|Isaac and Daddy on the way to school.|
Friday, November 23rd was a long day for me, but it’s good to write about since all the twists and turns tell something about what things are like in this season of our lives. It was the day after American Thanksgiving, but of course our Czech school was in full swing. A small group of Americans and Czechs gathered at our house on the following day, Saturday, for the turkey and fellowship. To get from Thursday to Saturday was something of an epic journey.
I was out of the house at 7:10 with Isaac. We walk to school together almost every morning now. Eight years ago, I was trudging down the same hill with Lucy and Paul Hugh. I am glad to still have a little boy who wants to hold my hand. We usually play a game while we walk. This time Isaac wanted to pretend that we were sleeping (while we were walking) and then he made different animal noises. That would get me to wake up and say something like, “Oh no! Isaac, wake up, I think there’s a cat in our house!” We were visited in our bed by two cats, a dog, a horse and a cow before Isaac decided that we were actually in a hotel. That prompted me to call the manager (Isaac) and complain about all the animals that kept waking us up. He sent us to another room (“number twenty seven three”) but there turned out to be a cat meowing under our pillow there, as well.
At nursery school, I dropped off Isaac where he was welcomed by the other students excitedly. Every morning, every other child there seems to light up when Isaac walks in, and they call “Izy! Izy!” (That rhymes with “Size 3,” not “Fizzy.”) His teacher greeted him very affectionately as she does all the nursery schoolers. I gave him the daily stern warning to obey and earn a good behavior report. Then I kissed him on the head and he was off.
|Isaac gets to work at nursery school.|
|TGM students respond to the Household theme: check out the camel|
|More on Households: do you think a boy or girl drew this?|
|Silly but meaningful.|
|Our Patrick doing one of the last old maturity in 2009|
The government has recently revamped “maturita.” It is still the be-all and end-all of high school, the word which a teacher can utter in a crowded classroom to instantly cast a spell of silence. But for all the language departments, the government has greatly expanded the test. Students must now write two essays, work on pages of grammar, and engage in conversation with their teachers as well as deliver a monologue. The speech has been mercifully shortened to five minutes. There are actually three conversations as part of the test, and no amount of memorizing can prepare the student for them.
A few weeks ago, one of my BMA students -- a girl in my home room, which is the fourth year -- asked me for some extra help for English maturita. She’s nervous. Interestingly, her mother teaches at the the same zakladni school, TGM. As are many teacher’s daughters, this young lady is serious about her education and very diligent. We spent an hour together in the upstairs hall outside my office. I gave her some prompts to make conversation. At first, she flatly refused. I urged her to try and not worry about mistakes or details. In all other situations, this girl is unfailingly respectful, but at this point, she became unbelievably stubborn. She would not speak with me, even in a casual, simulated English conversation, because she had not gone home to prepare the material.
On the one hand, you can understand a student’s resistance to engage in a conversation with an adult in a foreign language. There are many, many times I seize up and don’t want to use my Czech. In fact, on this particular Friday, I ended the day loudly declaring that I wasn’t going to speak Czech again for another week. I know this is pretty donkey-headed, but as you will see, this was a very long day and I was stressed. (I have spoken Czech faithfully each day since.) On the other hand, a fourth year student preparing for maturita has to realize that conversation without preparation is a part of a living language and will be a part of the dreaded test. So I worked hard to coax my student out of her stubbornness and in the end she was speaking cleverly and effectively. However, she canceled our next appointment for extra help. I wonder why.
