Online tutor Pavel David Cvrk works with fifth-graders at the elementary school in the small town of Horni Pocaply. Photo by Katerina Lanska.

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Student teachers from Czech universities help combat pandemic-caused learning disruptions.

During the first and second waves of COVID-19 the Czech Republic, like many other countries, had to contend with across-the-board school closures. Some children were unable to participate in distance learning at all during this period or did so sporadically. A nationwide initiative called Faculties Tutor (Fakulty doucuji) was born in response to this situation to connect primary schools with college students who help pupils catch up on the material they missed. 

The tutoring has the added benefit of enabling future teachers to complete their required practical training. But the tutors didn’t just come from the ranks of future schoolteachers. In the 2020-2021 school year 600 students of various fields from 23 colleges and universities joined the initiative, tutoring 1,500 pupils.

The Czech Republic’s schools were closed for more than 200 days between spring 2020 and May 2021. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), that was one of the world’s longest school shutdowns.

Many children were completely out of touch with their schools because they lacked internet at home. Some parents lacked the conditions for their child to access his or her own computer or space suitable for instruction. Some families live in single rooms in residential hostels. Faculties Tutor, a joint initiative of the National Pedagogical Institute (NPI) and the nonprofit organization People in Need, targeted these types of students. 

Lucie Marsalkova, who manages supervised practical internships (practicums) at the Charles University Faculty of Pedagogy in Prague, said that when People in Need contacted her, “we looked for opportunities to realize this as part of our existing practicums. Eventually two elective courses on tutoring were formed. Anybody from any level could apply, and there was great interest overall among the students. During the first two semesters about 150 students were involved.” 

The initiative is the brainchild of Rut Vesela and Zuzana Ramajzlova, education specialists with People in Need. The pair, along with NPI, began contacting universities in spring 2020 to find pedagogy students interested in tutoring children who had missed out on distance learning when schools were shuttered.

“It was absolutely spontaneous; we didn’t have a clear schedule planned in advance,” Ramajzlova says. “We just wanted it to be a component of the practicums in the educational disciplines so the students could get credit for it.”

The NPI, which took on the coordination role, posted a form on its website, Zapojmevsechny.cz (Let’s include everyone), through which schools could apply for tutoring either by trainee teachers or students in other fields. “We had no idea whether 30, 300, or 3,000 primary schools would apply, or what the capacity of the college students would be,” says NPI project manager Tomas Machalik.

Eventually all nine pedagogy faculties in the country joined the effort, in addition to the likes of the Czech Technical University’s electrical engineering faculty and Charles University’s science faculties.

“We were surprised by the interest from college students in fields unrelated to pedagogy; it was basically twice the interest of that shown by future teachers,” says Tereza Skachova, Faculties Tutor coordinator at NPI. One reason might be that many pedagogy students already were tutoring in schools that had stayed open to serve the children of firefighters, nurses, and other vital workers, she says.

Tereza Skachova, coordinator of the Faculties Tutor program for the National Pedagogical Institute. Photo by Katerina Lanska.

The tutoring was to begin in person in fall of 2020 but was thwarted by the second wave of the pandemic, which again closed the schools. But everything was up and running within a few weeks. About half of the tutoring that school year was done online, a quarter in person, and another quarter in a combination of the two. 

Several faculties have since added tutoring to their curricula, Machalik notes, calling this a success of the initiative.

Meeting a Need for Practical Experience

In the Czech education system, universities are highly autonomous, which is reflected in the curricula of pedagogical schools. Each school develops its own practicum program. The common denominator is that they are unpaid.

It is not unusual, however, for pedagogy students to not undertake such an internship until the fourth or fifth year of their studies, and then just for a few hours. While there are exceptions, and there is increasing pressure to reform undergraduate education, it can generally be said that both the level of the teaching practicums and their required duration have long been a weak part of teacher training in the Czech Republic. The curricula have focused more on theory than on practical skills. 

A school that participates in Faculties Tutor, Masaryk University in Brno, is one of the exceptions. For the past five years, tutoring has been part of the core training for future teachers, according to Marketa Kosatkova, supervisor for tutoring at the university’s pedagogy faculty.

Their tutoring program initially focused primarily on children from socially excluded backgrounds. “From fieldwork we knew it is best to help those children at home, so we paid a great deal of attention to pedagogy students visiting them in their family environment,” Kosatkova says. The tutoring then was extended to other children with special educational needs. These methods initially aroused resentment on the part of professors and students, she says. Part of it was “the fear of going into the homes of the socially excluded. Petitions were written about it being dangerous for students.” Such concerns turned out to be groundless.

“We know from the field and from surveys that school success depends a lot on family background, so I am glad future teachers get the opportunity to realize that not every child lives in the kind of conditions that are conducive to school success,” Kosatkova says. “Experiences of that kind will help a pedagogy student discover structural inequities. … We read in the students’ comments that they suddenly realize that not everyone has parents like they have, parents who help the child with everything.”

Faculties Tutor volunteers choose where they want to work. Vlastimil Horalek, a pedagogy student at Charles University’s natural science faculty, opted to help students with science. “I’ve been teaching commercially for years, but this is something else. You work without a fee, and the only reward is that you inspire somebody to take an interest in your subject,” he says.

He met online with three eighth-graders for three months. “One of them was home-schooled; I’d never had such a student before. He was extremely motivated, but all three liked it,” Horalek says. He was in contact with their teacher and with his supervisor, Jakub Jelen from the department of social geography and regional development.

