Croatian Education in Crisis: A Primary School Teacher Speaks

Total Croatia News

Croatian education – like many other sectors of society from politics to football – is in crisis. Some 50,000 people demonstrated on the streets of Zagreb recently on the subject of curricular reform. And while the politicians argue, on June 19, 2016, TCN caught up with someone (speaking anonymously, such is the climate in this EU democracy in 2016) with a viewpoint worth paying attention to – a primary school teacher. 

1. There were some 50,000 people on the streets of Zagreb protesting against education reforms last month. What exactly are they protesting against, and why is it so important?

The protest really was against the influence of politics in recent education reforms. This was not the first time and surely not the last time that Croatian politics spread its influence on educational issues. It is also very difficult to divide politics and education in our country, as it seems that basically everything is overwhelming and interconnected with politics, which is sometimes really absurd. The change in the current education system is crucial, but without interference with politics, no matter who and which political party is in charge in Croatia. The main consequence of that recent protest should be the straight definition of that what are the main goals in the future education system in Croatia and building a society that will learn to think and to make this country a better place to live.

2. Tell us a little about the eduction programme currently in Croatian primary schools. What are the main subjects?

The main subjects are Croatian language, Math and English. The grades in these subjects are very important, especially in primary school, since they basically make the difference which high school one will choose. As a Croatian language teacher, I can say that the programme is sometimes very difficult, with a lots of useless data and with very few practical things that are needed for children for their future life. For example, very few children leave primary school with a basic knowledge of Croatian grammar. It is also very difficult to motivate them to read, to write an essay, to learn to write, for example, a letter for a job application. It is also our fault and a failure of the school system. However, the new goals should be to find a way to bring real life situations back in our schools and to find the best way to teach future generations really important lessons in our subjects that can be incorporated in real life.

3. Religious instruction seems to play a major part in the formative years of Croatian education. As Croatia is more than 90% Catholic, the instruction is very Catholic-based, and non-Catholic children have the chance to opt-out with no subject in its place. What is your opinion on the way (and the intensity) of religious instruction in primary schools in Croatia?

According to official statistics in Croatia, there are approximately 90% Catholics. The real situation is much more different, since Catholicism in our country is more traditional and nationalist issue and has not much to do with true faith. Since 1990 religious education has been a part of school education, however it is facultative subject. The mainstream media coverage in our country somehow represents religious education as the biggest problem in our schools and even more difficult than biology or physics, which is nonsense. I don’t think that religious instruction plays a big and important role in our schools: it is not the main subject, most children don’t have to study it a lot and they don’t even find it important . I assume that most parents think that they will be rejected or ashamed in our society if they don’t force their children to attend religious education. The result is that most people break up with Catholicism in very young age. As a Catholic, I think it is wrong. One cannot be a Catholic by force or by tradition. One has to decide that by oneself. And regarding the Croatian mainstream media, there are much bigger problems in our schools than two hours of religious education per week.

4. Croatia’s recent painful history is still very raw, and you yourself had a very turbulent childhood, growing up during the Homeland War. It is a very delicate subject that is hard to handle. How is the subject of Vukovar handled, for example, and what help do teachers get to deal with such a difficult and emotional topic?

I have been working in primary school for three years and I have found it very difficult to represent the Vukovar tragedy in an appropriate way. What should I say to children? I decided to tell them my story as it was the best way for me to deal with it: I was seven when the Homeland War started. Thank God, we lived in a safe place, however we watched television, we grew up watching dead people covered in blood on the news, we heard fthe ierce voice of Siniša Glavašević only a few days before the fall of Vukovar, we met lots of refugees who were our school colleagues in the early 1990s, frightened, silent, with pure horror in their eyes. We were taught not to ask them about anything. Who knows how they managed to escape from that hell in Vukovar, Sarajevo, Bugojno…Yet, in all that hell and fear my parents never taught me to hate anyone and that you always have to be kind to everyone, no matter what. I used to listen to children who are maybe now 12,13 years old, which means they were born way many years after the war, and they talk with such a hate about Serbs and the Homeland War. And you know that they heard that from their parents. That is a shame and a pity. Talking about the Homeland War, we have to teach about dialogue, forgiveness, piety and kindness. That is one way to build peace in our society.

5. By law, primary school children have to visit Vukovar at least once. What are your thoughts on this, and do you think it is an important lesson perhaps better saved for later in a child’s education?

I used to compare Vukovar with Auschwitz. Once the largest concentration camp in Europe, Auschwitz is the most depressed place I have been to. Time stopped there: small grey houses, grey trees, an empty and deserted railway, it seems that the whole place is still covered in the ash of dead people. The same feeling I had had in Vukovar. I was only there once, in 2002., and our bus stopped two miles before Vukovar. The reason was there was demining going on. Upon arrival we saw the new market place in the very centre. We were told that there is a mass grave under the concrete floor. However, one could see that the town had begun to change, to rebuild its life and to try to move on. From that time on I have constantly thought that this country will not let Vukovar heal its wounds, to keep its head up and to meet its happy days. We teach our children that Vukovar is a place of tragedy and horror and not a place of hope. It all depends on which message one can bring from Vukovar – if you remember Vukovar only once a year, in November, for you Vukovar is a sad place. If you, for example, buy Borovo and Starstar shoes, you believe in normal life in Vukovar. I advise children to love Vukovar, to consider that town as a place where life went on in a tough but a beautiful way, step by step.

6. Imagine you have just been appointed the Minister of Education. What three changes would you introduce?

The first change would be the introduction of a new subject in primary school – home economics (domacinstvo in Croatian). It was a common school subject back in Yugoslav era, however before 1990 it was banned from primary school, I do not know why. Maybe in those times it was normal to think that it won’t be necessary anymore. I think that children need to know and develop practical knowledge – how to cook, how to sew, how to build a wooden tree house… Children need to know that because it is – I dare to say – some of the fundamental knowledge for their future life, no matter what they decide to be and to do.

The second change would be to introduce critical thinking in our schools. There are lots of facts, names, definitions, numbers to remember, but very few dare to think and to discuss. We have to teach them to open their eyes for everything that happens around them and in our world, we have to let them spread their wings and make this world better, we have to teach them to think, to debate, to question everything.

The third change would be to break the chains of bureaucracy that have gone pretty deep in our school system. Most teachers have no time to do their job – to teach. Instead of that they have to deal with useless papers, endless bureaucracy and that has to stop.

7. How is morale among the Croatian teaching community. What are the biggest complaints?

Teachers work hard and most of them do their best which is something very frustrating if your efforts seem wasted. The biggest complaint is that the Govenrment doesn’t provide enough money for basic needs in our schools, such as computers, books and other equipment. Other complaints refer to bureaucracy, as mentioned above, and issues with agressive parents, lack of dignity and low salary. It is difficult to be a teacher, but it is more difficult to be a good teacher. And I wish that Croatian society valued everyone and every job, especially teachers, because they have a big task – to raise future great people.


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