After having taught university students for five years in Slovakia, I'm finally giving it up with some relief. I don't expect even a murmur of protest from the school I teach at, nor anything but grim satisfaction from most of my former employers. I've never been a very good teacher, and that's all there is to it.
Most of what has made me a bad teacher comes from within - like many foreigners teaching in Slovakia, I used the job as a way to make friends, as a sop for my frustrations and a soapbox for my opinions - only rarely, I cringe to admit, as a means to enrich young minds.
But while I'm being so hard on myself, I should spare a few cuts for the student culture Slovakia's crumbling university system has fostered.
Let's imagine a test being written by a roomful of eager young English speakers. To make the picture closer to reality, let's imagine the furtive crib notes, the papers being passed quietly around the room to be filled out by stronger scholars. Let's not forget the open cheating, too, and the quizzical glances that meet the teacher's eye when he ventures to protest.
Yes, we've all cheated in our time, just as Bill Clinton has inhaled and Pat Robertson has used the toilet. But Slovak students could write the book on cheating and plagiarism, and still have forgotten more about the craft than many of us ever knew.
What's behind this curious state of affairs? What can a schoolchild be thinking when he submits a 'term paper' that has been copied out of that month's Cosmopolitan magazine? And what can he be thinking when he strides angrily from the teacher's office after he has been asked to do the assignment again, this time by himself?
I'm really, honestly, not asking these questions flippantly, nor am I trying to make Slovak students out to be a shiftless bunch. But I do think that it's time that Slovak students, especially those of university age who presumably can respond to a rational appeal, began to regard education as something they should be demanding rather than trying to avoid.
What a waste of time it is to type a five-page magazine article into a computer and put your name on it! What a bore to attend a class which you put no effort into and in which you spend most of the time in a stupor! What satisfaction from avoiding work could ever compensate for these hours of tedium?
I've sat on many occasions with my students in pubs while I should have been lecturing them in the classroom, and it's there that I've had my most satisfying interchanges with my charges. They, too, have plenty to criticise, from lecturers who don't show up for class to those who show up drunk, from schools which take bribes from applicants to those which practice nepotism. They aren't happy with their school system either, but no one seems to know how to fix it.
I think, in the end, the answer has to come from the students themselves. Sure, it would help if the government made them pay for their education - this might cure some of the indifference to learning. It might also help if teachers like me had enough energy and gumption to stick around and throw cheaters out of class.
But the biggest change has to occur in those mischievous young minds that crowd the back rows of classrooms every year. Somehow, it has to be explained that it's going to get very difficult to find a job in this country over the next few years, and that as students leave the artificial security of school behind them, they may wish they had demanded more of themselves, their teachers and their education.
17. May 1999 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson