In October 2015 I read an interview with Angela Murinai, a teacher who developed her own, non-authoritarian method. I was immediately captivated by her way of dealing with misbehaviour. If you break the rules, you don’t become the bad boy and lose the love of the teacher – you simply pay the price. And you do so with “garas”, the currency of the class that children can earn.
Her dedication to her profession was striking so I was surprised when a year later she wrote her blog from Malta, where she now lives:
One of the pupils wrote to me on Facebook: “Why did you leave us? I keep crying for you all the time.”
What could I tell her. I didn’t leave them. I didn’t leave because of them.
Interview with Angela Murinai
You have become famous nationwide for your non-traditional, child-centred teaching method. Can you tell us about it?
I have been assigned a “difficult” first year class so I have quickly realised that traditional methods won’t bring success, quite the opposite. They curb children’s motivation, fuel conflicts between them, they sour the mood in class and increase the achievement gap between students. I have become a teacher because I enjoy cooperating with children so I felt wrong performing this kind of authoritarian teaching method. It is alien to my personality with its threat-based communication of sticks and carrots.
So I built a system that rewards children’s effort with “money”, just like in the adult world. We used “garas”, toy coins, as the currency of the class. If a child works hard and makes an effort, he or she gets a reward/salary – regardless of the results (or whether his or her achievements hit the government-prescribed targets in the curriculum). This way they learn the lesson that it is always worth making an effort – rather than the discouraging lesson that that the smarter, luckier or more popular kids get all the rewards, while some will never be good enough regardless of how hard they try.
I also found it unfair that we expected the children to work very hard for an abstract goal, such as better grades. They are expected to work for a distant chance for a better future. That may be true and their adult lives may be better if they study hard. But these are meaningless concepts for children in an environment where they barely even know adults with secondary education, and where the government’s public work program counts as a career.
What has meaning for them is the little things they can buy with their coins – sweets, vitamins, an eraser, a pencil. They understand that they can buy things if they earn the money. So the children earned “money” for their work.
“We also set the rules together.”
They told me what kind of behaviours bothered them, such as fighting, threats, bullying, and shouting at each other. We put those in a table and everyone signed that they will obey the rules – or pay a fine from their coins.
The system worked. At least it worked better than the standard “method” of Hungarian state education that consists of threats, punishment, shouting, and a message to the parents. We completed two years this way. I also put a lot of emphasis on getting to know all kinds of professions. I wanted them to see more from of the world and be able to picture themselves as adults with a job, with plans for the future – with a life. This should be the perhaps the most important task of school, but it is not even among the tasks today. If a teacher wants to show the relevance of learning to the children, she has to develop her own method. Had I stayed longer in that country, we would have developed our system further together with the children. They would have been introduced to the idea of banking, loans, deposits, and interest. They would have continued to learn about life.
How did your non-authoritarian teaching method fit in the Hungarian education system?
It didn’t. Non-authoritarian education is a lonely business if the outside world doesn’t support it. My classroom was a supportive, democratic system – but on the corridors there was a different world. What is called outspoken in my class is called disrespectful outside of it. In class he can share his opinion – outside he gets punished for it. Children can’t understand why adults are allowed to yell at them while children always have to shut up. Aggression breeds more aggression. In an antidemocratic, authoritarian country the weak will always lose. In an authoritarian system even families, schools and workplaces are authoritarian. People only understand the language of power, so they don’t understand someone who doesn’t speak that language.
But authoritarian methods are the least of the problem. Hungarian education is altogether dying.
“It is currently the slave producing factory of the regime, a dysfunctional chaos of torturing humans while providing no useful knowledge.”
A single rebel doesn’t make a difference because the mindless, directionless, crumbling system will break her in anyway. Just as it will break in the children – even if they once had a taste of democracy. There will be a new teacher, a new school – and the memories of their old teacher who showed them a different world will slowly fade. It is that simple. There are so few democrats left that their voices might as well be ignored.
Teaching appeared to have followed me here though. Shortly upon my arrival I had a new student. I teach a Hungarian girl. It is very interesting to see her and her approach to learning, the way she talks about school. She is not in an easy position because of the new language, but she is fine. The Hungarian system would already have stressed her out with poor grades, rushing, and telling her off. Here, on the other hand, she is allowed to take her time catching up – partly because of the small groups and dedicated teachers giving her personalised tasks. What surprised me most is her balanced relationship with school and learning despite all this – and her energy that allows her to work two more hours with me every afternoon. And she apparently enjoys it. I am looking at her and I know that our administrative system would already have put her in special needs class and stressed her out – while everyone is supporting her individual development here. They don’t push her down – they support her.
