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Kateřina Děcká: Teach Like Democracy Depends On It

Kateřina Děcká is a teacher.
In September and October 2022, she spent seven weeks in the U.S. as one of three Czech high school teachers selected for the Fulbright Teaching Achievement and Excellence Program. Kateřina teaches at a college-preparatory school Gymnázium Rožnov pod Radhoštěm, located in the south-eastern part of the historical region of Moravia. The major goal of the training was to equip participants with new skills and tools to encourage their students’ critical thinking and to develop their media literacy. The major part of the training took place in Madison, Wisconsin, and, at the very end, all participants traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet American policy makers, to discuss national educational strategies and to understand how education policy is created in the U.S. How transformative can a seven-week stay abroad be? Can one experience all phases of the cultural adaptation curve within that relatively short period of time? What lessons can a teacher expect to bring back from an international training exchange? 

I was riding the bike and feeling safe and comfortable despite the heavy traffic around me, and for a quick moment, I was taken aback. Contrary to expectations, I found myself neither in Amsterdam nor Antwerp, renowned cities for their bike-friendly environments. I was in Madison, the capital city of Wisconsin. In the city where I was slated to spend six weeks. I participated in the media literacy cohort of the prestigious Fulbright Teaching Excellence and Achievement Program (Fulbright TEA). This program is designed for secondary-level educators from all over the world. University of Wisconsin - Madison created the program in which 22 participants from 12 European and Central Asian countries focused on the development of their media literacy and critical thinking skills.

Photo: Kateřina cycles around the Lake Monona, September 2022, Wisconsin.

During the first week, we were getting to know each other and got immersed in endless conversations about our different cultural backgrounds. We were also introduced to the W-curve adaptation model, which describes the phases of cultural adaptation: honeymoon, crisis, recovery and adjustment. The cycle is repeated upon arrival to one's home country. Honestly, I was highly suspicious. Seven weeks seemed to be too short to experience all these phases. However, I could not have been more mistaken. I remember visiting my favorite café near the University Campus and torturing the bartenders with a really tiny espresso because it was the only proper coffee. Of course, at the end of the stay, I ended up holding the large mug like everybody else did.

Photo: Kateřina works hard on a project at UW-Madison School of Education, September 2022. 

The program UW-Madison created was comprehensive. The main focus was on media literacy; we had theoretical and practical workshops, which helped me gain the confidence to explore media literacy concepts with my students back home. One of the most engaging parts was the lectures with American university students preparing for their teaching careers in social studies. We had stimulating discussions about various topics from different cultural as well as generational perspectives. We also had weekly seminars with host professors from the various departments of the School of Education. The workshops shed light on contemporary topics in education, such as social inclusion, traumatized children, racism or teaching about global warming. All these topics contributed to a deeper understanding of educational policies, trends, and problems. Educators, not only in the USA but all over the world, face similar challenges.

Photo: A group of training participants during a lunch break, UW-Madison School of Education, October 2022. 

An integral part of the experience was shadowing the teachers at Vel Phillips Memorial High School and observing the public high school environment. I am perfectly aware that my experience is limited to one high school in one city. Nevertheless, I will make a generalization. My interactions with students and teachers and observations of the curriculum and extracurricular activities reinforced my belief that the US public education system prepares students to be active citizens and independent thinkers. The schools incorporate Civic Education into their curriculum, teaching students about government structures, the democratic processes, civic rights and responsibilities and the importance of civic engagement. Schools strive to develop students' critical thinking skills by encouraging them to analyze information, evaluate arguments, and form their opinions based on evidence. This is often fostered through activities like class discussions, debates, and research projects. Teachers often encourage students to ask questions, explore topics independently, and pursue their interests through projects and research. These strategies develop a spirit of curiosity and intellectual independence.

Photo: Kateřina teaches a cross-cultural lesson at Vel Phillips Memorial High School, October 2022, Madison, Wisconsin.

The whole program at UW-Madison and the local high school was demanding. We often started at 9 a.m. and finished as late as 7 p.m.. Yet, we still had time to attend various cultural and sporting events the organizational team had prepared for us. The volleyball match between the teams of UW-Madison and the University of Florida, which an incredible 17,000 people attended, the football match between two local high schools, the Willy Street festival, UW Homecoming Parade, hiking at the Devil's Lake State Park or the unforgettable weekend in Chicago. We also had time to explore the city of Madison. The city's location on an isthmus is genuinely unique, with lakes Mendota and Monona bordering each side of the land strip. I will never forget sitting by the lake in the autumn sun during the lunch break.

Photo: Sunset at Lake Mendota, Madison, October 2022. 

The icing on the cake was the final conference in Washington, D.C. It was when I realized I had just experienced something unique and unrepeatable. I had an experience. I was pretty sure that it affected me, but I didn´t know how it affected me. After those three days in Washington, D.C., I remember feeling “Whatever I choose to do, I can. I can move the entire globe.” And even though the feeling didn't last long after returning to the Czech Republic (Yes, the W-curve of cultural adaptation, phase crisis again), I sometimes try to recreate the feeling in myself and my students. As pathetic as it may sound, I think I am a different person, personally and professionally. In retrospect, my Fulbright experience through the TEA program has transformed my perspective on teaching—it's no longer just an occupation but a mission. As I step into the classroom each day, I am reminded of the profound impact education has on shaping not only individual lives but entire societies. Through education, we have the power to cultivate critical thinking, empathy and active citizenship. Teach like democracy depends on it. Because it does.

Photo: With fellow grantees in front of the White House, October 2022, Washington, D.C. 

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