After my TGM classes, I walked across town to start my BMA day. The first event was a difficult one: meeting with a student who has been skipping school. Because I am the home room teacher for the fourth year, I have to keep track of their absences. What American schools do in the secretary's offices and on computers, Czech schools do in old-fashioned class books. Information must be recorded in a thousand tiny little boxes and only a blue, ball-point pen is acceptable. Early in the game, I protested that I make a lot of mistakes, especially with Czech spelling, and that a pencil would be better for me. The rest of the staff was shocked. Their reasoning was that if the class book were written in pencil, people would write false information, or make illegal changes. My argument -- that people can lie in blue ballpoint pen as well -- fell on deaf ears.
|Students and me outside my office.|
As soon as I got to BMA, I met with the student in my office. She asked if we could close the door and I said that no, I don’t meet in our little office with girls, alone, behind closed doors. We could speak quietly in the office with the door open, or we could choose one of my colleagues and proceed with doors closed. She preferred the former. She then proceeded to make a very long and eloquent apology. She ended with a pledge to work hard to regain my trust. I offered her my forgiveness and my assurance that I wanted to be back on a trusting basis. I still had a list of things to cover. I wanted to make sure that she had no problems with me personally -- that I wasn’t the cause of the trouble. No problem. I wanted her to promise to apologize to the secretary whom she had spoken to rudely. Maybe she will. Then I wanted to discuss the secret problem. She became very animated and suggested that this was more about her than about anyone else -- her bad emotional reaction to stress. I gave her two choices. First, she could decide that the mysterious incident wasn’t important and she could move on. Second, she could choose a support team -- me, the school counsellor or the director -- and meet with the offending staff person to deal with the problem in a mature way. I said that no third option -- continuing to complain about a secret problem but giving no details and making no progress -- was available. The student said that she wanted to move on. I told her that I really wanted to work on the problem if someone on the staff was speaking offensively. She didn’t want to pursue it.
It’s nice to have the student back in the program. It’s nice that I wasn’t accused of anything. These days, when students or parents talk about terrible offenses, I have the sinking feeling that they are going to accuse me of something super-Christian. Last term, a girl in my home room dropped out of school. For three years I had been begging her mother to come to parent conferences to talk about the fact that her grades across the board were very weak, that her English was in serious peril, and that her attendance rate (she came to school about 70% of the time) wasn’t likely to help her academically. I pleaded that they find an English tutor. They did, but the girl didn’t show up for the sessions. Her grades got worse and one day, without warning, she transferred out of our school. At the new place, she started telling everyone that the Christians had persecuted her by being too aggressive with the faith. A few weeks later, another young lady in my home room made a similar move, telling everyone about the over-aggressive Christians. This second young lady failed to mention that she had been twice punished for cheating but we hadn’t kicked her out and had given her many second chances.
I’m not sure which broke my heart more: the rumors the students spread, or the simple fact that neither those two girls nor their parents ever faced me to tell me about their concerns. The first mother, who resisted so many of my appeals for parent conferences, sneaked into the main office one day because she needed a certain transfer document from our secretary. I met her there by chance. I asked her in my best Czech and politest manner if she could please help me. I had heard that her daughter left because of certain reasons, but no one had told me the truth directly. Could she please tell me their concerns? How could we have done better? The mother made an awful face and told me that it wasn’t worth discussing. I said that it was. She said that it wasn’t and brushed me off and left.
So I am glad that on this particular Friday, I had a student sitting right across from me making an open apology. But I wasn’t satisfied with the meeting. If one of my colleagues is speaking unkindly to our students, we have to work on it, and this looked like a lost opportunity. On the other hand, what if my student is just an accomplished actress and none of it, including her accusations and apologies, was real? I think time will tell. All of this gave me just enough time to finish preparations for my very important teaching assignments.
|Invitation used at feeder school visits: write me for the explanation of the komodo dragon!|
My first class was supposed to be a “normal” class, part of the actual BMA curriculum with actual BMA students. Visitors would be welcomed into the back of the room to observe. I had everything prepared. In fact, I was very excited. It was a third year class, evaluating the essays they had just written and drawing some lessons about how to write good essays and especially good paragraphs. I wanted to use several examples from the real homework (with names removed) and I needed to scan them into my computer. But our very fancy new Xerox scanner/printer/copier refused to oblige me. The toner cartridge is low. “But I don’t want you to print anything!” I shouted at the smug little beast. He was unimpressed. Without a proper cartridge, he was unwilling to show off any functionality whatsoever, even ones requiring no ink. Thank heavens for my little phone. I took pictures with my phone, uploaded them onto my laptop, found the necessary cables and thought I was perfectly prepared for an awesome Open House.
