Working in a school I have been able to see how education is done from a different cultural perspective. This week I saw one of the most interesting things about the system here. The infamous Maturita (Graduation) Exams.
When you reach the final year of high school here you need to pass your Maturitas to graduate. They are done in 4 subjects: Czech Language, a foreign language (usually English or German), and 2 others of the students choosing. At the start of their final year the students are given a list of 30 topics for each of their four subjects. They are responsible for knowing ALL 30 topics. On the day of their exam, they are in groups of 4. The student picks one of the 30 topics from a bag. They then have 15 minutes to write and prepare to speak on the topic they picked. Then they are “examined” by two teachers. It is a 15-minute pressure-cooker where they have to say everything they know about the specific topic. They must answer any question the teacher throws at them best they can. The sense of stress and terror in the classroom is palpable. When they are finished they have about 30 minutes to reboot before doing in all again in their next subject. After four hours their grades are decided and announced and they either graduate or not.
I did not have any final year students in classes this year and only observed the Maturitas this year. However, back in October, I was asked to meet with a student named Hanka during my office hours each Tuesday to help her practice her English. I spent 45 minutes talking to her about whatever topic she wanted each week. She was very conversational but her confidence was somewhat lacking. Telling her how impressive it was that she could carry a conversation with me was something I found myself doing each week.
In April she had to discontinue our meetings in order to spend more time studying. I had no idea when her exam day would be this week. I showed up today thinking I would observe a few random exams and mostly sit in my office. When I walked in, one girl was being examined while another was preparing at a desk. Her back was to me though so I couldn’t tell who it was. When it was the desk girl’s turn I was beyond shocked to see it was none other than Hanka. I was a bit worried she would be nervous with me there but she gave a nervously excited smile and sat down.
Her topic was announced immediately as very difficult. No students want it. This was an immense challenge. Hanka nailed it. She did utterly fantastic. She was poised despite understandable nervousness. She answered every question and her examiners noted that she had facts down that they didn’t even know.
When she finished she got up, completely spent. She sighed deeply as she slumped down briefly next to me. English had been her last subject. Her four hours of torture were complete. I told her she did fantastic and soon she left to go decompress in the hall for a few minutes before hearing her grades.
In the Czech Republic they do a number system for grades. 1 is an A and 5 is an F. You need to get at least a four to pass. This was the last day of exams so when everyone finished they all came into the classroom to have a “parade” and say good bye to their teachers. At the end we got to go down the line and congratulate all the students. When I got to Hanka, she said, with a grin from ear to ear, “I got four 1s.”
I am under no illusions about what my impact was to Hanka. She passed because she is a very smart young woman who studied very, very hard. I merely talked to her for a few minutes each week. But my role here is not really what’s important. What is important is Hanka passed. I am so happy for her success. I am happy I could share in it with her. And so today, more than any other previous, it was really, really great to be a teacher.