“Seeing this I have the impression that most of the learning dysfunctions in Hungary are actually caused by the school.”
The centralised education system in Hungary is widely criticized for (among other things) demanding the teachers to follow a minute-by-minute curriculum. You, on the other hand, tried to build your classes around children’s interest. Have you had problems because of your methods in Hungary?
I could have but I was lucky. The school management and the headmistress supported and helped me. But it was just personal luck. In Hungary it is just personal luck if you are allowed to do your work or create undisturbed. On top of that, everyone is afraid.
“Afraid for their jobs, afraid of not being approved by those above him. They are afraid to accidentally say or support something that weakens or questions the current regime and get destroyed for it. We are too small a country to hide from Big Brother.”
So I have been lucky, even though I heard regular critique from my colleagues for breaking the “order”. That there is too much playtime in my class, or that I am too “forgiving”. But if someone believes in what she’s doing and that it’s the right thing to do, it is hard to break that conviction. I was also inspired to create the calm, safe and humane environment my own three children couldn’t get in school. They have also suffered in that system and I wanted to see and prove that it can be done differently. I knew that all along and have always been teaching that way – it was an accident that it got so much publicity.
Despite your success, you have recently left Hungary. Why?
Hungary is finished. It is an unlivable madhouse. I wouldn’t want to live there now if I earned five time as much because
“…we were exposed to the unpredictable and chaotic decisions of bigoted, maniacal, uneducated megalomaniacs. Everything we thought they wouldn’t dare to do – they did.”
They have stolen all the money, lied the stars off the sky. There is no healthcare, no education, no democracy, no press freedom. No freedom of expression either. No one smiles anymore. It is a matter of time before they close the borders so that we cannot even leave anymore. Our children are systematically let down by the school, language teaching is broken down so that they can’t even speak, while they are fed with demagogic nonsense. I was thinking with ever growing horror of growing old among non-smiling, envious, bitter and sad people – until I saw a way out. It was especially harrowing knowing that even out pensions have been stolen.
Can you see a difference between Hungary and Malta? Between the people here and there?
It is not my first time on Malta but I am just beginning my assimilation. I have been captured by the Mediterranean the first time I saw it. I have felt at home since my plane touched down the first time. I have a very strong attachment to this place today for personal reasons. I arrived a month ago with a one-way ticket. I am learning the language and getting used to the idea that I would like to live here – or at least stay for a very long time. I’m starting to build up my life and I’m not afraid of the future. I can see that there is work, that there is benevolence. I can see opportunities here – even though I know that Malta is not the place to get rich. It can provide a livelihood – but you should really come here because it is good to be here. If you love spiritual places, love to feel the power of nature, love multiculturalism, Malta is your place. It has a unique language, history, climate, and geography. Today its population is very colourful – but even with that Malta is preserving its own identity.
Plenty of foreigners live on the island but the locals don’t hate them – unlike Hungarians who now hate the handful of foreigners who accidentally got stuck there. The Maltese people could hate the thousands of Hungarians who tread the streets of Bugibba, but they don’t. There is no hatred here. People are helpful and friendly. They may even smile at you from time to time, they may say hello and talk to you.
“A Hungarian would get suspicious when it happens, thinking “what do they want from me?”
But they want nothing. Here they don’t want anything from you, just a smile, a conversation, or a kind gesture.
People I know tell me how incredible it is that they are treated with respect here, even a housekeeper in a hotel. In Hungary they count as “dispensables”. They are told that they can leave if they don’t like something, even though there is no one left there to work anymore. Neither professionals, nor any kind of workers. So there are no workers left but they still don’t appreciate those who stay, they still intimidate and underpay them. You can leave, they say, especially if you are a woman or over 40. Then you needn’t even apply. In Malta, on the other hand, they say that this is your salary and thank you for your work. Thank you for your work. With these conditions
“…I am happy to be a housekeeper in a hotel or clean the dishes in a restaurant. It is safer than being a teacher in Hungary.”
If the situation is that depressing at home, why don’t more people realise?
Why? Don’t they realise? Then the power has achieved its goal.
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