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Czech Courses Students: #LockdownStories with Nigel

April 3, 2021

We had such a lovely time talking to Nigel, a passionate biker, explorer of the lost corners of Prague and a director of one of the schools in here. What surprised him after the arrival to the Czech Republic, what does he love about life here and how do the young people get through the online school year? 

"I am Nigel, I am the Director of a school in Prague and I have been here for five and half years. I like adventure, having worked in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia and Brazil, just to name a few. With the family, I travelled to, and taught in, America for a year and later in South Korea. From there, I moved to Prague, taking a job as the Deputy Director, and soon after that, the Director - a role we call the Headmaster in the UK.

It is a strange thing to say, but when I arrived, I didn't think Prague was as beautiful as I thought it was going to be. Obviously, I can see the immediate beauty of the Old Town Square and the Charles Bridge. However to be fair, I was exploring the outskirts of the city. I am someone who explores the lost corners of the city, not the centre! I am not used to the type of architecture we have here in the suburbs: it is a little bit more brutal than the architecture in the UK. Lots of rectangular, concrete structures. Also, people were not that smiley at first, but I soon came to realise it didn’t matter because when you get to know people and they smile, you know it is genuine.

Now, I’ve grown to see Prague as it really is: a really ‘livable’ city. I have really enjoyed living here.I lived in London for seven years, but Prague feels more manageable. It feels like families can live here well - it is not just a place for young single people. Before the lockdown, travelling to work was easy and quick, just a few stops by tram. Then I would come home and make tea (that’s British English for an early evening meal) for my sons and at the weekends we would go out to the mountains, biking or skiing. 

When the lockdown first occurred during last March it was a bit scary, just for a little while. I went to Billa and there were empty shelves: no flour, pasta or soap. I got this strong feeling of how fragile metropolitan life is. (I must admit, I do enjoy watching dystopian films where society comes under strain in the future.) And if there is no food in the shops, what would you do - living in a city? How would you survive? That irrational (or rational, I don´t know which) fear lasted for just a few days until it became clear that the food supply chains were not going to collapse. Society was not going to collapse. I was also wondering whether I would still be welcome and accepted were society to become very strained. Would suddenly being a foreigner exclude you from access to essential help? All of these fears lasted just for a week, of course we were all in it together, Czechs and foreigners alike.

In terms of the lockdown and school closure, our transition to online learning was a bit of a triumph, actually. We converted to full online learning after just one day. We got lots of really amazing positive feedback from the parents. They were impressed with what we managed to set up so quickly. Part of the smooth transition was luck, because we already had quite a robust online platform so we had overnight access to all the technology. And the teachers just got on with it, they were very adaptable. That was very positive.

To keep myself fit and healthy, I gave myself a project of long-distance cycling. Each week I would cycle further and further, because back then we didn't have any geographical restrictions. Just before the summer I cycled to Olomouc, about 250 kilometres a day.

I can see that extroverts are missing being able to meet up with friends, but I am happy with my own company and not socialising was not the worst thing about the lockdown. As my initial fears about the extended isolation faded and got used it, I became quite content. There is, of course, a feeling of the invisible tragedy taking place just out of sight. Every single day, families are losing loved ones, but many of us don’t see it in person.

At school, our students have relatively strong family support, we haven't really seen any significant drop of attendance or work rate. Some of the students who were struggling with mental health before the lockdown are finding it difficult, because school was an ‘anchor’ for them, a place for regular support and guidance. The vast majority have survived and managed and continue to do so - some will even miss online learning. We try to maintain good one-to-one conversations. We´ve got a strong team of tutors who know the students individually. Every day for 20 minutes in the morning and an hour during the week they are having one-to-one conversations with students and generally trying to support them in a holistic sense.

Our students tell us that they have enjoyed getting to know their parents more and they now see them as human beings rather than simply as their parents. This is because they are living with them all the time and sharing with them the experience of the pandemic. Other students, a small minority, are on the contrary more isolated. I think that pandemic is just creating extremes. The ones who were doing OK are still doing OK and the ones who were not doing so well to start with have found it harder.

We have been closed for a year now. We see that the work in bigger groups is more challenging, so every few weeks or so we ask our students if we need to change anything to make it more sustainable. So quite quickly, we cancelled all homework and later, we built in well-being activities and replaced about 20% of the timetable with activities that weren't directly academic. During the winter, we made the lunch break longer so that they could get outside, walk the dog and see the sun. One third of the lessons are shortly going to be long-term projects when students don't need to be sitting in front of the computer all the time.

Today young people don´t need knowledge as much as skills. I don't believe in this idea of needing to ‘catch-up’ on all this ‘missed’ learning. I don't think that students have lost in that sense. Modern schools should deliver skills, not just knowledge. We all have a device in our pockets that has access to all the knowledge in the world. Parents signed up their children to our school to become global citizens with modern skills. That is primarily about awareness, adaptability, understanding and empathy. And we have not been losing those skills through this pandemic. Young people are resilient. They adapt."

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