Pavel Novak already knew what he wanted to teach at South Kent School a few years before he officially arrived from the Czech Republic. He thought it would be important to tell his students at the all-boys boarding school in western Connecticut about what it was like growing up in communist Central Europe.
“I said I would like to share my first-hand experience with life in a totalitarian regime–propaganda, brainwashing, etcetera. At that time, I didn’t know it would be such a hot topic,” he said. “I was prepping for it before my arrival here, and then it turned out it was more than a little important to talk about it.”
Along with other duties at South Kent, Pavel teaches Current Political Issues. He is currently taking part in Teach USA, an exchange program which brings international teachers to K-12 classrooms in the United States to share their culture and teaching styles. Pavel teaches ESL in the Czech Republic, where classroom education is more traditional and conservative. So, he wanted to use his time at the more experimental South Kent to try teaching something completely different.
According to Pavel, the head of the boarding school wants to ensure his students are fit for the challenges of our changing world. As a result, the school supplements a rigorous academic curriculum with numerous off-campus academic, experiential, and cultural opportunities. For example, students attend the Center for Innovation in the afternoon, where they can take classes in everything from oral history to farming to learning about the environment through hands-on projects, like cleaning a local polluted pond.“I try to be innovative [in the Czech Republic], but I’m looking for opportunities to learn new things, and South Kent is a really great place to learn new things.”
It’s this exchange of teaching methods and cultures that the Teach USA program facilitates every year. In addition to Pavel gaining experience teaching a new subject, South Kent students also benefit from an international perspective. According to Nancy Lyon, the school’s COO, “Pavel offers a reality check and a different perspective that we can use to bounce ideas off of to add color to our own perceptions. He will often have a different take on things that we otherwise wouldn’t have.”
“Being exposed to different cultures is only beneficial for human lives. The earlier you start, the better,” Pavel said of the importance of global education. “We should remain flexible in our thinking, because the world is changing so quickly right now…so I think one of most important skills is to be able to learn new things and be ready to accept changes in the world.”
This exchange of perspectives has come to define Pavel’s history class. He will often pick a contemporary issue for classroom discussion and let students form their own opinions on the event. As the school has a high percentage of international students, many contribute viewpoints from their home countries’ newspapers. At the end of the conversation, Pavel encourages his students to try to understand why people from diverse backgrounds might see the same issue differently. Lately, the conversation often centers around “alternative facts” and Russia.
“I teach something about Russian history, how they manipulated newspapers and information,” said Pavel. “Americans don’t realize that [Russia thinks] all of central Europe is their sphere of influence and they want it back. I try to teach about problems in Europe, and that it’s important for American to have allies in Europe.”
“It’s been huge, especially in this political year,” Nancy said of Pavel’s presence in the classroom. “Many of these things that we’re seeing for the first time this year, he saw growing up in the Czech Republic.”
Pavel’s exchange program goes beyond introducing American students to a Central European perspective. He hopes to bring back what’s he’s learned at South Kent to his Czech students, like using a discussion-based curriculum to create a more engaging classroom.
He also plans to continue his relationship with South Kent when he returns home through shared classes via Skype or other exchange programs. Additionally, though public school subjects are very limited in the Czech Republic, the interest his students at South Kent show in contemporary events gives Pavel hope that he could teach the topic as an after-school activity.
“I think they will stay…for one to two hours after school to do this because they will be eager to learn new things,” said Pavel. “The guys [at South Kent] are really eager to learn about today’s world, but not so eager to learn about 3,000 years ago.”
This is only the second time South Kent has hosted an international teacher, but they intend to continue to seek international opportunities for their students. “We just find it enhancing in every aspect of life– from politics to food,” said Nancy.
“It’s great to see how much we have in common with people who might seem so different from us when we’re breaking bread over a table.”
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