“Great teaching can be done with pen and paper.” Pavel Bobek on teaching in London and Prague

Pavel Bobek

Pavel Bobek gained his first teaching experience in an immigrant neighbourhood in London’s district of Croydon. After two years he returned to Prague and has since been teaching at one of the city’s primary schools. Are the teaching methods that he learned in the UK also applicable in a Czech school?  How does he gain respect in a classroom of 30 kids? And how does he make sure that all the children, including those with a different mother tongue and with learning disabilities, move forward? These are just some of the questions we discussed, but I started by asking what prompted Pavel, who originally studied political science, to become a teacher:  

“I have always been close to education and to work with children. I volunteered in Czech-German youth projects for many years. Later I worked for the Goethe Institute as head of an international debating project, working with pupils alongside teachers.

“I was really quite desperate at the beginning. I was simply not capable of managing my class of some 30 five-year-olds. It was chaotic, it was loud and I would barely get through the day.”

“I think it was precisely this experience and the admiration that I gained for the teachers that made me want to try to train as a teacher. But I never thought that I would enjoy it so much!”

You went to study teaching in the United Kingdom, enrolling in a programme called Teach First. Why did you go to Britain instead of studying teaching here in Czechia?

“I came to the UK for personal reasons, to live with my partner, and teaching was my preferred scenario in terms of work. I chose Teach First because of its positive reputation and also the fact that it allows you to study at the UCL Institute of Education, which ranks as the top institution worldwide in education.

“With Teach First you get to study there for free, which is something rather exceptional in England, where you normally pay tens of thousands of pounds to study. Also, Teach First was supposed to be a very challenging program for new teachers. Back then I considered teaching to be something easy, so I thought I was looking for a challenge. However, as soon as I stepped into my classroom I was proven completely wrong.”

When you talk about stepping into a classroom, it happened to be in Croydon, a district in London known for having a large immigrant population. Did you choose to teach there or where you assigned to this place?

“It was not my choice. Teach First makes this choice on behalf of their students, so you are being placed. You cannot decide yourself, you can only say yes or no to the offer you get. But as this program is focused on working in disadvantaged areas and schools, being placed in a low-income neighbourhood is something you can definitely expect.

“I think I was still quite lucky because I was living in London back then and was allowed to stay in London. I could have also been placed to Leicester, Coventry or even Newcastle, more or less anywhere in England.”

You say that as soon as you stepped into the classroom you realized teaching was not an easy job. What was that first experience like and what were the biggest challenges?

“In fact I was really quite desperate at the beginning. I was simply not capable of managing my class of some 30 five-year-olds. It was chaotic, it was loud and I would barely get through the day. Especially the afternoons, the school lasts until about half past three in England, were pure horrors.

“There is much more to teaching than just spreading wisdom and expecting children to absorb. That would be way too easy!”

“But surprisingly my colleagues could do all this really well, almost as if it was some kind of magic when you observed them. Obviously it wasn't magic but a set of techniques which eventually my colleagues helped me to master and apply.

“What I mean by this is all the things that you don't actually see or realize when you observe an expert teacher, such as where they stand, the way they look, how they use their voice, how they explain or how they give instructions. All this actually matters a lot and when we don't teach, we don't realize all this.

“So this experience made me realize that there is much more to teaching than just spreading wisdom and expecting children to absorb. That would be way too easy!”

Can you mention at least some of the techniques that help you manage a classroom full of five-year-olds?

“I think there are some things you need to follow if you want to make sure that there is good behaviour in the classroom. Good behaviour is in fact a precondition for learning. I think one of the important things is that you need to teach your pupils to behave. You don’t just tell them. You really teach them how to do it. That means also to practice all of it, so they are absolutely clear about how to do it and what you expect.

You mean teach by setting the example yourself?

“Exactly. I show them what I expect them to do: how to start the lesson, how to finish it, how they raise their hand. Once they've learned all of these things, it becomes automatic and they can focus on the actual learning.

