A school in a deprived area earns accolades for breaking down traditional barriers between educators, parents, and pupils.

“Where’s your mommy?” a school assistant asks two blond pupils in a school hallway. “She’s out partying,” a disheveled father answers on their behalf. He looks as if he’s just returned from a party himself. 

It’s Saturday morning, the elementary school in Trmice is having its open house, and this anecdote serves as a good illustration of the state of things here.

Trmice, until 1994 part of the city of Usti nad Labem in northern Bohemia, is a small town with several socially disadvantaged areas and high unemployment, indebtedness, and lower-than- average educational achievement. A third of the students at the Trmice elementary school are Roma, a third have special educational needs, and a third come from an unsupportive home environment. And these groups overlap in various ways. 

In the Usti nad Labem region, one in seven children leaves school prematurelySocially disadvantaged areas account for almost two thirds of such children. But in Trmice such cases can be counted on one hand, and every year the number of those opting for areas of study leading to a diploma grows. 

So how do they do it in Trmice? How does the school manage to push children who “aren’t motivated from home and don’t care much about anything” – as principal Marie Gottfriedova describes many of those at her school – toward further successful education?

Principal Marie Gottfriedova

One thing is clear after just a few visits: It’s not because of any miraculous teaching methods. What is striking is the above-average relationship of the teachers with the students and their families. It’s evidenced by an empathetic interaction with the disheveled dad from the opening anecdote, or that when Gottfriedova walks through the school, someone is always stopping her. During the open house, past graduates follow her and the teachers around. They came to let them know how they’re doing now. The principal stops to chat with someone here and there, praising them about the nice outfit they had at the dance last night or inviting them for dessert in the common room. Three boys who’ve been out of the school for two years and are here to visit their former class teacher give each other hugs. “Guess what, I have a 1 [top mark] in Czech,” one of them boasts. “I have a 2,” another chimes in. 

Slacking Off Won’t Pay Off

We’re in a school with a specific composition of pupils, but it’s not just about Roma and children from poor families. The Czech education system needs change almost everywhere. Czech pupils lag behind in mathematics and reading; they don’t understand the world of natural sciences. These results are clear in all the tests that compare Czech children with the rest of the developed world. Czech children don’t like school. And less-educated families lack confidence in the school system and are not motivated to have their children achieve the highest possible level of education.

The result? In some regions, one in 10 children fails to advance to the next grade. And this fact is not as cute as the mischievous students in the popular “Mach and Sebestova” cartoon (known outside Czechia as “Max and Sally”). When students get left back once or twice, their education often stops with the seventh or eighth grade. They don’t complete basic education and thus can’t go on to most secondary or trade schools, nor can they take part in retraining courses offered by the Labor Office. Every year, up to 2,000 students leave school prematurely; several times that number fail to finish secondary school. The Agency for Social Inclusion calculates that each such child will cost the Czech social security system 13 million crowns ($575,000) over their lifetime. So it doesn’t pay off for anyone.

A first-grade class. The maximum class size in all grades is 20.

“Trmice’s success depends on two things: good communication with families and work with the teaching staff,” says Marta Miklusakova from the Agency for Social Inclusion. She monitors the Trmice school, viewing it as a model where students can succeed even in a complicated environment.

“They have good relationships with children and parents; they can communicate with them. They have been working on it for a long time,” she says. “But equally important is the system of managing teachers and their evaluation and continuing education. The work is undoubtedly debilitating; the teacher encounters failure much more often than elsewhere, and deals with family contexts that are complex. At the same time, there’s almost zero turnover at the school; everyone feels good there.”  

But as Miklusakova points out, good relationships alone are not enough if they don’t lead to educational success. This, too, is going well in Trmice.

In a school where 50 out of 320 children have special educational needs (and many others are not officially diagnosed, but their unsupportive home environment doesn’t make their education any easier), just one to two children a year don’t finish elementary school. “Often it was the children who were transferred to us after the city authorities intervened, because they had some problems in their original school. They came here, for example, to repeat a grade, and we weren’t able to work wonders,” Gottfriedova explains.

An after-school animation club, one of 20 clubs children can sign up for.

