am not a teacher here, but sometimes I would like to be more involved in classroom management and lesson leading, as I am a lively and communicative person. Sitting, listening, and occasionally helping does not suit me so that is why I am glad when teachers sometimes let me lead a part of the lesson, and I finally feel that I am the one in charge.
PP: Have you experienced any “culture shock”?
ZB: Yes, of course. Apart from the well-known fact that cars drive on the wrong side of the road, there were many things I had to get used to. The way some people dress was shocking. The area of Camden is famous for really strange fashion combinations and it proved to be true. Weird hairstyles, piercings everywhere, tattoos... Of course not all people dress like that, but you can find such characters on the streets daily. When the sun is out – and it does not even have to be hot and steam can go out of your mouth – and you can see them wearing coats, scarves and, of course, flip-flops or sandals. That is just CRAZY!
The English are polite all the time. They greet you in the morning with the polite “How are you?” and you are supposed to answer “Fine” or “I am OK”, even if you do not feel fine at all. They expect you to ask this question back so that they can answer in the same manner. It is quite irritating sometimes to have to ask and answer this question every time you meet a different teacher in the corridor. In Slovakia, if you meet somebody on the street or in the corridor, you just say “hi” and go on with your business.
The food they eat and things you can find in their shops are different as well. Our school is proud of being a healthy school, so of course all the food has to be healthy. That is why we have fish every day, but with different spices, and a meal for vegetarians, which is usually a jacket potato (normal baked potato that we, Slovaks, usually eat with meat). They eat a lot of mashed potatoes and rice is very rare – as well as chicken. I have been eating in the school canteen for three months and we have had chicken only once!
If you go to a shop, you will not find biscuits without any flavour, which are common in Slovak shops. All biscuits are either with chocolate, vanilla or some other flavour, usually with a filling inside. Even their milk tastes different.
One more thing is different. My school is more informal than other schools as children call their teachers and even the headmaster by their first names. You will never hear something like “Mr. Fellows, could you please help me?” or “Miss Cooper, I cannot find my workbook”. No, the children will address the teacher directly, “Rob, could you repeat that?” or “Zuzana, I do not understand this question”. It makes the atmosphere relaxed, but it doesn’t diminish respect towards the teacher. It is the same as it is in other schools. The difference is that the children from my school respect teachers for what they are doing and how they are helping them, not on the basis of a title before a name.
PP: What are the kids in the UK like? Are they any way different from the Slovak kids?
ZB: This is a difficult question to answer. In every school and in every country, you will find children who are well-behaved, eager to learn, children who bully others, children for whom school is boring, and children who have problems with learning. It is the way you approach them that might change their behaviour.
I am in contact with children from only one school, so I cannot generalize. However, it seems to me that children in my school are less smart in comparison with children their age in Slovakia. Their learning system is different and they do a lot of experiments and the education is more children-centred here whereas in Slovakia the teaching process is more teacher-centred. As a result, kids from my school can do an experiment but are unable to write notes or work with text.
PP: What is the biggest difference between the Slovak and the British school system?
ZB: Firstly, children start school at the age of three when they go to kindergarten. Then, one year later, they go to the reception and at the age of five they go to primary school to start their first year and continue until sixth grade, which is when they are ten or eleven years old.
They start to learn the alphabet and their sounds in reception where they also start to learn to read a little bit. When they begin first grade, they already know the letters of the alphabet and here they just begin to learn how to write them. In comparison with Slovakia, children are in kindergarten until they are six or seven years old and only then they start primary school. Moreover, in Slovak kindergarten children play and when they enter primary school, they need to get accustomed to a strict regime of 45 minute long lessons and 10 minute long breaks between them. School is over in Slovakia at around 1:00 pm and then children go home or go to an afterschool club. Here, in Britain, children in reception play a lot but they have to learn the alphabet and a little bit of reading as well, and when at primary school, their lessons are divided into sections. They start school at 9:00 am and have two lessons without any break; then they have a 15 minute break when they go to the playground. After that they have another lesson or two without a break and an hour for lunch break (12:30 – 1:30pm) during which they eat their lunch and go play in the playground again. From 1:30 pm to 3:30 pm they have another two lessons without any break and then go home or go to an afterschool club. So even though they are in primary school, they have a lot of playtime in between lessons.
Another difference is the structure of the lessons. The teaching process is more centred on children and their personal interests and children are stimulated to ask questions and to discuss topics with their neighbour. All this takes place while children are sitting on the carpet in front of a smart board. After the teacher explains the new topic and children talk to their neighbours, they sit down at their desks and work on their worksheets related to the lesson or they perform experiments. In Slovakia, children sit at their desks at all times and listen to the teacher while he/she is explaining the topic. Slovak children take notes or the teacher dictates notes to them so that they can revise them at home and prepare for oral exams or tests. British children do not take notes at all, at least not in primary school. I suppose it is different in secondary school. They just listen and the only thing they can turn to after the school day is over is their memory or their worksheet.
It is the same with their homework. Slovak children are assigned homework every day for almost every subject and are required to hand it in the next day or the day after. British children, I am talking about the children in my school, are assigned homework on Thursday and hand it in on Tuesday the following week. It usually consists of some exercises in Maths, Literacy – they have a kind of reading diary which they have to fill out almost every day, and maybe some additional project work which is due in two or three weeks’ time.
What is more, in classrooms you will find an interactive smart board instead of a typical blackboard on which you have to write in chalk. This enables children and teachers to prepare a lot of PowerPoint presentations and slides with exercises. Sometimes, I miss our style of teaching, but I see some advantages of the British system as well.
PP: Which one is better?
ZB: I would say that our Slovak system is better but it would be a biased statement. I have been here for three months only, and I only see what is going on at my school, not how the children succeed in other schools or at higher levels of education. I have lots of experience with Slovak children because I was raised in that environment. Thus, it seems to me that our Slovak system is more organized and strict, which, in my logic, equals more knowledge. On the other hand, I see the advantages of the British system: using smart boards and doing a lot more experiments. This way, children find the answer to their question themselves, which brings more satisfaction than an answer given by the teacher. But of course, a lot depends on the children. I think that if the best approaches and techniques from these two systems were mixed together, it would form the ideal school system ever put into practice.
PP: Will you come home and teach or would you rather stay in the UK?
ZB: When I was little, I dreamed about living and working in an English-speaking country. Now I am here and I do not know... I love it here; I love London and my school. I could not have been assigned to a better school than Brookfield. My colleagues are amazing, helpful, and friendly. Children here like me and I like them, but somehow (and I have never thought I would say it) I do miss the Slovak language, Slovak TV programmes, my friends, and even my family. I think that if a good job offer comes my way, I might stay and teach in Britain for a while, but I already know that one day, sooner or later, I would like to come back to Slovakia and teach Slovak kids.