Adam Spanier: Hey, Look – I’m a Teacher

Only a few weeks into my first-ever teaching job, I learned a valuable (and obvious) lesson: students have an incredible amount of power when it comes to dictating your mood.

I was a little tired the other day and not very excited about my full days of lessons. Luckily, my students were all in a miraculously good mood which completely turned my day around. They made me have a much better day (which also made me realize that the opposite can also happen… Let’s hope that it doesn’t).

For something that is so much a part of my life here,  I’ve posted very few pictures of my school/classroom/students… So, I’ve decided to show you some pictures along with a very brief explanation of pretty surface-level differences between my experiences here in the CR and my experiences from high school in rural Minnesota.

I’m not very photogenic…

1. The Czech Secondary Education structure is different…

I’m teaching at what would most closely resemble an American high school. My youngest students are about 14 years old, and my oldest are about 19 (Czech students  have one more year of Secondary Education than those in the states… However, they typically finish their bachelor degree in about three years).

The biggest difference between the structure of these two school systems? Czech students can choose two main tracks of education, gymnasium (general education similar to the American ‘high school’–this is the type of school that I’m currently at), and then what one would maybe call a technical school.

Now here’s where it might get a little confusing… At the age of 11, Czech students can choose if they want to continue their traditional primary school education, or they can apply to be enrolled into an 8-year gymnasium program. These students are almost always the students most likely to plan on continuing their higher education with the pursuit of a bachelor degree, and therefore, these students are typically the most academically inclined/talented. Enrollment into the 8-year program is limited and therefore pretty competitive.

Students not admitted into the 8-year gymnasium program must continue their basic primary education until the age of 15. Once again, these students must make another decision about the future of their education. Students have two basic options: attend a 4-year gymnasium program or a technical school.
  • Technical schools are intended to prepare students for technical occupations such as electricians, plumbers, mechanics, automotive technicians, etc… Often, students might even move to another town (dormitory living) to attend a school that has their chosen speciality.
  • As I previously stated, Gymnasium schools are intended to prepare students for college/university. There is a general curriculum of mathematics, sciences, language grammar and literature, civics, etc… Students are also required to learn two other languages.
In conclusion, Czech students must make pretty important life decisions at the age of 11 or 15 years old… “Do I want to go to a college, or do I want to prepare myself for a more ‘blue-coller’ career?”

And what does this say about my experience as a teacher? Well, having heard horror stories from friends teaching in public schools in the USA, I was nervous about the lack of motivation and good behavior among some of my students here. However, because I teach in a gymnasium, most of my students are pretty academically inclined–most of them (not all) take school pretty seriously and bad behavior is very rarely an issue of concern. I believe that this makes my job A LOT easier than the job of a typical American high school teacher in a public school.     

Students trying to act natural… While reading ’50 Shades of Grey’…
They were embarrassed.


2. The building is OLD

And so is some of the technology. Not all classrooms have projectors or computers (admittedly, this may also be the case in many American classrooms…). Sometimes this can be difficult as I tend to use a lot of powerpoint presentations, but I can often trade classrooms with another class so that I have access to the necessary technology. No big deal. 

My School: the old building (red roof), the new building (big one in the center),
and the gym (white building in the back)

Main Entrance


3. Students must wear ‘slippers’ while in school

Czech floors are immaculately clean–they love their clean floors. When students arrive at school, the first thing that they must do is go to their lockers, take off their shoes, and change into slippers. The fact that this doesn’t happen in American school has really, really surprised some of my students: “You mean, you wear dirty shoes in school?!?!?” 

School Hallway / Lockers


4. I don’t see other teachers that often

Teachers typically share an office with 1-2 other teachers. I share my office with two other English teachers, Hana (my mentor), and Svetlana.