Jelen describes the program in the first wave of school closures in spring 2020 as “a bit unmanaged. There was a database of schools, and whoever wanted to tutor chose one to work with.” By the time the second lockdown came, the faculty had developed a tutoring course. The faculty’s trainee teachers were able to participate in internships and in the teaching process online, as opportunities for other practicums were limited during the year. 

Learning by Doing

Leona Sochova, a student at the Charles University pedagogy faculty, tutored three second-graders in German online during lockdown. “An autistic boy was the biggest challenge for me,” she says. “In college, no one had ever told me about that, and I didn’t know exactly what to do. I consulted with his mother and looked up the professional literature. I would have welcomed even more support from the faculty. But I learned a lot thanks to that, especially about how to work with motivation.”

When trainee teachers do internships early in their university career, Marsalkova says, they find out whether they really want to teach. They also find out if they are capable of motivating pupils in a structured way. “The children have to be at school, but if you want to attract their attention after they have already had five hours of class, what you do has to work,” she says. “The pedagogy student has enough time to test out different methods. We know from their feedback that it’s nice for them to be able to see their pupils progress. On the other hand, it’s also beneficial for those children to get individual attention.”

Masaryk University student Pavel David Cvrk began tutoring students in mathematics during the 2020-2021 school year. The students lived in Horni Pocaply, a town of about 1,300 in central Bohemia, but closed schools meant he had to tutor from home in Pribram, 120 kilometers away.

“It helped us a lot,” says Iva Voglova, principal of the town’s combined preschool and primary school. Six tutors helped her students last school year. In its small classes, different grade levels are taught together. This is not a problem during regular teaching, although “It’s quite challenging to teach multiple grade levels simultaneously online,” she adds. “It was wonderful that we could split up the children. Each pedagogy student worked as an independent teacher with a small group and also worked with the homeroom teacher to prepare the lessons.”

In addition to math, Cvrk occasionally helps with the Czech language when the children don’t understand something. “Pavel’s nice,” fifth-grader Josef says of his online tutor. “First we talk about what we’ve been doing, and then we learn together. I like it that we can cover the material in detail until we understand it. He doesn’t rush us.”

The school is continuing its cooperation with Cvrk. He now is paid with funds from the National Tutoring Plan, which earmarked 250 million crowns ($11.5 million) for tutoring from September through December 2021. The country’s national pandemic recovery plan has released an additional 400 million crowns for the rest of the current school year and is expected to extend support beyond that.

A Vehicle for Change

Faculties Tutor has been refined for this school year, based on lessons learned in 2020-2021, when demand outstripped supply. The 600 students were able to cover only about half of the 333 schools that applied for tutoring. “It was a bit chaotic. We didn’t have a clear idea of what was going on in the schools,” NPI’s Skachova says.

Program coordinators lacked a complete overview of how many students were working as tutors and where. Complete information on whether primary schools had connected with college students and whether tutoring was actually taking place was not available until the schools and the tutors completed their evaluation questionnaires at the end of the school year.

During the program’s first year, schools requested tutoring by indicating the number of children and the subjects. Now each request is broken down by grade level and subject in an improved database.

“Before, we knew somebody was tutoring at a particular school, but we didn’t know if all the children who needed tutoring actually got it,” Skachova says. University coordinators no longer have to distribute tutoring requests to their students. Now, students use the database to find a tutoring request that suits them. When they’ve completed their tutoring assignment, they and the school where they taught send in an evaluation questionnaire. The students also are supervised at their own schools.

Funding from the National Tutoring Plan also enables schools to pay their regular teachers extra money to do tutoring. Perhaps at least partly as a result, the interest in student tutors is lower than last year. In fall 2021, 119 schools registered with 248 tutoring requests, and 235 college students signed up to help. “It’s better-arranged and easier this year, the representatives of the faculties are praising it, and I have feedback from some college students that it’s super,” Skachova says of the new matching system.

Skachova and her National Pedagogical Institute colleagues would like to see teacher training schools expand tutoring opportunities for students. The NPI will continue to administer and fund Faculties Tutor, with methodological support for the college students and project promotion provided by People in Need.

The Czech School Inspectorate reports that during the first wave of school closures in spring 2020, 250,000 children dropped out of distance learning because of limited access to a computer or the internet. That number has gone down by about a fifth since the first lockdown, with computers and easier internet access provided through public and private efforts. Additionally, about 10,000 children were left without any contact with their school for at least part of that time. 

According to Skachova, the most important aspect of tutoring for children is that they learn to monitor their own progress and take responsibility for their own learning. And the tutors encounter new schools and their realities. “The shift in these children’s achievements is due to so many factors that it’s difficult to determine what effect tutoring has,” she says. “It basically can’t be measured. In any event, what is essential is the level of personal interaction. This is not just about a child mastering material; what is important is that the child experiences success and that somebody takes an interest in the child.” 

Kosatkova sees tutoring as “a mechanism for combating the social inequalities and injustices in education. But tutoring has to be approached with calm, with humanity, and in a systematic way. This is not just about increasing the hours of tutoring and the number of people who’ll do it.

“… We’re used to labeling those who fail and saying they themselves are to blame for it. At the beginning, pedagogy students often say, ‘Everyone has a chance to succeed.’ It’s hard for them to see structural inequities.” She sees tutoring as a tool for changing the attitudes and values of future teachers. “It’s about changing how a teacher looks at a pupil, how they treat the parents, how they set up the classroom. … The whole educational process.”

Katerina Lanska is a writer and editor at EDUin, the Center for Educational Information. From 2014 to 2021 she also worked for People in Need’s educational and social programs.

Translated by Gwendolyn Albert.