Even in 2018, you can still meet people around the world who believe that polar bears regularly walk Polish streets. Obviously, this is a misconception – polar bears are only present in zoos, where students get to see them from time to time. However, even more exotic creatures do exist here, which most students never get to see: rhetoric teachers. I am one of those teachers.
Despite having graduated in law, I knew quite early on that I wanted to dedicate my career to teaching how to debate. Unfortunately, this subject does not exist in the Polish education system, which is focused predominantly on reading, writing and testing. This has very serious implications for pupils’ lives.
Previously, I worked as a volunteer with high-ability students in major cities and was astonished to find that, despite having broad and deep knowledge, these students were unable to communicate that knowledge in presentations or other oral tasks. They were stressed, sometimes paralysed, by the thought of speaking in front of peers.
This is particularly problematic for pupils who aspire to apply to British or US universities, as they are often outperformed in interviews by local applicants who might be less prepared, but better at selling themselves. This is the reason I was hired by IB World School Raszyńńska in Warsaw, a private school for pupils aged 16-19, and one of the first schools in the country to start a compulsory rhetoric course.
Classes start at 8.45am and last until 4pm at the latest. Our lessons are 90 minutes long, unlike in public schools, which have 45-minute classes.
'The job is really rewarding'
When I am not teaching, I spend my working time on preparing for classes, creating lesson summaries and checking oral homework, which involves providing personalised feedback on video recordings that students have made at home.
All in all, I definitely spend more than the scheduled 10 hours per week as a teacher. But don’t get me wrong – I am very happy to do it – the job is really rewarding. I will not forget the moment when one of my students presented a great TED-style speech and was applauded by the whole class, despite having been frightened by rhetoric classes two months earlier. The smile on his face was so memorable.
However, there are also some challenges that might make this work a bit harder. In Poland, there is a very strong stereotype that people have abilities either in the sciences or the humanities. If you are scientific, the assumption is that you will be bad at languages, history and social sciences. These stereotypes shape students’ choices very early on and, to my mind, limit their development. What’s worse is that, owing to current market trends, people with talents in humanities are perceived to be useless and unemployable. You have probably already guessed which category rhetoric belongs to. That is why it is so difficult to engage students and to make them care about their speaking skills.
My observation is that debating can be an effective tool in breaking down this barrier. Students love discussing controversial issues, arguing with each other and (obviously) proving their teachers wrong. Competitive debating is also gaining in popularity in the world and Poland is no different.
These trends and challenges make me even more excited about my job because I am pretty convinced that one day oracy will become a compulsory subject in every Polish school. My modest contribution is just the beginning of the wave that is to come.
Radosław Czekan is a rhetoric teacher at IB World School Raszyńska in Warsaw, Poland