Pedagogical Time Travel

Yesterday I attended two professional development sessions (one online, one in person) hosted by the school district here in Szolnok. The presentations were clear, eloquent, and heartfelt. The content, to my surprise, brought old back memories of professional development sessions in New York City in the years 2005-2009 or so. In particular, there was extensive mention of learning styles, 21st century skills, cooperative learning, and positive feedback. (I did not hear a word about the Danielson Framework, growth mindset, or grit, which came into prominence a little later.)

I have long questioned and criticized the extremes to which the above concepts have been taken in the U.S. (Some of them are questionable from the start.) I don’t see Hungary taking them to extremes any time soon, nor do I see any intention to do so later.  So I am not particularly worried at the moment. But I found the situation interesting and thought-provoking.

Many Hungarian educators and others believe that the current system here is too rigid, stressful, and punitive, and that Hungary needs to prepare students–at many levels and with many different needs–for the demands of the current world and workplace, as well as for democratic participation. I recognize all of this. But it is possible to transform the system without knocking it down entirely. One of the strengths of Hungarian education is the substance of the curriculum. Granted, there’s too much cramming and too little choice–but high school students learn history and literature, physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, foreign languages, geography, art, music, drama, ethics, civilization, physical education, and more. In class discussions, I have found that they are able to draw on their knowledge from other subjects when making arguments or analyzing a text. It would be a shame to lose most or all of that. As I have argued many times, you can’t think critically if you don’t have something to think about. You also need patience with challenges–including the discipline of reading carefully, working on a problem until a solution comes through, or listening to an extended presentation.

My own teaching is a combination of the traditional and the “progressive” (for lack of a better word). I believe strongly in subject matter but also believe in taking time with texts and ideas, hearing different perspectives, pursuing a greater understanding. I bring literature, music, and drama into my language teaching–because language is nothing without them. I am also continually criticizing my own work, adjusting it, thinking about ways to do it better, and learning from colleagues.

This is possible at Varga because students do have a basis (and ample focus and patience), and the school is supportive. When the basis or support is lacking, the cohesion breaks down. You might have a class of 25-35 students, 10 of whom are eager to take on any challenge, another 10 of whom are happy to do what is required to pass, and another 5-15 of whom are so far behind, or so unused to sustained concentration, that they disrupt class unless given something basic to do. So you are told to differentiate. But differentiate what? In the U.S., the curriculum writing is often left to the teachers themselves–so that there is no unified understanding of what students are supposed to be learning. Only those schools and districts that set out to develop a curriculum, or that adopt one from elsewhere, actually have one. This is especially true in English; while many schools have book lists in common, there is not one literary work that you can assume students will have read by the end of high school. I have managed in such situations–for years–but much of my energy went into preparing materials, managing the classroom, calling parents, and getting through the day. And even with that, I taught students language, literature, drama, and philosophy, directed plays, and more. (Columbia Secondary School was and is different–it does have curricula, and the students have a foundation.)

It is interesting to see education from several sides and through time. You can do all sorts of interesting things in class–and with homework assignments and projects–when you have a foundation and good working material, and when you put thought into your approach and respond to what is happening. So I see good in what Hungarian schools are trying to do right now. I also see good in what they already have. Is there a way to bring together the best of both–to make the curriculum and pedagogical approaches more flexible, without losing the substance or falling for a fad? Yes, it is possible; good schools over the centuries have done this. Yet it cannot be taken for granted, nor does it ever reach stable perfection. It will go sharp and flat, we will flub a note or two, and we must retune, practice, and play it, again and again.


Image courtesy of NBC News.


With Fondness and Respect


Yesterday we had an outdoor faculty meeting in preparation for the school year, which begins on September 1. The principal began by welcoming us back “with fondness and respect” (“szeretettel és tisztelettel”). This common Hungarian phrase has no equivalent in English; it set a nice tone for the morning. The head of the school district said a few words, a number of teachers were recognized for excellent work in the previous year, we discussed some aspects of the school year (more meetings are ahead), and we went over fire and other emergency procedures.

Today I went in for a meeting with the arts faculty. Since I include drama and music in my teaching and have two big drama projects lined up for this year, I was welcomed into the “munkaközösség,” a faculty working group. It was great to be part of the discussion and hear about plans, concerns, needs, and so on. The arts at Varga are rich, and now the school’s second building, Building B, will be devoted to the arts. The drama room will have a stage; it will become a little auditorium!

IMG_3123I am essentially entering my fourth year at Varga (and my fourteenth full year of teaching), hard as that is to believe. I say “essentially” because I started at the beginning of November 2017–so it has been three years minus two months. But still, given that I jumped right in, it’s fair to say that this is my fourth year. So my students who were in ninth grade when I arrived will be graduating this year.

We will have classes in person but will take certain precautions and prepare to adjust plans if necessary. The country will respond locally to the situation–so if one part of the country is harder hit, it will have stricter regulations than areas with few coronavirus cases. It will be a while before life in Budapest returns to normal, it seems, though small events are happening again, and university students are returning for hybrid instruction. Here in Szolnok, in contrast, the situation seems stable and safe right now.

