Czech schools: an American Fulbrighter's perspective

I still vividly remember my first couple of weeks working as an ETA at Albrechtova. Everything around me was new and foreign to me – the school building, my office, the students, the language, and the norms. At first, I struggled to remember the correct Czech greetings to say to which people, how to log on to computers and print things when everything was programmed in Czech, and I got startled every time the bell rang, forgetting that here, the bell signals that teachers should leave their office to walk to the classroom, not that class should actually begin at that moment.

Naturally, one of the most common questions I get from friends, family, and people here in Czech Republic is: “What are the differences between the Czech school system and the American school system?” Even though I’ve now discussed this question with students, colleagues, and friends back home, it is always a challenge for me to sum up my thoughts after a lifetime of educational experiences in the United States and a whirlwind of new experiences here.

I’ve been waiting to write this blog post for a while, because even though I’ve been here 4 months, I still find myself learning new things about the Czech school system and the school I work at weekly, if not daily. Therefore, I must insert a disclaimer that the following ramblings are based entirely on my personal experience thus far at one school, and of course, I cannot speak for my school or the Czech system as a whole. Grab your cup of tea, because this is going to be a long post! 

Here are a few of the things we were told to expect at Fulbright orientation: 

  • Teachers move from classroom to classroom, not students
  • Czech students almost always sit in pairs and in some cases, may sit with the same seatmate throughout all of high school
  • There are generally no office staff or guidance counselors in Czech schools
  • Alcohol might occasionally be present in the school building on certain occasions for teachers
  • Czech universities do not care about students’ extracurricular activities, grades, or involvement, only their final test scores 

I can confirm that all of the above listed are true for my school! While we were prepped back in August at the Fulbright Czech Republic orientation in August for some of the things that we might experience in Czech schools, nothing compares to the experience of living through it yourself. Outlined below are some of the biggest differences that I’ve observed throughout my time here so far.

The Czech vocational school system

It’s necessary to begin with explaining perhaps the largest difference (and the reason I ultimately chose to apply to the Czech Republic. When I was researching for my Fulbright application over a year ago, I had trouble finding much information written in English about the school system. All I knew was that similar to Germany, Switzerland, and some nearby countries, the Czech Republic offers a variety of high schools that are funded by the national government, not by property taxes in the United States. 

In other words, when students finish “basic” school (there is no middle school) at about 15 years old, they have a choice of high school and can apply to two schools. Theoretically, the school could be anywhere in the country, so long as they are willing to commute, or stay in dorms during the week if the school offers this opportunity. They might get into one, both, or neither. If they get into neither, they will have a chance later on to apply to schools that still have openings. 

As an applicant to the program, I was instantly intrigued by something so different from the United States. I learned that the school types here include “gymnasium,” or more general education aimed to prepare students for university, and then various kinds of vocational and trade schools (business, teaching pedagogy, military, forestry, nursing, STEM, the list goes on!). 

Gymnasiums

At gymnasiums, all students prepare for standardized exams called “maturita” in a variety of subjects. The school places a large emphasis on these exams because the students must pass these difficult tests to advance to university. Without maturita, going to university is not possible. In fact, many adults or older students come back to high schools later to take more classes if they never took maturita (kind of like getting a GED in the United States). Some gymnasiums offer 4-year programs (age 15-19), and some offer 6 year programs (age 13-19). I should also mention that university is free here in the Czech Republic for students under 26!

3-year vocational programs

At vocational schools, there are two types of tracks. One track lasts 3 years and is a certificate program for trade fields such as electricians, car mechanics, and butchers. 3-year programs are non-maturita tracks in which students graduate high school with a certificate in their trade, but are not able to continue on to university. Students on the non-maturita track alternate between one week of classes, and one week of practical lessons focused on their future profession.

Most of my school’s lessons for 3-year students take place in this building

4-year vocational programs

There are other vocational programs offered at schools such as hotel and tourism, ecology, or business. At the end of their 4 years, students take graduate with a certificate in their field and can choose whether they would like to go immediately into the workforce or to university (if they pass maturita). Students in the 4 year programs have one day of practical training every other week (these are most often the trips that you see me joining in on with students).

One of the events at my school’s open house was a barman competition! Students created their own cocktail recipes and put their skills to the test in front of judges
My most recent trip was with 4-year agriculture students to a cow milking barn

Choosing a path 

You might be wondering, how do students choose their school and field at 15?! And what in the world happens if they change their mind?! From conversations with colleagues whose students are currently going through this process, I’ve learned that it’s extremely difficult for students to decide at such a young age. It is not uncommon for students to change their minds during high school, but they are then required to start over completely in the new field of study from year 1.

When I was researching for my application, I was curious to learn about how a family’s socioeconomic status and education level might affect a student’s choice in school. Unfortunately, I was unable to find information about this topic in English and have not made progress on the topic here. I hope to have more reflections on this later in the year!

