Interview with two teachers from Tallinn, Estonia

In October thanks to the Erasmus programme two Estonian teachers were able to visit our school to gain teaching experience with a job shadowing programme. I had the chance to conduct an interview with them and ask them about the country they came from and their experiences so far in Deák.

First of all, could you introduce yourselves to us?

M: My name is Merle, I’m an English teacher and we are both from Tallinn, Estonia, the capital of the country. And we are doing a job shadowing programme here.

S: My name is Signe and I teach basics of research and some IT courses. I’m also an educational technologist, I teach how to manage difficult situations.

You come from Tallinn 21st school which teaches 7 to 19 year-olds. How does that system work and does it come with any hardships?

M: This is something that has always been part of the education system of Estonia which means that school houses and schools are not split according to the different school levels. So in our case, our school is one of the biggest in Estonia, or at least in Tallinn, we have close to 1400 students. That includes students ages 7 to 19, grades 1 to 12, but that is not exceptional in Estonia. It is quite traditional that when there’s a secondary school, it also includes primary school students. So we have both small children and young adults, but I think it kind of teaches tolerance since you have to be able to come to terms and look after each other.

What is the origin of the school’s name?

M: The school is more than 10 years old, it was founded in 1903 as a boys school. In the 1920s it was named Tallinn 21st school with schools receiving numbers, and, since then, it has retained its name. 

Besides conventional academic classes, you have classes which focus on lego programming and entrepreneurship. How do these classes work?

M: In most grades, we have 4 varieties of classes, A to D from year one up and they are all specialised classes. A is specialized in music, B is specialized in English and C and D until the end of the elementary school, year 9, are specialized in robotics and entrepreneurship who get to learn IT knowledge, and for this we have a brand new robotics lab, a lego lab. And at the upper secondary level specializations are different: they are specialized in science, English and humanities. The science classes for example have more IT related classes: programming, robotics and all of that.

Additionally, which is quite specific to the education system of Estonia, next to the national curriculum with all the compulsory subjects we have these specialized classes that have additional subjects. During the three years of high school students also need to take eleven elective courses. Our school offers lots of different courses: for example IT for those who are in another specialized class, so that if they are interested, they can still take it. If they don’t like the courses offered by the school they can sign up elsewhere, for example a university and take a course there – for example learning a foreign language. So there are a lot of different opportunities from year one up. 

Are the classes specialized from year one? Do the parents already send their small children for example into an entrepreneurship specialized class? 

M: Well, yes. They first start with the very basics about money and how banks work, but in a very simple and childlike way. Once they reach year 5 or 6 they can start their “mini mini student companies”, which means they can for example start selling lemonade or cookies at a school fair or holiday events. They can sell their products and so they learn the first steps of how to make a profit. Then they have “mini companies”, which is a pretty much more advanced version. 

At the upper secondary school in year 11, one of the requirements in order to graduate from any school is that you have to write a research paper or it can be more practical practical work, or they can found a student company. These are special programmes so they have a special theoretical course. This is very popular, for example in my class of 42 students close to half of them opted for student companies. They come up with a business idea and make a business plan and come up with different roles and make a website. It isn’t even necessary to make a profit because they obviously learn from the process. In previous years they could learn that they couldn’t carry on with their student company because they had chosen the wrong people to be in the team because sometimes your friends aren’t the best business partners. It’s a learning curve and it’s something you can learn from. 

They think of a business plan, they think of a product, what they want to produce, sell and different ideas but they can’t sell their products in shops, but they can participate in different fairs, markets and they can have an e-shop while not paying any taxes. After a year is up, they can make the decision to close their student company or become a real company. At least one or two per year go on to become a real company.  This year, one of the companies came up with the idea to produce these bracelets which have microchips attached, and, while you are wearing it, it works as a GPS, so you can be located. If you have that bracelet, and, for example, go mushrooming, or an elderly person goes for a walk, they can still be located which is very useful. But these companies can produce bags, lamps, food, drinks, all kinds of things.