Last year, three students finished in the eighth grade; the other 29 continued on to the ninth. Twenty-one went on to a secondary school that leads to a diploma (including three to a gymnasium, the most demanding academically); the remaining 11 to apprenticeships. All those who continued their schooling were admitted to their chosen area of study. The principal doesn’t have exact numbers on how many pupils from her school end up graduating from secondary school. But she does have unofficial information, thanks to good relations with graduates. “Those few who give up or fail probably won’t come tell us about it, but the vast majority continues to do well.”

Look Up

An hour of civics, a rare combined group of the two ninth-grade classes – a demanding course. Topic: psychology. It starts with a test. It’s not about marks. Students can work together and discuss the answers together. The level of knowledge doesn’t matter. Everyone tries; no one slacks off – not that the teacher lets them. The hour runs at a brisk pace, and in a positive spirit. The teacher doesn’t lecture from the blackboard or shout. He lets wrong answers go but acknowledges each one that at least comes close to being right.

It’s not by chance, and it’s not just the nature of a particular teacher. In Trmice, they know that no one likes to learn in an atmosphere empty of trust or confidence. And in that kind of environment, passivity is the greatest enemy. That’s why Stephen Hawking’s motivational quotes hang on the walls: “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet” and “Never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it.” This mindset is reflected in the strong emphasis on music, dance, and sports. The school offers 20 afternoon clubs with the goal of building on the positive and giving everyone an opportunity to stand out.

Don’t Waste a Single Day

Problems are not left to fester. For example, the Trmice school serves as a model for Usti nad Labem’s schools – even those considered “prestigious” – on bringing down the rate of absenteeism. Skipping school regularly is usually the first step to a child eventually not attending school at all, or failing to advance to the next grade.

“Dear Madam Principal, we are currently dealing with a large influx of reports of unexcused absences from some schools. We believe your school can be a good example in the sense that such reports rarely come from you, and your work with students, therefore with families, is very effective,” Gottfriedova reads in her office from a letter she just received from the Usti nad Labem regional children’s protection authority (OSPOD). 

Schools often fail to adequately deal with absenteeism; it’s common practice to add up the hours and when they reach 25, they turn to OSPOD. But because OSPOD is swamped, the issue may not be addressed for several months, during which the family may think no one has noticed, and the number of absences continues to grow. 

Ninth-grade music class

So how do they do it in Trmice? Its motivational competition “Don’t waste a single day” can do quite a bit. The class with the lowest number of missed hours gets 2,000 crowns ($90) for an activity or a trip; an individual can win a tablet. “Children are really into it; sometimes it goes to extremes, so that parents call us and say their child wants to go to school with a fever,” Gottfriedova says with a laugh. There are usually seven or eight children with zero absences. Going to school to win a tablet is probably not the right motivation, but it can’t be denied that Trmice never stops trying to figure out how to solve problems.

But the foundation of its success is work with families. The recipe: timeliness and good will. “As soon as the first five or six [absentee] hours appear, the class teacher comes to tell me and we act. Usually the school’s social assistant goes to the family and acts in keeping with the situation and knowledge of the family,” Gottfriedova says. Sometimes it’s enough to explain matter-of-factly that the school must monitor attendance and ask for a reason why the child didn’t arrive. Other times, the social assistant asks someone from the family to go to school with her. Sometimes she cooperates with the local police or the Roma association Romano Jasnica, whose staff is also in contact with the families. 

The right approach is important. “Not to immediately put those parents into the role of culprits,” says Gottfriedova. “To react with understanding – we might find out, for example, that the mother went to bed with a fever and wasn’t able to take care of a six-month-old child so she kept the older sibling at home with her. We’ll ask her to just call us next time and tell the truth.”

Most people respond positively to this approach. At the school, they are convinced that the more personal the contact, the better the chances of mutual understanding. “There will be a few cases we have to report, and OSPOD has other tools, such as cutting benefits and so on,” Gottfriedova says. “But I am a person who naturally believes, and experience bears this out, that prevention is better,” Gottfriedova says. “When you have to resort to legal means, it’s mostly a lost cause anyway.”

The social assistant plays a key role. “Our assistant Katka Vysinova is Romani and has a certain charisma; she has an equilibrium in her; she’s super-kind but at the same time assertive. And she can sense what works with whom. Sometimes you gently explain that there’s nothing to be afraid of. And sometimes you have to be more firm. That’s a big resource for the school.” 