My school 

While many vocational schools have a specific focus or two, my school offers many. We proudly offer 13 different fields of choice (some 3-year, some 4-year). This wide variety was actually the reason that I was placed in Cesky Tesin, since my application strongly reflected my desire to be in a vocational school that would be completely different from my own experience in the United States. Hence, the fantastic tractor driving and horseback riding trips!

One of the perks of my school is the delicious pastries available freshly made by students!
My school is located in two buildings and has some special training rooms, including a newly opened gastrostudio

School schedule 

One of the aspects that most puts my flexibility and memory to the test is the my school’s schedule. Basically, my schedule only repeats every 2 weeks. We have an even week and an odd week, and a different class schedule on all 14 days of this two-week rotation. Additionally, classrooms and times are subject to be changed at short notice, and I don’t have access to the official teacher app, so I sometimes have to adjust my plans last minute.

Czech language 

Adding to this, of course, is the Czech language and culture! It was very important to me from the start to nail down the Czech greetings, which are a bit more complex than telling anyone a simple hello. Czech has informal (tykat) and formal (vykat) language that determines which greetings and goodbyes you should use, and I had to learn both the various words and the contexts in which I should use them. And, although most people at the school knew my obviously non-Czech name, I struggled to remember the names of my colleagues, other school staff (60 teachers!), and all of the students that I teach. Not to mention, each Czech name has various nicknames associated with it and these nicknames are often used interchangeably with the person’s full first name. 

Luckily, my mentor and school eased me into it, and I began mostly by observing various lessons, which was much needed considering that I still struggle to navigate our huge 3-story maze-like building. 

My school’s main building

Adjusting 

I’m happy to say that after 4 months, many of these daily challenges have become quite normal and part of my new routine. It’s a bit funny for me now to think back on how things seemed when I first arrived, my brain swimming with new information and feeling absolutely exhausted at the end of each day, even though I was largely only observing.

Classmates/classes

In Czech schools, all students have a “class” or cohort that they are permanently with for the entirety of their high school experience. Each class is assigned a “class teacher” (sort of like a homeroom teacher), and has most lessons in a specific classroom labeled with their class’s name on the door. The class teacher has many extra duties and must collect money for various school fees, call home if students are absent, and complete paperwork. Many of these responsibilities overlap with some of the duties that would be handled by school counselors and office staff in the United States. 

Czech schools do not typically offer many extra clubs or classes in subjects like art, sports, theatre, or music, so students’ friends generally largely consist of the people who are in their “class” alongside them in their field of study. In fact, if you asked a Czech student how many students were in their grade, they wouldn’t be able to tell you. Although Czech students choose their field of study, they do not have a choice in their schedule, and are provided a schedule based on their future profession.

Differences in academics

  • According to data here, Czech students struggle the most with writing and critical thinking
  • Perhaps, Czech students do less mingling since they have all lessons with the same classmates
  • Many students are less likely to talk unless called on by a teacher
  • Czech students are often tested orally in addition to other methods
  • The Czech grading scale uses a 1-5 system, 1 being the best.

Random things of interest at my school

  • Most lessons are 45 minutes, but sometimes there are double lessons
  • Teachers do not have to keep strict hours and can arrive later if they do not have the first lesson and leave early if they do not teach the last lesson
  • Students are required to change their shoes each day when they arrive and have special lockers in the basement. Students typically change into slides.
  • Students have a chip ID and tap into and out of the building whenever they leave
  • There is not “detention” or really any way to punish students for being late or not doing their homework besides grades
  • Students in their third and fourth years have “conversation” English lessons in addition to their regular English lessons that are focused more on vocabulary and grammar 
  • There is no official dress-code 
  • Students can leave campus for lunch if they wish
  • Most students commute by bus or train from various surrounding towns and villages

Communism’s Impact 

For historical context, communism fell in the Czech Republic during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, after nearly forty years. I mention this primarily because of the impact communism had on the teaching of English in the Czech Republic. During communist rule, Russian language was mandatory in all schools, and English was not taught. As a result, few members of the older population here had exposure to English (and were not allowed to travel). Over the past couple of decades, English language education has been on the rise, and many of my students also practice in their own time by watching Netflix (which only became available in CZ 3 years ago), or by playing video games and talking to players from across the world. 

If you made it to the end, you are awesome! I hope that you enjoyed learning more about the Czech school system, and will reflect, as I have, on the successes and challenges of your own school system. As always, if you have questions, please reach out to me or leave a comment below!

I am excited to continue learning from my colleagues and students at my school and know that my experience here in the Czech Republic will not only enrich my own life and open my mind, but also hopefully enrich the lives of my future students back in the United States.

Ahoj for now!

This blog, TasteTravelTeach, is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.  The views expressed on this site are entirely those of Courtney Kobos and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.

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