Every year, teachers from Czech schools in the United States and Canada meet to discuss their work and the challenges of maintaining Czech language skills among children living abroad. This year’s event was co-hosted by Yvea Zeals from the Czech School in Calgary and Marta McCabe from the Czech School in North Carolina and unlike its previous editions, it took place online, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
I spoke to one of the organizers, Marta McCabe, a Czech teacher and founder of the Czech and Slovak School in Durham, North Carolina right after the conference ended and I started by asking her about her first impressions of the event:
“My first impressions are that it was a great success. It was a very productive meeting, although it was the first time we have met online for this conference. In the past, we would always meet in person in different cities across the US or Canada. But because of the situation with the coronavirus, we decided to try something new.”
How many people registered for the event and how many schools took part?
“We have had registration from 139 people. Out of that number 76 were representatives of Czech schools in either the United States or Canada. So there were five schools from Canada and 21 schools from the United States.
“Then we had about 64 participants from schools in Europe, but also from universities in the Czech Republic, from programmes that teach Czech as a second or foreign language.
“We also had people who teach Czech as a foreign language at universities in the United States, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education and from other programmes that support teaching of Czech as a second or heritage language.”
What were the main topics of this year’s conference of Czech schools in America?
“The whole event was structured into eight different topics. On Saturday we focused on school leadership, organisation of events for the Czech community and teaching for pre-school children.
“But probably the most important section on Saturday was composed of presentations of representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Czech Senate and the embassies of the Czech Republic in the United States and Canada.
“On Sunday, we had again representatives of the Czech Ministry of Education, and universities that teach Czech as a foreign language in the Czech Republic.
“We also had three additional topics, including online education, topics focused on educating children in elementary school-age, and teaching of Czech as a foreign language to adults.”
Which of these topics did you find particularly inspiring?
“It has been very interesting for all the participants to hear news and updates from places such as the embassies. We have heard about the programmes that they are doing to support schools, which was very helpful and we also heard about the programmes done by the Commission for Compatriots.
“What was really inspiring were the discussions that then took place in all those topics. People were very excited to share what they have done, what projects they are working on, and mainly to just see so many people from schools all across the world doing the same thing and working towards the same goal.”
“Ester Stará was part of one of the blocks that focused on teaching of the pre-school-aged children. She introduced her books and explained how to use them during instruction in order to build more vocabulary in our children. That was very helpful and many of the participants actually already knew her books. And we have also had many other guests who introduced other topics.”
We last spoke together in 2016, how has the situation changed for Czech schools since then?
“The situation with Czech schools is always changing and it is changing in a positive way. New schools are starting, there are people asking about how to start a school. So there is definitely interest in teaching children Czech language across the United States and Canada.
“What has changed here in North Carolina, we were able to open a second branch of our school in another city, which is Charlotte. So at this point, our school in North Carolina operates two different branches in two different cities of the state.”
What are some of the biggest challenge the Czech schools are facing today?
“The very biggest challenge for all of us at this point is to prepare for a possible prolonged time of online teaching. We are not sure if we are going to be able to open our classrooms in the fall and I guess we won’t know for a while.
“So people who teach in these schools may not necessarily be trained in online instruction, so one challenge is how to work with this change and continue to provide classes even if we have to move to an online instruction.
“Other challenges include finances of course and finding teachers, but the coronavirus has been quite a challenge for all of us this year.”
So how serious is the situation at the moment in North Carolina and how difficult was the transfer to online teaching?
“We are all hoping that we can return to the classrooms in September.”
“At this point in North Carolina all public schools are closed and will remain closed for the rest of the year. Businesses are only now beginning to reopen.
“Many of the Czech schools across the US and Canada did move to online teaching a few months ago, but some of the schools had to cancel the final few weeks of the semester because they were unable to provide classes online.
“However, there is definitely a good number of schools that are continuing to teach online and we are all hoping that we can return to the classrooms in September.”
I imagine the coronavirus crisis must have been a widely discussed topic at this year’s conference.
“Even if we return to some sort of normal, we will have so many more tools to use in our daily practice of teaching Czech language.”
“Very much so. This idea of new tools, new ways to deliver instruction and new ways to reach students and families was definitely something that was discussed throughout all the different segments of the meeting.
“We did find out that there are so many more resources that we can use now, that even if we return to some sort of normal, we will have so many more tools now to use in our daily practice of teaching Czech language. So we have discovered new tools thanks to coronavirus.”
So what have you as a teacher learned thanks to this crisis?
“As a teacher I have learned first of all that teaching can happen online. Also I have learned that it is easier to continue online with students that we know from face-to-face contact then perhaps starting a whole new online class with new people.
“But overall we have found out that some of the instruction could actually be even more productive because the time online could be spent in a productive way.”