But most schools can’t afford such a treasure. The procedure for assigning social workers to schools is “not very systemic,” Miklusakova of the Agency for Social Inclusion says.

A sixth-grade Czech class.

“Schools have a capped budget, which means each school meets its needs based on what’s most urgent. An assistant who visits families is usually the lowest priority.” 

How did they get a social assistant in Trmice? “We are involved in all sorts of development projects run by the Education Ministry or Jan Evangelista Purkyne University in Usti nad Labem,” Gottfriedova explains. “Thanks to that cooperation we have, for example, a special pedagogue and two joint education coordinators who map what’s working or not working for us in the area of inclusion and where we’ll go from there. It’s extra money, but of course also a lot of extra work.”

Breaking the Ice

It’s Thursday, half past six, but many school windows are still lit. In Room 6B a teacher, a boy, and his parents sit around a table. “We’re meeting here, Vojta, because of you: the assistant and I, and your mom and dad,” the teacher begins the meeting with a factual statement, but she knows why she’s doing it. The feeling that everyone met at school because of the boy is a very important signal and a big encouragement for him.

It’s called a tripartite meeting, and they can’t praise it enough in Trmice, even if it eats up much more time than a group class meeting. It’s important to always start with praise, showcasing what’s going well. The teacher talks about what she appreciates about Vojta (he knows how to be helpful) and what he does that’s important for the class (he stands up for weaker kids). She then passes on information from individual teachers. 

“Geography: right now it looks like a [mark of] 3; but there’s a note from the teacher that if you would participate more and put at least a little more effort into papers, you could get a 1,” the teacher says encouragingly. Another Trmice principle: Never just report the mark, but always add a specific recommendation. The student then has a chance to explain what prevents him or her from putting forth maximum effort and what he or she needs to do differently. At the end, the parents also get a turn to speak. The result of the meeting often is a kind of understanding about what the child and teacher will try, and what the parents will help with so the child’s results are better. Always end with some perspective, a hope that if I try something different, it will go better.

A tripartite breaks the ice. “Even families we haven’t seen until then have come to them,” Gottfriedova says. “Then they let on that they didn’t want to go to class meetings because they were afraid bad things would be said about their child in front of everyone – which of course we didn’t do, but they have that experience from when they were in school themselves.”

Tripartite meetings take place twice a year; a month is reserved for them. Throughout September, students with an individual educational plan meet with their teachers and assistants; November is reserved for regular students. It’s repeated in the spring. Twenty minutes are set aside for each meeting, but sometimes the group winds up chatting for an hour and a half. “We get a lot of important information about the child, but most of all something very valuable builds up – the knowledge that we’re in the same boat, that there are no big gaps between us, and that the child is the center of attention,” the principal says. “It’s also important that we don’t just talk when there’s a problem – which is usually the case when parents are in contact with a school.”

It’s Friday. The combined ninth grades have music class. The first surprising thing is that during warm-ups everybody really sings, puberty or no puberty. Last week, everyone went to the cinema to see Bohemian Rhapsody. And given that today’s theme is rhythm, teacher Drahoslav Stranek plays Queen melodies on the keyboard. The children add rhythmic accompaniment on various instruments. Rather than typical elementary school music education, it’s reminiscent of an orchestra rehearsal. Even the space is more of a rehearsal studio full of instruments than a classroom. 

In ninth-grade music class, everyone works together despite the high concentration of adolescent egos.

The Queen film yields several class sessions on various subjects. A school outing to the movies in Trmice doesn’t mean killing a morning but preparing for it and making the most of it afterward. “It’s a film for the informed, so beforehand we talked about what kind of band it was, what era it was, and what they came up with that was new,” Stranek says. “It’s not just about music, but also about relationships, admitting differences, faith in oneself. … Freddie Mercury had to extricate himself from his family and go after his own goals. We also can work with this in ethics, in civics; individual teachers returned to it in their homerooms. Plus, it’s long, they have to read subtitles, that’s already a challenge for a lot of kids, and it’s good that they try.” 

