After 45 Years of Communist Regimes, A Teacher RemakesPolish Education

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The 1989 Polish elections, which created the first non-Communist government in the Eastern bloc, brought Wiktor Kulerski, the leader of Teachers Solidarity, into the government as a member of parliament and as first deputy minister of education.

A history, biology, and art teacher for 22 years, Mr. Kulerski lost his teaching post after martial law was declared in 1981. For five years, he lived underground, disguising his appearance and changing his whereabouts every three weeks.

As deputy minister of education, he faces the task of rebuilding an education system wracked by 45 years of Communist rule, at a time when Poland faces severe economic hardships.

Mr. Kulerski was in Washington last month to meet with officials from the American Federation of Teachers, which has sponsored the International Education for Democracy Project to help emerging democracies teach about the concept and build teachers' unions.

The following are excerpts from a conversation he had during his trip with Associate Editor Robert Rothman.

Both you and your country have weathered an extraordinary series of events over the past few years. How are you adjusting?

As far as I am concerned, there have been so many changes and adjustments that the latest has had no effect. It's a little more difficult for my colleagues who are experiencing change for the first time in their lives. ...

Of course, we were not prepared to deal with the magnitude of the problems before us. If we put aside the psychological adjustment we have had to make, we all seem to be working from the same disadvantage. Of course, we also lack a good operational base, organizational skills as well. Someone described our situation as "a group of amateurs playing in the big leagues."

With regard to education, could you describe the problems and what needs to be done to address them?

Neither Poles nor our friends abroad realize the magnitude of the problems. We face difficult situations that will influence the future of our country. Even if we manage to overcome the economic crisis, there are three barriers to achieving our goals that have to be removed immediately: the language barrier, a lack of education for democracy, and a lack of new information technology.

Let me paint you the scope of the problem in numbers. There are 27,500 schools in Poland, 7 million students, and 600,000 teachers. There are 18,000 Russian-language teachers, and not even 1,500 teachers who can teach English, German, or French. With the possibility of a united Europe ahead, we need, right now, 20,000 new teachers of foreign languages, predominantly English. We want to start foreign language at the elementary-school level.

To satisfy the demand for new teachers, we need to establish as soon as possible 30 teacher-training colleges to train language teachers. Presently, we lack both the instructors and the financial base to do that. We are looking at a project of bilateral ventures, where we'll be able to establish a college with the cooperation of a particular country, such as the United States.

We see this project in the following manner: We provide the buildings, the administration, and the students. We ask our Western partner to provide the teaching staff, libraries, technology, equipment, and, for the first few years, until we are able to do so, financial assistance. We are quite anxious to put this system into place.

We want to make sure, as a supplementary subject, that part of the curriculum is education for democracy. We would like to train teachers using materials from the Western partner, to ensure that teachers know the political culture and democratic influences of that country. We want to make sure our teachers not only learn the language, but are also influenced by and learn many other things from the institutions of the other country.

We are quite anxious, too, that our teachers be interested in union and self-government activities and in community work. They will then be better qualified to transmit these things to their students, who will be our future teachers.

Together with our friends from the American Federation of Teachers, we are in the process of establishing the Education for Democracy Foundation. The first training course for our teachers by an aft team began in February. It was a pilot project, but we already see the results of that training in the schools from which these teachers came. We have already published some materials from the aft on the art of negotiating, and while I am here, we will be publishing two other booklets dealing with human rights. We will also be publishing a translation of an aft manual on how to conduct meetings.

We are preparing other publications, mostly translations, because up to now we have had only two sources to draw from--Communist literature and church literature. There are practically no publications on democratic practice. There is a great need for this type of publication.

There are more teacher-candidates for courses of this kind than we can accommodate. We are planning another training session in the summer months with the participation of the aft, but on a larger scale.

Right now, we are discussing establishing a college with the British Consulate and the French Ministry of Education. We are very anxious to see American and Canadian participation as well.

You mentioned publications you are producing to help teach democracy. Are there changes in the curriculum, in history and social studies in particular, to help teach new knowledge students must have?

Yes, of course. We have changed the compulsory program we had previously in social studies. It is not compulsory anymore. Consequently, a situation was created where parts of the curriculum were with8drawn. Teachers were given a lot of leeway on how to deal with the subject. They were asked to provide their own research and choose parts of the program.

The veteran, more intelligent teachers, with difficulty, were able to cope with this. At the same time, though, we have received information that there are teachers who use the old program and copy it faithfully. In such a short time, we can't effect meaningful changes yet.

We are changing the program in other subjects as well, but we are not able to do everything at once. It would cause too much disruption. We would have to throw out the existing textbooks, and there is no time to prepare new materials.

