Independence regained in 1918 brought the Polish nation hope to provide good education for their children in their own country. Education which was lacking in partitioned Poland. The 2nd Republic of Poland, writes Magdalena Micinska, started its independent existence as a state in which significant part of the population was not able to read patriotic proclamations or to sign the electoral list. Only the Western parts of Poland were free from illiteracy. The farther East, the more frequently people used crosses instead of letters. After the WW1, the Chief of the State, Jozef Pilsudski, introduced for the first time in the Polish history, obligatory and free seven year public elementary school for the children aged from 7 to 14. He accepted, however, the existence of schools of the ‘lower rank’ (one, two or three years), which could carry out the lower scope of educational programme. Admittedly, there was a shortage of teachers and buildings, children were taught in unimaginable by today’s standards conditions, but most importantly there was Polish school.
Joined classes, divided lessons
The young state guaranteed free education, albeit desperately poor education. Until the end of the second republic, most of the schools were years 1 to 7 and they were opened almost exclusively in towns. In the country, there were the so-called ‘one year schools’ with one teacher per class, there were also two class schools with the higher number of teaching staff. At the same time, due to the growing economic crisis in the years 1920-30, the spending on new schools was progressively lower. Between 1928-38, the spending on schools went down from over 39 million zloty per year to 0.9 million. In the provinces, children were taught in farmer’s homes rented by the government and in rooms lit by oil lamps. The schools rarely had gyms, playing fields, not to mention toilets (a common concern). School equipment consisted of a wooden blackboard on a stand, four seater benches, a table and a chair as well as portraits of the President and the Marshall with the cross next to them. Situation in towns was decisively better; school buildings were small but owned by schools. They had electricity and toilets, access to daily press and a library.
Public education in independent Poland owned its development almost entirely to the hard work of teachers. They had to demonstrate mental and physical resilience. In the country which over the years developed world class aviation, had modernised railways and had an increasingly dynamic motorised transport, it often took horse driven carts to get to schools situated several kilometers away from the railway station and to have to use sleighs in winter. Teachers mostly lived in lodgings next to schools. There were times when they had to move between two branches of a village school having to cover a distance of several hundred meters. The problem across the whole country, was high birth rate, reaching its peak in the 1930 (average ratio was thus one teacher to 63 pupils). With so many numbers of pupils in the classroom, the teachers had to divide classes; they worked with half of the class while the rest would work in silence. Pupils were taught in two shifts; younger children would go to school in the mornings and older children in the afternoons. Teaching in sets of different years under one teacher was also popular.
Staffroom in the average town school included a conglomeration of people of diverse education and social backgrounds. They were meeting places of people from all parts of the country, who were often moved from school to school by educational authorities. In the 30s, after the Jedrzejewski reform, the teaching profession incorporated a number of frustrated ‘high school professors’, who were convinced of being professionally and socially downgraded from high school to elementary school as a result of removing high school early years and transferring pupils to join classes of the same age group in primary schools.
In an embittered letter published in Glos Nauczycielski (Teachers’ Voice) in 1937, the author writes that the very fact that often the only asset of the national institution responsible for education of future young citizens is a dispirited teacher, European methods and highly demanding programs show how hopeless his work is and how insufficient the results are. This feeling of despondency was exacerbated by poor salaries, albeit equal for male and female teachers. The pay was sufficient to cover only the most fundamental needs.
This demanding work of teachers in the public elementary schools in Poland of the years between the WW1 and WW2, did not give teachers access to social elites nor did it provide financial satisfaction. Despite this, many people were able to devote themselves entirely to teaching, even through the 30s, when the educational catastrophe took place, i.e. the spending on education was drastically cut. No one cared what price they paid.
From today’s perspective, Polish education changed to such extent that it would be difficult to find analogies. However, in the 21st century, one similarity springs to mind. Teachers and pupils are already paying now for the damaging reforms (in the way proposed by the government). It is of no significance that the 3rd Republic of Poland managed to achieve good teaching standards, that many schools were improved thanks to the EU subsidies and that Polish pupils have started (at last!) to achieve better results in the international ability tests. Local governments now froze expenditure on education, because they have to bear the financial weight of the reform. Many teachers, as in the past, should draw on their spiritual and physical resilience for they will have to combine work in several schools and cover the distance among them.
Unchanged are: school shifts and relatively low paid teachers. For PiS (Law and Justice Party), the only important matter is to have the image of the Eagle and portrait of The President next to the cross. And, of course, the ‘correct’ content of the curriculum.