“One of the specific techniques is that you definitely need to always praise a lot and narrate all the positives. So instead of criticizing what you don't want to see, you rather highlight all the good stuff. For instance, when you start doing some work.

“This way you tell them all the good things and children will join in, the ones who haven't yet. There may be a few who haven’t, but you can deal with this in the background.”

And I guess at the same time, you don't attract attention to kids that have some learning difficulties…

“Exactly. It goes the other way round. You highlight all the good things and they know that when they do the positive thing they will get mentioned and they will get your attention. That makes them rather do the good thing.

“You also need to have really high expectations of them. You should never let your standard slip and you need to show them that it really matters to you. If you use a lot of irony, for instance, it doesn't do any good. If you say whatever, I don't care, they will find out and they will realize they can get away with many things that you don't expect them to do.”

You said that you learnt all this with the help of other more experienced teachers. Would you say that as a teacher-beginner, you received enough support from your colleagues?

“Definitely. This whole program is very intense, but you have three people who support you all the time. In any case, schools in England train their teachers. Every week you have two so-called CPDS, a training in some specific thing, and they expect you to do this in the classroom the next week.

“So you are constantly being trained and constantly being told what you should do and what can help. And if you haven't implemented something in your classroom, they would say: okay that's fine, but we're going to come again. We want to see it.

“This way, teachers really get better, and it's something that I really valued about the program. It makes you helps you get better much faster than if you had to find it all out by yourself.”

How long did you spend in London altogether?

Pavel Bobek | Photo: Učitel naživo

“I spent three years and two of them were teaching.”

How long did it take you to feel that you were in control of your class?

“I would say a year. My second year was actually really good. Suddenly, I was really in control. The children were learning a lot and it all went really well. I was still tired obviously but compared to the first year it was really easy.

I think that during the first year, Covid saved me from a breakdown. I was really tired and when schools were suddenly shut during the spring break, it helped me to digest everything and reflect a bit on what I'd experienced. I don't know if I could have kept going without this break.”

For the past three years, you have been teaching at a primary school here in Prague. What would you say are the biggest differences between the Prague and the London schools?

“Let me maybe start with what is the same and that is the kids. The children are the same anywhere, I think. There may be some slight differences, but generally in any class you will have a few disruptive children, who always try to do something that you don't want them to do, you will have a few of those who would do anything you ask them to, and then the ones in between.

Illustrative photo: Lucie Hochmanová / Czech Radio

“When it comes to what is different, one of these things is that teachers in Czechia have more autonomy, so they are allowed to do what they want to do in their classroom, whereas in England, they sing from the same hymn sheet. I think this autonomy, while it’s appealing, also makes you kind of a sole cowboy in the classroom.

“When you have this unity and similar standards across the whole school, there's a lot of synergy, so the kids know what every teacher expects. When they come into the classroom, they don’t need to always adjust to a new set of rules, for instance. I think that was one of the very positive things.

“And then you have these many small things that you would note straight away if you enter the school, such as that they wear uniforms or they have quite a long school day with very few and very short breaks. Then you have the difference that children start school much earlier in England.

“But honestly what I found most amazing was the ethos of the school and the colleagues. Everyone was genuinely trying their hardest to help every child succeed, no matter where they came from or who their parents were.

“And I think the outcomes I saw were quite impressive. My school was among those where the children made the biggest progress within the time they spent there. Whereas here I feel like that way too often we let the children fall too deep and that they are not able to stand up and keep going. We expect them to do so but we don't support them enough to do that.”

So now that you have this autonomy as a Czech teacher, how would you describe your teaching philosophy?  I also wonder whether it is in line with the current trends in education.

“I think that critics could call it neo-traditional, but I would rather say it's a compromise between the very old fashioned teacher-centred learning on the one hand, that in England they would call talk-and-chalk, and on the other side the modern progressive teaching.