I have missed Varga, classes, students, and colleagues. It is a wonderful place to teach–a dream school, as far as I am concerned–and I have been thinking about why. I will say more about that another time. This afternoon I am about to take the train out to Mátészalka for one of the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s synagogue concerts. I wasn’t able to attend any last fall, because they were all too far away; the last of their synagogue concerts that I attended was in Gyula, in September 2018. This one’s a bit far too, but feasible, if I head out in the next few minutes.

Tradeoffs and Givebacks


The cliché “nothing is free” is not entirely true. Many things come to us, good, bad, and mixed, through no doing of our own; we don’t have to pay for (or pay our way out of) everything that comes our way. Still, more things come at a cost than we may immediately realize. I want a president who understands the cost and value of things–not only the monetary cost and value, but also that which goes beyond money.

It was snowing when I got up this morning; I think this was the second snow of the winter here in Szolnok. Maybe the third. We often talk about how winters aren’t as snowy as they used to be. But to have snowy winters, we have to stop heating the planet so much. Fewer cars, lower heat, less wasteful consumption. The effects aren’t immediate and direct–we might have blizzards next year–but they’re there.

Similar things can be said for healthcare. In the U.S., the contenders for the Democratic presidential candidacy have been debating how to reform or overhaul the health care system. But no matter what policy the next president puts into action, it will have severe costs. People often point to Canada as an example of a large country with universal health care. But the Canadian system is struggling: it has enough resources emergency services, but not nearly enough for chronic conditions. Many patients have to wait months, even years, for their appointments. Moreover, the actual quality of care is often mediocre. Canada’s accomplishment is great, but it does not meet everyone’s needs by a long shot.

If I were naive, I would praise the medical system here in Hungary. Everyone has access to health care; those who are employed pay a monthly fee for a health plan that covers just about everything, and those who are unemployed can get free care. In addition, if you want better care and want an appointment right away, you can pay private doctors at reasonable rates. (A recent doctor’s appointment cost me about $20.) But the catch is that doctors make miserable money. Many are leaving Hungary.

To institute any kind of universal health care in the U.S., one would have to change the medical profession and medical schools: make it easier and less expensive to become a doctor, reduce doctors’ salaries, and more. It would take years to make this shift, and many doctors and patients would resist it. For a long time, there would probably be two or three tiers of doctors and medical services. Something like this would still be worthwhile (in my opinion), but it won’t be great for everyone.

Education: another area where very little is free. I love teaching here in Hungary. The environment is calm (yet lively too). Teachers are regarded as professionals; outside of the classroom, we are mostly in charge of our own time. Faculty meetings are held not weekly, but as needed; smaller meetings occur when we call them. Often we just work things out with our colleagues in spare minutes in the teachers’ room, where most of us have our desks. Many of us stay late after school, but there’s no pressure to stay late, no suggestion that those who do so are better than the others. But the pay is low. My salary (on the higher end, because of my degrees and teaching experience) comes to about $12,000 per year.


In New York City, whenever a pay raise for teachers has been on the table, I have heard talk of “givebacks.” These might include lengthening the school day and school year, increasing the number of mandatory meetings, increasing teachers’ duties outside the classroom (teachers had to monitor hallways and the cafeteria, among other things), increasing the pedagogical mandates (at many schools, lessons have to follow specified formats), mandating the regular refreshing of hallway bulletin boards (a hefty task, especially since they, like the lessons, must follow specified formats), and mandating regular contact with parents. (Here in Hungary, it’s the homeroom teacher who contacts parents if necessary; subject teachers are not expected to do so.)

The result of all this? Teachers’ salaries in New York are quite good (especially when you consider the retirement benefits and pensions, none of which I reaped, incidentally, since I left twice to write two books and was officially part-time for my last five years of teaching there). If you stay in the system a long time, you can not only afford the cost of living in New York City, but even raise a family, buy an apartment, go on nice vacations, and retire comfortably. But the school day (in many cases) is so stressful and pounding from start to finish, that even energetic people in their twenties get worn out. Even at a wonderful school, you feel the pressure of the system.

Speaking of pressure of the system (and a wonderful school), it was painful to read a recent article about my former school, the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering. According to the article, Harlem parents and others have been complaining that the school’s demographics do not reflect those of the neighborhood. While true, this criticism does not take the school’s purpose and nature into account. Columbia Secondary School makes an extraordinary commitment both to high standards and to diversity. Its enrollment is 60% African American and Hispanic; many students come from immigrant families. Moreover, the school makes a point of admitting academically promising students from the neighborhood. But since the neighborhood is historically low-performing, the school faces a dilemma. If it were to relax its admission requirements–for instance, not looking at students attendance records any more–the overall quality would go down and the general stress would go up. If, on the other hand, the school were to rely entirely on test scores for admission (instead of its current combination of interviews, essays, scores, grades, and attendance records), then the student body would represent the neighborhood even less (since the neighborhood’s average test scores are extremely low). I love the school and know that it will hold its own–but I wish it were being honored, not berated.

Yes, many things come at a cost; to set and implement a policy, or even to make life decisions, one has to understand what the cost is and what it means. And why do I have time to write this today? We have no school; it’s a “ski weekend” for those who wish to take off to the mountains. For me, it’s a chance to catch up with some translating, get ready for synagogue tomorrow (practice the leyning in particular), and, yes, write a blog post and maybe more. The cost in this case? Not much on the surface. But if you look closely, each of these things was chosen over something else. I could go on with explanations and examples. But I think the idea is clear.