During the class after visiting the cinema, everyone was asked to write whatever came to mind. “Someone commented on the music; someone on the cast; one boy wrote: ‘I went home and listened to Queen all evening. Normally I don’t spend much time with my parents, but they heard it and came into my room to listen, too.’ “

The music lesson continues; two boys in the front row are chatting. “Hey, Jirka, I’m remembering that time two years ago, how you were cooperative, you were interested, we worked on songs together,” the teacher says to one of the boys, sounding more like a father than a teacher. In Trmice they believe in the need to build on good relationships with the children. Reminding them about good things works better than punishment or a raised voice. Maybe we still remember this from our own childhoods – when we liked a teacher, we didn’t want to make her angry. 

The teacher announces that at the end of class the students will rehearse a beloved Czech folk tune. “It’s a surprise for the principal for the next school concert,” the teacher says. “And will the principal like that?” a girl asks, and it’s clear that she wants nothing more at that moment. 

What is happening in Trmice is no magic. Teachers’ practices are similar to those of experts in modern pedagogy, such as Dylan Wiliam, a British pedagogical celebrity who started out as a math teacher at a school full of unmotivated children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. In a nutshell: The teacher pays individual attention to the children if possible, constantly making sure that he has everyone’s attention, and tries to motivate everyone. He rebukes gently, with gestures, a touch, a quiet remark. And he praises aloud. 

Principal Gottfriedova emphasizes that it’s not about specific pedagogical procedures but rather the feeling underlying them: that school is a service. “I think that’s what makes the difference in the end: that children see teachers standing in front of them who realize they’re not an institution that sets conditions and presents lists of what the children have to have before they deign to teach.” 

She herself is clear on the nature of that service: “When I can, I begin the debate by asking that we write down what we want a graduate of the school to be like. We usually agree: a responsible person, independent, creative, empathetic, able to cooperate and help, conscientious, thorough, trustworthy, to have charm, a spark. … And what do we do in schools to develop all this? The teacher comes up with a lesson, the children should sit still if possible, then they should write it down, and after two days they should reproduce it – preferably using the same words. How do I develop creativity, responsibility, cooperation, motivation with that?”

Ahead of Their Time

Individual elements of what works in Trmice – such as tripartite meetings or an emphasis on a congenial atmosphere – can be found in the Czech education system. But schools have to figure it out for themselves; there’s no comprehensive manual or methodology. The success of individual schools depends on the personal qualities of the principal and his or her activities, including the ability to gather information and apply for financial support from grants, without which it’s impossible to achieve all this. They don’t have it easy, especially if they’re not supported by the local powers that be. 

In Trmice, for example.

“I’m a little bothered by the makeup of the children, although of course it’s due to the makeup of the population,” Trmice Mayor Jana Oubrechtova says without mincing words. Apparently by that she means the Roma. “The level of education is declining because it adapts to the weaker ones.” Reportedly, some parents agree and some now drive their children to schools in Usti nad Labem. But the mayor has no statistics or evidence for these claims. According to Gottfriedova, three or four children per year assigned to the school go elsewhere, and four years ago one mother took out her first-grader in November on the grounds that many Roma pupils were in the class. She doesn’t know of any other cases.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of energy,” Gottfriedova says of the relationship with local authorities. “And if sometimes the notion that I call it a day and go somewhere else has crept into my head, it wasn’t because of the biggest bully we have here at school, but because of the town hall.” 

The Czech School Inspectorate was last at the Trmice school in 2014. Its report assesses as above-average, for example, “support for social literacy, a quality and well-constructed program of free-time activities,” a positive atmosphere. “We visit schools more often where there’s some problem,” says Varja Pauckova, head of the inspectorate’s Usti nad Labem office. “We have no indication from Trmice that the school, which was doing well six years ago, strayed from that path and went in the wrong direction.” It seems ahead of its time.

What works in Trmice is clear to see. So why aren’t there more such schools? The Czech School Inspectorate has asked the same question, and has begun to monitor similarly successful schools and document their procedures in a report with examples of inspirational practices. The Trmice school is included among 80 being monitored.

“The school creates equal opportunities for pupils to learn, regardless of their social or cultural affiliation, provides them with support measures, develops tolerance and makes sure no pupil is excluded from the collective,” Ondrej Andrys, deputy central school inspector, wrote in an e-mail. “The Trmice elementary school also distinguishes itself with its strong culture” and strives to provide quality educational materials, with the help of co-financing from grants. “Its educational program has served as an inspiration for other schools as they put their general education plans into practice. The school provides an above-average number of free-time activities, promotes an individual approach to instruction and individualized assessment, and modern methods and forms of work.”

