On Wednesday June 20th I visited the Ljig Primary School (Saša Kerković) in Ljig, Serbia. Ljig is a town of approximately 3,000 inhabitants 2 hours south west of Belgrade, and 45 minutes away from the city of Valjevo. The town is known in Serbia for a World War I Battle (Kolubara) where the Serbs defeated the Austro-Hungarian army.
I feel it is important for me to understand the Serbian education system as I deal with many Serbian parents, teachers, and students. It helps me see what their needs are and what adjustments they need to make coming to an international school culture. For example, I get many parents and students concerned about the homeroom lists. They call asking to change because a friend is in the other section. In Serbian primary schools (grades 1-8) the students stay together year-to-year and stay with the same teacher. You can see why they are anxious when the homeroom lists are announced in August. We wait until the Friday evening before the first Monday of school to post the homeroom lists.
This school in Ljig is an “osnovno škola” which is a primary school from grades 1 through 8. Government or public schools are generally not very well funded compared to the US or Australia. The average monthly salary for a teacher is around 400-500 Euros, which they supplement with tutoring or teaching at more than one school. For that small amount of money however, teachers only work about 3.5 hours per day. Also, that is about the average monthly salary in Serbia. Many schools are on shifts, where students come in three waves (morning, afternoon, and evening).
As we walked around the rooms, I got the impression that the teachers cared about the education and despite chalkboards, holes in the wall, broken tiles, the students are receiving a decent education. I know that the Serbians which come to us from local schools are excellent students, especially in mathematics. The emphasis is on factual knowledge and the students are asked to memorize a lot. That is not all bad, and I am partial to educational systems that give students information to memorize. I believe that students cannot “critically think” without facts to think about. The critical thinking and finding patterns or axioms, comes later for students, as they learn more and more facts and see relationships. I also think that if one believes in “life-long learning,” that it is okay in the early stages of education to give students a lot of “stuff” to know and later on in their lives, they can critically think about them. Of course, critical thinking and the search for meaning should come a bit with every lesson, but not to graduate critical thinkers without any information.
One interesting aspect is the class book (below). This school used an “old school” approach and for this particular group of grade 8 students, the teachers wrote their report card marks, lesson plans, and minutes of teacher meetings about the class in the hardcover book.
I also saw a good community service project while touring the school. The basketball courts and soccer field are in desperate need of attention. It would be good for our students to take a collection (raise funds) and take new backboards, rims, nets, and balls and give the school a proper soccer field and basketball court. It is a small item, but something that would be used by the community.