It’s not a word I’d ever heard before last week, but now I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t a major part of my life.
Školka (the “s” with the thingy above it is pronounced “sh”) is the Czech word for pre-school, with the plural – školky – being the name of a major part of my school’s English teaching programme.
As one of the main školky teachers, I will be spending the majority of my time travelling to pre-schools around Prague, where I am paid for 3 hours of my time spent thusly:
8am-8.30am: playtime. Hang out with 3-5 year olds, basically, while they play with toys, or in the sandpit.
8.30am-9am: observe/assist while Czech teacher does games, exercises, or activities with them in Czech.
9am-9.15am: snack time.
9.15am-10.15am: lesson with English teacher (that would be me).
10.15am-11am: outside playtime. Go out and chase leaves, play hide and seek, go on the see-saw, swings, etc.
I spent an hour this morning building cars with cool magnetic pieces, and playing with a dollhouse.
However, my favourite thing so far happened when I was called into the office to discuss the final hours that would make up my timetable. I’d been wondering about that big gap in my schedule. Turns out they were saving me (fresh from Korea with 3+ years of kindergarten experience – and so it paid off!) for their own, newly-established pre-school on campus. This is a truly amazing little place, and is – in another cheerful coincidence – right next to the school cafe/restaurant. I went in yesterday morning for a caffeine boost, had a typically baffling conversation with Happy Chef, drank my coffee and read my Kafka (when in Prague…!), and then went next door to the pre-school to see what the craic was. What do you know – one of my new colleagues is Happy Chef’s wife!
She’s the Czech teacher in charge of looking after the kids. You know – bathroom, nap time, food, tears, nose-blowing, the general childcare things I really can live without. Then there’s the main teacher, a Czech lady with good English, who drifts in and out, oversees things, and sets the agenda. Then there’s me – present as an English speaker – so far just there to get to know the children and “be with them in English” with no formal teaching whatsoever. Look, I spent a whole 20 minutes yesterday cuddling a couple of sweet little 4-year-olds on beanbags and reading Mr. Men books to them, for goodness’ sake! :) In addition to me, there’s a German guy who is only allowed to speak German to them, and a Russian girl who must only speak Russian to them.
It’s pretty incredible to me. Knowing what I do now about child development (compared to my previous, non-existent knowledge on the subject!), from my various studies and training and experiences, I am a huge advocate of exposing kids to languages from infancy. Some of these children (thankfully not in my group!) are so tiny that they even sit in high chairs at lunch time, and have to be spoon-fed.
I watched the German guy feeding a little boy and talking away to him in German – and the child was not perturbed in the slightest. He even answered in German a few times – and I’m fairly certain he can only recently have started saying words in his own language. The Russian girl went past at one point and accidentally bumped his chair. She said what I presumed to be “oops, sorry!”, and this Czech baby instantly mimicked her Russian before switching back to German. If I’d gone over, he would probably have spoken to me in English. This is mind-blowing to me!
Kids are amazing. If you put an adult in that situation – me, for example – they’d be completely freaked out. It was nerve-wracking enough when I arrived and they had the “Let’s introduce Hayley!” session in a big circle, in Czech. I copied all the actions and guessed what was going on as best I could, but most of the time I looked helplessly at the Czech head teacher for translations. This language is still just gobbledegook to me – I can’t even differentiate between individual words, at this point.
Happy Chef’s Wife and I took our group to the park down the street, and I taught them up, down, yes, no, fast, slow, stop, and go, just while playing on the see-saw and slide. Back at the school, the head teacher insisted that no formal English lesson would take place, as she wants them to get to know me first. I simply helped out with serving lunch (and randomly saying things like “Look! Spoon!” in enthusiastic tones), played with them and their toys, and helped Happy Chef’s Wife settle them down for nap time.
That was my day. I won’t lie, the teacher in me is really eager to get started with actual English lessons, but this school is totally different from anything I experienced in Korea – and I love it. There’s no pushing the children. They are actually being given the freedom to be children, to the extent that I’ve been warned never to try to teach them to read or write in English. I can help them with writing their own names at some point if I want, but that’s it – all English teaching must be done via games, picture flashcards, stories, actions, songs, and conversations, to the extent where I’ll actually get into trouble if any of my story pictures or flashcards have letters or words on them. Yes, yes, and YES! This is an issue over which I clashed so many times with my Korean employers and colleagues, who had those little ones reading and writing in 3-4 different languages/systems (Korean, English, Mandarin, and Japanese) by the age of 5. We had a 6-year-old girl drop out of kindergarten for 6 months due to stress. It was just wrong. These kids are being allowed to fully enjoy their childhood, yet still having the exposure to foreign languages that will set them in good stead for the rest of their lives. And you know what? The level of English amongst young adults here is light years ahead of Korea’s. No one’s stressed, no one’s committing suicide over exam pressure… but people are learning to speak English, and to speak it well. I can understand them, they can understand me, and we can have friendships/conversations after a few days that it took me years to find in Korea.
I think the Czech Republic’s education system is somewhere in the middle, between the UK and Korea, said Lovely Accommodation Lady to me on Friday night at the staff night out, after listening to my tales. From what I’ve seen to date, I’d say she’s spot on. Each of the pre-schools I’ve been to so far has a casual, fun, laid-back approach, focusing on letting the children be children and simply throwing in a bit of contact with an English speaker to get them used to it. It’s pressure-free, and the children are sweet, fun, yet incredibly well-behaved.
It’s all sounding fantastic to me, so far. I genuinely hope it continues. Right now, it’s one-up for the Czech Republic!