This, unfortunately, was not true. Our creative team of four had thought through the Open House carefully. Since previous Open Houses have felt chaotic, we agreed on some principles to help this one run smoothly. As it turned out, every thing we decided got turned upside down. 1) We agreed that those doing presentations (mostly the director and I) could each stay in our own rooms to avoid moving around, juggling our limited supply of chairs and confusing people. For simplicity, I would get my home room. Instead, I had to teach the first Open House class in a different classroom, then move myself and my visitors downstairs, and -- both times -- get volunteers to scramble to find chairs from all over the building. 2) We agreed to a specific schedule so that it would be clear who was giving which presentation at which time. In the end, two competing and contradictory schedules were written and posted. No one knew where to go or when. 3) We agreed that a small number of responsible first year students (3-4) would be chosen to act as guides in case visitors came and needed to know where to go or what was happening. The entire first year class appeared in the halls claiming to have been chosen as guides. They spent most of Open House having a wonderful time flirting with each other, laughing, joking, playing chess, play-wrestling, moving chairs to and fro and occasionally meeting visitors.
At a critical moment in the early going, I sensed a disaster was brewing. The stairs and halls were jammed with people. Half were the first years just being silly. Half were visitors of all ages looking very confused. The crowd was so thick that no one could make progress in any direction even had they known which direction to choose. I decided to take matters into my own hands. I leapt up the stairs to a commanding height, and used my very loud voice to announce in Czech exactly what was supposed to happen next. This got everyone moving and I felt satisfied until I learned that my colleague, Jonny, had just succeeded in settling a dozen visitors in his classroom, had just started a promising demonstration and then watched it fall apart as his visitors hustled out the door to find out what the other American was shouting about.
Within the context of confusion, there were some very effective presentations. My work with essays went exactly as I intended. My next presentations were overviews of the whole program, and I had great participation and great interest from the visitors. The most dramatic moments came in the overviews when I explained how we use the Bible in English class. There’s always a moment when those new to BMA frown angrily as if to demand an explanation for our outrageous position. I explained how we do read the Bible every week, and we have open conversations about important spiritual concepts that students really care about. I confessed that I am a believer and I do share my views, but that I do it respectfully and that students are encouraged to express themselves with that same respect. In the end, a few people stayed on to tell me how excited they were about our educational philosophy. I had at least two conversations with parents who were thrilled that we seem to care about students, their ideas and their spiritual well-being more than just lists of information.
|A portion of one student's great effort.|
As I headed downstairs, my colleague Jonny informed me that a new pair of interested families had just arrived. Before I could rip off my coat, Jonny graciously offered to give them a brief presentation of everything they needed to know. I took that offer and hiked home. I thought to myself that there are two kinds of schools. Maybe all institutions of any kind can be summed up with the same dichotomy. There are schools that have excellent structures in place, with smoothly running systems that project an image of sophistication and security to newcomers. Then there are schools that are constantly trying to catch up because their organizational systems are non-existent, new-born or just a little hare-brained. BMA is not the first. It is the second. But the thing about the first kind of school is that sometimes, unlucky students get caught under the weight of the well-polished structure. By “unlucky” I mean the students who want to ask tough questions, or have unorthodox perspectives, or who are afraid, or who are drowning in English class, or who don’t come to class at all. Efficient and effective systems put these people in their places (sometimes, just out) and move on swiftly. At BMA, we try our hardest to catch those people. We use any creative approach to find them, hear them out and most importantly give them another chance. As this story shows, we don’t always succeed. We have occasionally lost the ones we tried to reach. But it broke our hearts.
Of course, the perfect school balances good systems with flexibility, creativity and a personal approach. We want that balance. By creating a new, functioning board of directors, for example, we have taking a giant step towards maturity. But right now, I am at peace with the fact that my school is of the second kind -- the very personal, slightly crazy kind -- but is one in which the believers try their hardest to meet each person with the love of Jesus.