My ministry is in a difficult situation right now, due to the fact that we could not evaluate the qualifications of all of our teachers up to now. Our ministry is trying to deal with and overcome three major difficulties: the number of grievances we receive on a daily basis from teachers, the legislative agenda we have to wrestle with, and our contacts with other countries, which are very time-consuming.

Basically, we have to change many laws in Poland; the education act is one of them. We do have a legislative committee higher-education act, again we will be dealing with a broader act on education, and we have to amend many, many other legislative ordinances. There are other areas where laws have to be changed completely that are less important.

Our union, Teacher Solidarity, is going through a difficult period. It has been emptied of its members. Solidarity provided the only school, the only source of instruction to many in our society, and after the election, our best activists and union members went on to hold elective positions and work for the government in various departments.

Also, the present economic difficulties exert a negative impact on rank-and-file union members. Solidarity, in 1980-81, had 9.5 million members. Now it has 2.5 [million]. We have been decimated not only by the repressions but also by emigration.

When I visit here in Washington with the aft, and with the Ontario School Federation in Canada, I am almost envious of the base teachers' unions enjoy in these countries. The national executive of Teacher Solidarity has three full-time staff members housed in two rooms. We don't have a newspaper. We are trying, with the help of the aft, to establish a Teacher Solidarity newspaper.

Forty-five years of Communism has also caused certain characteristics to persist in our national psyche. Certain patterns of behavior prevail. Our people are attempting to avoid taking initiative, afraid to assume responsibility for anything. They lack the knowledge of how to do such things. There still persists the frame of mind that someone should do something for them.

There is a general tendency toward revenge against old authorities. Democracy for them was an ideal, not a reality. Because our democracy is practically in diapers--just a few months' duration--the population is very acutely aware of the negative aspects of our situation. The tendencies are toward agel10lgression and being negative. There is very little positive approach toward solving problems.

I understand that the ministry is still populated with members of the old regime. Is that an impediment to your efforts to change the system?

It makes our task more burdensome. I have to supervise many more things, and delegate fewer. Many documents, I have to write over again, or have to send back for changes.

But, again, the situation is not straightforward. It's a little more complex. The more intelligent, smarter of the old guard want to work with us and want to cooperate. I'll go further: The change in people, the fact that we are in power, released certain creativity among those people.

On the other hand, there are people so used to the old system, it is impossible to change them. You can't squeeze blood from a stone. And there is a group of people who refuse to accept the changes that have taken place and who are openly sabotaging our work. Only after these few months, when we know who is who, will we know how the overall situation presents itself.

And we have another difficulty, a grave one. There are many teachers who have at one point given up their teaching careers to work either for the Communist Party or for the secret police. Now they are returning to the educational system.

There are calls for us to prevent these people from returning to the education profession. At a time when we are trying to build up a democratic state, we cannot take as a first step denying people work, or discriminating against them for past associations, or punishing them, using the criterion of collective guilt. This situation creates a difficult problem for Teacher Solidarity as well.

One of the major reform efforts in this country is to move toward shared decisionmaking, where teachers, and in some cases parents, have a greater role in school policies. Is that a move you are considering?

Most of our programs have been prepared with the consultation of labor unions. Our problem is of a different nature--the organizational weakness of Teacher Solidarity. In order to be able to work with the union to bring forth a new program, the union would have to have various committees that would deal4with specific issues. We would have to have an organizational network that would facilitate information-gathering and communications with teachers. We really should have our own newspaper for that.

The government has inherited certain networks and organizational structures. Unfortunately, the union has to start rebuilding itself from scratch. The union has to go beyond that--they first have to train groups of union activists. Yet, the best people have left the union and are now with the government.

So Teacher Solidarity is in a situation where it cannot take advantage of all the opportunities it could because of organizational weakness and other problems, such as its financial base and its lack of a newspaper.

Of course, that situation has a negative influence not only on the union, but also on our ministry and the government when it comes to negotiating and devising new programs and such. The only newspapers the ministry and Teacher Solidarity have access to are those for the old, Communist teachers' unions.

A lot of energy here is being devoted to restructuring the education system. Are there things you are learning from us, and from other countries, about what you might do to change your system?

Right now, we are looking at the possibility that the elementary level will be directed by regional self-government.

Many, many things that I am exposed to in Poland I see in a different light after traveling abroad. This is one reason why we are so determined to educate our teachers, with the help of our Western brothers, to be instructed by Western instructors.

The first time I was able to travel abroad was a year ago, at the age of 53. I must say, like any other Pole who had not been abroad before, who was isolated from foreign contacts, my outlook on many things changed, and my horizons have broadened.

I'm not only talking about the different things I see here--the differences between governments, organizations, and institutions, the different public-transportation system, the abundance of private stores. The greatest one is the difference in mentality between the two peoples. I could only fully appreciate the mentality of our people, the post-Communist mentality, after visiting the United States myself with broadened horizons.

Vol. 09, Issue 28

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