The inspectorate is also drafting a thematic report on the common features of schools that succeed in working with disadvantaged pupils. “We describe a total of eight schools, and the purpose of the report is to point out useful strategies that schools could use and for which they should find support from authorities, the National Pedagogical Institute, and the Ministry of Education, but also other actors, for example doctors or social workers,” explains Dana Prazakova from the school inspectorate’s central office.

These are very useful steps, until now lacking, on the part of the inspectorate. But it’s not enough. Trmice isn’t complaining about finances. The school simply operates at a high speed and engages in various projects to improve its budget or raise money for support staff. But in general, Czech education is desperately underfunded, and nothing will move much until that changes.

Cries for Help

Trmice principal Gottfriedova has a special session with one class today. The reason: problems with one boy. He moved to Trmice from a school in Usti nad Labem, where they didn’t know what to do with him, and here he tries to fit in by acting tough and rudely. He disrupts class, yells, and swears. Some classmates appreciate him for it, as adolescents will. This isn’t the first time the principal has talked with this class, and she’s already had a three-hour conversation with the mother, which revealed that she doesn’t know how to deal with her son either. 

“I’m convinced that no child misbehaves just because he wants to,” Gottfriedova later explains. “There’s always a reason. It’s often a cry for help. As soon as you allow that possibility, you look at him differently. We shouldn’t be in competition with the child.” The school hardly ever uses formal punishments such as reprimands or lower marks for behavior. In this, too, they hold a strong belief that more can be accomplished through good will – even if it sometimes means hours of talking to the child or the parents.

“Today we’ll talk about what you like about your class,” the principal begins. The children pipe up: We’re good friends, we help each other, we like to play together. “And now the not-so-good things. Does your class have any weaknesses?” The children: “Noise … Some children are really noisy, and somebody would maybe like to read during a break and doesn’t have any peace.”

The children are used to such open talks and evidently are good at the give-and-take. They provide names of the children who disturb the most. And when it comes to what can be done to make things better, most identify their own faults: I need to improve. “It’s interesting that children usually know very well what they do well and what they don’t,” Gottfriedova says. “They don’t need a mentor over them to tell them ‘One doesn’t do that.’ “

“To get better?” she continues. “That’s easy to say, but it’s good to spell out in what. You can make a resolution for this week: quiet. Try to have more calm here. Eliminating vulgar expressions or rudeness can be a task for the following weeks.” The class teacher will carry on working with the class in this spirit. 

Class over, the principal is satisfied. “It wasn’t about the boy at all. We didn’t traumatize him by picking him apart, but he recognized himself in it and was able to say: ‘It would help if you wouldn’t pay attention to me.’ In fact he admitted that he was doing it to get a reaction.”

Better Relationships, Better Grades

Relationships, relationships. Child-to-child. Student-to-teacher.

Teachers in Trmice say that when youngsters want to come to school and improve themselves, they’ve taken the biggest step toward success at school, better marks, and laying a foundation to continue studying and to take responsibility for one’s life. 

That’s why the school offers a wide variety of clubs, and with few exceptions the teachers themselves lead them. One who is a beekeeper launched a beekeeping club. An athlete leads the floorball club. “They meet children on a different level in the afternoon, which can be a great advantage with children who have a problem,” Gottfriedova says. Prices are symbolic. The basic rate is 50 crowns ($2) per semester, or a little more if materials are involved, for example art supplies. They are financed in part from projects implemented in cooperation with the University of Jan Evangelista Purkyne and partly from the school’s operating budget. 

“In practice, this means we might not buy as much new office furniture, but we view children’s clubs as a priority, and we’d rather give up material goods in favor of the children’s success and meaningful use of their free time,” the principal explains.

Everyone has the opportunity to be good at something. And there’s a lot, including the prestigious school orchestra, Trmi©kus. They recorded a CD and performed at the Rudolfinum concert hall in Prague. A student-made film, The Key to Life, won first prize at a festival of animated school films. The school’s logo came from a student competition. It even has its own television station. The ninth-graders paid tribute to their teachers two years ago by making a Czech version of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us.” They sold hot dogs to earn money to rent a studio, where they recorded the song and even made a video to go with it.