“I feel that some teachers that visit my lessons have mixed feelings about it, because they see something from both sides. They see certain strictness, consistency, high expectations on the one hand. On the other hand they also see that there is high support, that there is constant feedback, the children are led to talk a lot, obviously about their learning, and they work in pairs and there is a strong focus on positive relationships. So I would call it a compromise.

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

“And when you asked whether it's in line with the trends, I think it may not seem that way, but in fact it is because it is informed by latest studies on cognitive and behavioural psychology. It takes very important lessons from studies on teacher effectiveness. All these things help us define what is high-quality-teaching.

“Of course research won't tell you what to do exactly, but you could be informed by the research in your decisions about what to do in the classroom. That's what they did in the UK and I think they really are, as a result, making sure more children learn.

“They have really broad intake of children. In our country, we may have children from Ukraine, but still the amount of the immigrant children who don't speak Czech is very low. Whereas in London up to 40% of children now have some other mother tongue than English.

“And with this intake of children, England is still much better off in terms of where the disadvantaged are, when you look at the Pisa research from OECD. So I think they are doing a good job and we have a lot to learn from them.”

This leads me to another question. How do you as a teacher deal with those differences between individual children? I mean there are 30 kids, so obviously there must be differences. How do you cope with that?

“I think when you get a class you must find out where they are and try to make sure that everybody is making progress and that you pick up also the lowest attaining children in your class.

“What often happens in classrooms is that the scissors open up and the lowest ones are getting worse and the best ones are getting better. What I try to do instead is that I break down what I teach into very small steps, so that even the weakest children are able to grasp it. It's called teaching for mastery and it means you basically don't move on unless the whole class grasps the concept.

“The other thing would be called responsive teaching and that means that you are constantly looking at whether they've understood what you've told them. Not at the end of lesson, but all the time. So you are responding basically to whether they have grasped it or not and this way you make sure you don't lose those weakest children again.

“Someone could argue that this way you are only helping the weakest and not the fastest graspers. But in fact I think that A, they are still moving ahead, B, they get some extra tasks, and C, I think school is not only about the individual getting better. It is also about the society and about deploying your strongest students to support the weaker ones.

“That way they also learn important things. They learn how to collaborate, for instance. I would call it “slow and steady wins the race”. You are moving on, not too fast, you are not losing anyone, and at the end everybody wins.”

Do you feel that you are getting enough support from your school and from the system in general?

You don't need bright shiny buildings or costly IT equipment. Great teaching can be done with pen and paper only and a set of good textbooks.

“That’s a good question. There could always be more support but I do consider myself lucky having all of the basics that I need to teach children well, I hope. In fact, not much is needed, really.

“You don't need bright shiny buildings or costly IT equipment. Great teaching can be done with pen and paper only and a set of good textbooks. Obviously you also need some good colleagues because, as I said before, being a lonely cowboy in your classroom, I think you can't do it for too long.

“You need some exchange. You need a community of like-minded teachers or even teachers who have different opinions, but still like the opportunity to discuss things together. This is really important because teaching can be a very lonely profession.”

Apart from teaching you are also involved in a non-profit organization called Učitel naživo or Teach Live, which seeks to modernize the Czech education system. How do you want to achieve this and how does it work?

“We are looking for systemic change, therefore we educate future teachers, in fact in a very similar manner that I was educated in England. We expect them to become very strong teachers and school leaders who lead by example and who help improve our education from the inside. We would also like to be a sort of laboratory of new and effective approaches and serve as an example for much bigger stakeholders, such as universities, that may learn from us.”

You said at the very beginning that teaching was not an easy job and that it can be pretty exhausting. What is it that keeps you going?

“I think it's how rewarding it is. In fact the tougher your class is the more rewarding it is. And whenever I feel like I'm struggling, I think of those parents or students who have thanked me. Maybe even more in England, where it was a low-income community and those parents knew that you were the person that could help their children to have a better life. Such a job is really meaningful and nice, so it definitely keeps me going.”