In our school, this week is full of maturita exams – also called A-levels or final exams – and we also have five international university students visiting to share their culture and countries with us. Coming to a new country and immediately being thrust into the busy environment of a high school is not an enviable situation for anyone… So I was thinking about my arrival here nearly three years ago and how confusing it was for me at first!
1. Grade Levels
I’m sure any Fulbright English Teaching Assistant who has worked in a Czech school would tell you how confusing it is in the beginning to get used to the divisions of kids in the school.
Basically, Americans have elementary school (grades K-5/6), middle school (grades 6/7-9), and high school (grades 9/10-12). Middle and high are occasionally combined.
Czechs have “basic school” (grades 1-9) and grammar school (gymnázium, for university-bound students), which usually has two tracks. Where I work, there is a 4 or 8-year program, so you could leave the “basic school” after 5th grade or after 9th if you pass entrance exams. There’s also technical high school, which is intended for kids who learn trades and don’t plan to continue to university.
Czech kids go to school for a year more, 13 years total. (But they can also leave school at age 15 and begin working.)
Most U.S. schoolkids graduate around age 18 (I graduated at 17). If you graduate at age 19 or 20, you might look like this:
In CZ, it’s normal to graduate at a slightly later age; you might look like this:
Not as much fire, but a lot more smiles 😉 This picture was taken during our fantastic trip to Pilsen, Czech Republic.
Everyone who watches American movies knows about the cliques, or the hierarchy of high schoolers, as in the cult classic “The Breakfast Club” (1985):
Czech schools tend to have many fewer students (ex. 500 spread among 8 grades, as opposed to my high school, which had 1000 kids spread among 4 grades). This means that most people know each other or can at least recognize others by their faces. It also means closer relationships and less bullying. In my high school, there were about 250 people in my “class.” You couldn’t know everyone, and every year your classes would change to expose you to different people. It was difficult to get close to that many people.
In Czech schools, students spend 4-8 years with their classmates. In some cases, this means they end up disliking each other – and that’s unfortunate. More often, from what I’ve observed, the kids get really close and become lifelong friends. That doesn’t mean that some kids aren’t singled out and made fun of, but it means negative behavior is much harder to hide.
I know Czechs in their 40s and 50s who still have monthly get-togethers with their spolužáci, or schoolmates. Americans, on the other hand, would prefer to get away from their high school community for the rest of their lives, or at least til they have to face them 20 years after graduation at the obligatory reunion 😛
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In the US, you are graded from 64-100. Anything below 65 is failing. I feel that this gives kids a much better idea of “where they stand” in terms of how good they are at a subject. For example, someone who gets 75s is not an idiot; they just don’t care that much about their schoolwork and need to work much harder. Meanwhile, 80s/85s are a perfectly okay mark for people who want to succeed in school, but all of those kids know that they can work much harder for 90s. Someone who gets 90s is quite smart, but can work harder to be the type of kid who always gets 97s.
On the other hand, Czechs are marked between 1-5 (1 being the best and 5 being the worst). In some schools, you can give middle marks like 1-2, 2-3, etc. I feel, though, like there’s a huge gulf between 2 and 3 especially, because getting a 3 is interpreted as “you suck,” when really it should mean, “you didn’t study hard enough and can work harder to improve.” There’s a gulf between 1 and 2, too. In my opinion (but perhaps not in Czechs’), 2 is a message: it means you are good but you can get motivated to be better. 1 means you work hard and do your best. For Americans, this would be the difference between the 80s and the 95s and up – a much more specific understanding in my opinion.
4. Slippers and the “Janitor”
Czech students must wear indoor shoes to keep floor clean, just as in their homes.
Half of America would love to wear Crocs in their schools…
There is also a special person called a školník, which is often translated as “janitor,” but he is not. He is the school caretaker/groundskeeper, responsible for fixing any problems, overseeing outdoor work, and managing the cleaning ladies. He has a very important role, whereas American janitors are not well-respected or even known by the students.
Czech students get a cooked lunch every day, including a soup and a choice of three drinks (usually water, milk, and a flavored drink or tea). Most of the days this is meat and a side dish like potatoes, pasta, rice, or Czech bread or potato dumplings. Sometimes it’s sweet, like buchty or krupičná kaše, which is a semolina porridge with cocoa powder, sugar and melted butter on top. (For Americans this is breakfast, but Czechs would never prepare something with so many steps for breakfast.) My lunch costs about 30 czk per day ($1.30). And for all this, we can say, Thanks, Communism! (???)
As for Americans, we’ve got the brown bag lunch or… this:
The craziest thing is that I have seen LUNCH MEAT being sold here as if it’s actually food:
Why? Update: Some helpful commenters have helped me to understand this, below. Still, Americans will have nothing but bad associations with this as with the infamous “mystery meat” sometimes served. Not all transplants of Western culture are good.
The moral of the story is: if you’re in with the lunch ladies, you’ve got nothing to worry about. (I wish my high school time were that easy.)
Was your American or Czech school experience like this? Which system do you think is better?