My office

I do all of my preparation in this classroom and when the bell rings, I walk to a classroom and teach; after class, I immediately walk back to my office. I rarely see any of the other teachers. While we do have a “teacher’s room”, it is only used for large meetings. Also, there is not really a community space for teachers to gather and eat, instead…

Fellow English teacher: Svetlana

5. There is a community ‘cantine’

My school  does not have it’s own cafeteria. Instead, students, teachers, and people from the community, go to the Uničov ‘cantine’ for lunch Monday-Friday. It’s about a 4 minute walk from my school. This sounds like a somewhat insignificant difference, but I’m a little said that my students can’t relate to me about the typical high school ‘cafeteria’ scene.. We all know that the cafeteria is where most of the high school gossip occurs.. Not to mention all of those entertaining food fights (you know, the ones that happen all the time in the movies). 

6. Students have their own ‘room’

While American high school teachers will have their own classroom and students will come to them for class, the opposite is true here in the CR. Like I said before, teachers have shared offices, and when the bell rings, they will go to the classroom of their next class. So, my 8th year class has their own room. My 6th year class also has their own room. Between classes, students will often gather in their rooms and chat/relax. I haven’t quite figured out what sort of cultural implications this may have, but I guess that it does restrict some socializing between various classes in a small way. 

Students hanging out between classes


7. Students stand when I enter the room

Sooo, when I leave my office (usually when the bell rings, never before) and enter the classroom, all students will stand up and face the front of the room as if they were standing ‘at attention’. It’s weird and takes some getting used to. I will then say, “Thank you. You may sit down now,” and then they sit.

Initially, it made me feel quite awkward to have students show respect in this fashion. I felt like a dictator or something… However, I would be lying if I didn’t say that it makes me feel cool and that I now enjoy it (also, a great way to officially ‘start’ class). 

Students working

8. I’m the only English teacher who uses Powerpoint presentations

The most advanced form of technology used by the other English teachers: a radio. I don’t know if this is a typical Czech thing, or if its just because the other English teachers are not very technologically inclined… Because of this, I have fully embraced using powerpoints and use them quite often. In the past, when students had topics like New Zealand, or traveling, or housing vocabulary, a teacher would just pass around postcards, or pictures of magazines. I found this to be quite depressing and have instead tried to incorporate pictures, music, and video into my powerpoint presentations. I think that it keeps many of my students more engaged in what I have to say. 

Teaching about writing a résumé

 9. The education is much more ‘knowledge’-based  

I would assume that average Czech student would outsmart the average American student when it comes to standardized tests about math, sciences, and (definitely) geography. In contrast, my memories of high school included many more group projects and essays than I believe my students here have to do.

For this reason, I’ve tried to cater my lessons to as many types of learners as possible, rather than just projecting facts, vocabulary, and grammar rules. This has led many of my students to tell me that I have a very “American style” of teaching, whatever that means… 

Group discussion time

‘Create your own restaurant’


10. Students like to cheat

We were warned about this at our first Fulbright training event. Most of my students will openly admit to having cheated before (and doing so quite often). There’s also much more of a group mentality among many of my students. When somebody doesn’t know an answer, a fellow student will (quite visibly) whisper the correct answer to them. “It’s not really cheating,” one of my students said, “I think that we just like to help each other.” Nice try. 

Trying to look smart…

11. School sports don’t exist here in the way that they do in the USA 

Perhaps one of the most defining characteristics of my high school experience is being involved in sports. I played baseball when I was young, and then Football, Track and Field, and (for a short time) Wrestling. Even if you didn’t play sports in high school, you can imagine how much their existence had an impact on your high school experience: school spirit, having a mascot, going to Friday night football games, becoming best friends with teammates, meeting new people, etc…

Now imagine your high school experience WITHOUT all of that.

Yes, my students play many sports and are pretty active, but their sports and activities are not connected with the school. Instead, there will be a town Floorball club, or a town soccer team, etc… It’s just not the same.

Playing soccer in the school gym

Sooo, in conclusion, many things about teaching here are the same. From a teacher’s perspective, I still see my students having small dramatic episodes with other students. I sometimes see young love/relationships flourish (or go down in flames). It’s definitely an interesting experience and I am incredibly thankful that I was given this opportunity.

Teaching Food Adjectives

This article is taken from the blog of Adam Spanier, 2012-2013 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in the Czech Republic.

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