They transformed the refrain into: “No one can top us because we are ninth-graders.” Does that sound like demotivated students from a poor region?

But let’s not paint too rosy a picture. Such students still exist.

Sometimes It’s Just Not Possible

In the words of Marie Gottfriedova: “Do what we can, never give up on someone, but at the same time keep your feet on the ground and don’t fall apart if it doesn’t work out.” 

Take, for example, the case of a girl we’ll call Iveta.

“A very problematic story: She finished first grade in a special-needs school, and then it was discovered that she’d been placed there by mistake,” recalls assistant principal Drahos Stranek. “She went to regular school, but it didn’t work. Then she came to us; we tutored and helped her. When she was about to finish, she didn’t know what to do with herself, and the family didn’t deal with it. It seemed to us that she had an artistic inclination and wanted to be among people. When we said ‘hairdresser,’ her eyes lit up.” 

Stranek negotiated everything at the trade school and arranged a loan from an organization that finances secondary school studies for Roma children. “I even offered to the family that if they came by the school, I would drive them [to the trade school]. And the result? Not only did she not enroll at the school, but she didn’t even come for her remedial exams,” Stranek says. “Sometimes we succeed through acquaintances or relatives, but no one had an influence on this family.” 

But there have been only a handful of such children, and they remember each one well, just as they do the positive cases, when the child was successfully pointed in the right direction. Trmice has a graduate, for example, at the International Conservatory in Prague. Her name is Nela Dzudzova and the “copyright” on her career is held by Stranek, who doubles as the Trmice music teacher and head of its school orchestra. He noticed how musical young Nela was, how well she sang, and literally pushed her to the conservatory entrance exams. “I worked with her on music theory and above all motivated her, telling her she could do it,” he recalls. It worked out. Nela was accepted to the conservatory in Teplice. But she didn’t feel good there; she felt the teachers discriminated against her and so moved to Prague. 

When a boy with an extraordinary talent for percussion signed up for the school orchestra, they got him a private tutor and later a place in several bands. He didn’t go to a conservatory; he’s training to be a carpenter and teaches drums in the local youth leisure time center. “He’s being raised by his grandfather, who is ill and getting on in years, so the boy could have ended up much worse; the drug business is flourishing right in the house where he lives,” Stranek says. “It’s good that he got a taste of music.” 

From everything that’s been reported above, it’s probably already clear that the commitment of Trmice teachers and the principal is far beyond the normal bounds of the teaching profession. It also includes regular meetings, which take up every Wednesday afternoon. One week principal Gottfriedova meets with teachers from grades one through four, the next week with colleagues from the upper levels, and other times with assistants. Teachers discuss in these sessions what works for them; they also commiserate. 

Where to get so many motivated teachers in a country where this profession doesn’t enjoy much prestige or appreciation? Gottfriedova says she was fortunate that many teachers were retiring when she became principal, so she could build her own teaching staff. There are almost as many men as women (and the men predominate in grades five to nine). Many have returned to education after many years; and she succeeded in attracting about a third from fields outside education.

It might have to do with personality, which of course is difficult to replicate. But a clear vision of what makes a good teacher is also there. “They must be pedagogical alchemists rather than experts in mathematics or science,” she says. “Psychologists, people capable of empathy who win over children, will be far more able to figure out how to reach others and with whom to form a relationship, because everything rises and falls with that relationship.”

Smiles All Around

“The first days she came from school saying, ‘Mom, it’s like I’m in a dream,’ ” Jana says about her daughter Tereza. The family moved to a village near Trmice after relations in Tereza’s original school got so bad that the girl was on the brink of mental collapse. Jana said that things started to go downhill following a case of physical abuse (editor’s note: the names used here are pseudonyms because of the sensitive nature of those accusations). 

“My daughter spoke out. We were dealing with it through an educational counselor; the class teacher didn’t like that we went around her, so then my daughter had problems with her, too. The first half of seventh grade she still had top marks, and she was third in the English Olympiad. And suddenly she had 5s [the lowest mark]. The teacher humiliated her in front of her classmates; Tereza started coming home in tears. She would feel sick in the morning; she’d vomit, have diarrhea. The doctor sent her to a psychologist, then to a psychiatrist. Diagnosis: stress disorder, in danger of needing institutional treatment. The psychiatrist recommended that I not send her to school for the rest of the school year.” 