Estonian students generally excel academically, especially at your school which is ranked among the best in the country. Do you have any methods of how you manage to achieve these results year after year?

M: Well first of all, lots of homework. (laughs)

S: I think it also comes from history, since parents want their kids to be well-educated.

M: Also, Estonia is one of the least religious countries, only 14% of the country claims to belong to a religion. Our President says that despite that we do have one common religion which is belief in education. 

Could you specify what you mean by “lots of homework”?

M: At upper secondary level the school days are long: they start at 8 and finish at around 5. Then the students have their student companies to take care of and some personal lives as well. So usually I set the homework for the students to be sent in at around 8 pm. If I think of my students in year 11, one group has to read at least one book of classical literature per week, and next to that they have English, biology and maths. 

S: But at the same time it’s training for university and there you must work hard. Sometimes they have around 2 to 3 hours of homework to do, but it depends.

You came here for an Erasmus job shadowing programme. Could you explain what job shadowing is and what this programme entails?

M: We are part of one of the Erasmus projects which includes both teachers going on training courses in different parts of Europe but also two job shadowing activities, one of which is here in Szeged. Job shadowing is pretty much visiting a partner school and there talking to people, comparing notes of how things work in the country or the particular school. For example there will be the Creative Circle event happening today, so we will be there, not necessarily taking part in it, but having a look so that we can observe even cultural activities. 

Why did you choose Hungary to be your destination?

M: It goes back a long time because we go back 5-6 years with our contact person, Melinda. We initially met back in 2015 on a training course in Canterbury, England which was all about British culture and language. The course had different teachers from Sweden, Germany, Hungary, Estonia and we immediately hit it off. After those 2 weeks we kept in touch. We have our own Facebook group which is still functioning. After that we met up on different training courses: we’ve been with Melinda on training courses in Edinburgh and Cambridge. Then they, as a part of your school’s Erasmus project, came to Tallinn for job shadowing right before the first lockdown, so they were lucky in that sense. We were supposed to come in May but we couldn’t because of the lockdown, but we are happy that we could come now.

Did you have any complications on your way here because of the pandemic? 

M: We are both fully vaccinated so we didn’t have any complications regarding that. Though it was a difficult journey here since we were initially supposed to fly via Frankfurt because there aren’t many direct flights to Budapest. This flight was scheduled to take off at 6:20 in the morning  but shortly before six o’clock I got this email that the flight was cancelled. Then we were given the chance to fly via Zurich, but in the evening, so that meant we would have had to stay the night somewhere in Switzerland. It’s a country that I’ve always wanted to visit, but not like this and under these circumstances. Then the airport looked at other flights to see if there was another chance to fly out today and arrive in Budapest at least in the evening. They said we could go via Warsaw and still arrive on time, so we were happy with that. The flight was scheduled for one o’clock so we went home, had a couple of hours’ sleep, but when we went back to the airport I got another message that our flight had been cancelled. Again we made the same trip and they offered us a flight via Istanbul and we had to rush to the plane at the very last moment. I realized that as I had been planning travel within Europe and the European Union only, I didn’t have my passport and only had my ID card, so I I didn’t know if I could travel with only that to Istanbul, out of the European Union. They made some calls and said that since it was a transfer it was okay. In the end we arrived in Budapest via Istanbul in the evening as we had planned. But it was really strange since in order to get from Easter Europe to more or less Central Europe, we had to travel such a long distance. Also, when we were already on the plane, flying to Istanbul, I realized that we don’t know if Turkey is on the red list for the European Union. If it was, it would have meant 10 days of quarantine, but luckily that wasn’t the case.

What can you tell us about your experiences here so far? 

M: We had quite a full day yesterday. First of all we observed an English and a Geography lesson for a bilingual class. I had agreed to give a lesson myself about Estonia and Tallinn for a year 11 class, which I did yesterday afternoon and it went well. We also were shown around the school and had a city tour given by a couple of students. What I especially liked seeing is that students here take pride in their school and their city which was a joy to observe.

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