The family moved, and Tereza and her younger sister enrolled in the Trmice school. “They’re both excited, about the instruction as well as the approach of the teachers,” their mother says. “The teachers present the curriculum in a fun way, and they care that everyone understands it. In physics, a teacher drops a bottle of water on the floor and vividly explains something about it. Tereza had been failing physics; here she started to enjoy it, she studies, she reads about it, and the teacher says she’s the best. Tereza has completely taken off – she’s playing the flute and ukulele. I’m beaming with happiness.”

Mother and daughters are full of praise for the teachers.

“They’re interested in the relationships in the class,” Jana says. “When someone argues or fights they don’t leave it be; everything is dealt with immediately. We’ve never experienced that at any school, and we’ve been through a few. It wasn’t until here that when the children go to school, they come home smiling. And they’re telling me about it, one talking over the other. That means an awful lot for me as a mother.”

Principals Have All the Power

Top officials at the Education Ministry understand that the Trmice school’s record in developing the potential of each and every student is not easy to replicate. How do they explain its success? “In that there’s only one Marie Gottfriedova, and the example of the Trmice school shows the importance of the pedagogical leadership of the school principal,” says Jaroslav Faltyn, head of the ministry’s department of preschool, primary, and special education. “If it works as well as it does in Trmice, a school has hope for a qualitative shift.”

And that’s exactly the problem. 

In the Czech education system, the quality of a school depends a great deal on the personality of the principal and his or her individual abilities. There’s no such thing as a good school with a bad principal. 

Nevertheless, the state doesn’t provide any special training for school principals. “Not only does the state not offer support to schools, like the one in Trmice, which operate in socially difficult terrain, but it also doesn’t address how to get capable people into the positions of principals at such schools,” says writer Tomas Fertek, a longtime observer of Czech education. “There’s no system for educating principals or career preparation. People get to these positions by chance, often without the needed skills. Best case, they supplement their knowledge and skills after the fact, individually, without clear guidance from the [education] ministry – sometimes through courses, sometimes by going around to well-known and successful schools with prominent principals. This is what we need to change first if we really want there to be a chance that examples of good practice, such as Trmice, spread throughout the education system. Right now it’s a randomly wandering ‘infection.’ “

One initiative aiming to transform the status quo is Lead Live, an NGO-run program that is the first that seeks to systematically train principals. “Above all they lack long-term support and the opportunity to share with people in the same positions,” program manager Libor Pospisil explains. “That’s why Lead Live is a two-year, intensive program, which builds a lasting learning community from leadership positions in schools. We don’t have the ambition to develop principals in all the competencies they should have, but we focus on those that have the greatest impact on children. We help principals especially in the area of so-called pedagogical leadership, or the ability to teach children well and ensure they enjoy school and learning.”

Know-how transfer is possible, and the Trmice school is ready for it. Now it’s important that there be more schools that can replicate its processes, and more leaders to support them. 

Gottfriedova comes to school every day with this idea in mind:

“Don’t give up on them under any circumstances; try to awaken in them responsibility for their own destiny; be there for them. For every one of them, whether prepared or not prepared, ragged or spiffed up, looking at me nicely or not, with homework done or without. I’m here for them and I will be at their side, motivate them, and create conditions so each advances somewhere.”

Ten recipes for success a la Trmice:

1. Above-average relationships between teachers and pupils. 

2. Good knowledge of families and positive communication with them. 

3. Pleasant school atmosphere: Children like going to school = 80 percent of success.

4. Good work with teaching staff: Teachers regularly share experiences, provide mutual support. 

5. Individual work with children.

6. Active involvement in projects of the Education Ministry or universities, from which the school can get additional funds. 

7. Investing in school assistants. In a school with an ethnic minority, it is important that some of the assistants be from that environment.

8. Tripartite meetings (teacher, parent, student) to build mutual trust.

9. Interesting instruction, emphasis on positive motivation. In an atmosphere of distrust no one wants to learn. Passivity is the biggest enemy in such an environment.

10. Plenty of after-school activities/clubs. So everyone has a chance to stand out at something.

Lucie Fialova is the editor of EDUzin, a magazine about education in the Czech Republic.

Translated by Dasa Obereigner. All photos by Katerina Lanska.