September 8, 2021
Interview with Dr. Ania Kijak, manager of the Polish School of Eindhoven.
In operation since 1988, the Polish School of Eindhoven is one of the longest-running heritage language (HL) programs in Eindhoven and it was the first Polish school to open in the Netherlands. In recent years, even in the face of a pandemic, the school has more than doubled in size and has become a foundation. The Polish School of Eindhoven is an active member of a national forum of Polish schools in the Netherlands, and its team also participates in the activities of the HLE Network.
In order find out how this Polish school has been transformed, we talked with Ania Kijak. A linguist and a mother, she became head of the school a few years ago. Her positive attitude about how to turn a vision into reality is sure to inspire others in our network!
How did the Polish School of Eindhoven get started?
More than 30 years ago, Urszula Zawadzińska started the school and ran it for a few years before it was taken over by Stefan Żaczkiewicz. He ran the school for several decades.
The purpose of the school has always been for children to maintain the language and the culture of the people who immigrated here. The school also allows parents to meet for coffee and to celebrate Polish traditions and holidays.
How big is the school and how often are there classes?
At least in the last decade there were only about 20 to 25 students and only two or three classes. Now we have 63 children spread over six classes! The lessons take place for three hours every other Saturday morning, about 20 lessons per school year.
Where do the classes take place?
The Polish School of Eindhoven had several different locations over the years. Right now we are extremely happy with the Slingertouw primary school. They are outstanding hosts and very open-minded and welcoming.
I know it is important to support language development. I know that it will not just happen on its own.
What is your background and how did you get involved with the Polish school?
I have lived in the Netherlands for 20 years. In Poland, I studied at a teacher’s college for English as a Second Language. In Utrecht, I earned an MA in English Language and Culture as well as a PhD in Linguistics, in Second Language Acquisition and Phonology. My first involvement with the Polish school was that I was simply a mother of bilingual children who brought my children to lessons because I wanted them to maintain their knowledge of the language, to learn about the culture, and to learn to read and write. I wanted them to feel like they belonged to the Polish community. I looked up the Polish school when I was pregnant with my first child. Not all parents of bilingual children enroll their children in heritage language (HL) lessons. Why was this important to you?
Because of my background in linguistics, I know it is important to support language development. I know that it will not just happen on its own. I knew when I had children of the “danger” that Dutch was going to become a dominant language.
Indeed, not all parents realize that even if both parents speak another language at home, once a child starts to go to the school (and usually earlier because of day care!) the second language becomes dominant. And then the hard works begins with trying to maintain the home language and to achieve a balance between the languages. A lot of people think that learning a language in the first years of life is enough and that it will stay even after the children start to learn Dutch. They don’t realize that it has to be maintained, that it is dynamic, that it can regress, that there can be attrition. As children grow older, their exposure to the home language becomes less and less, and the issue of trying to find motivation kicks in.
Have the Polish lessons helped your children?
Yes, I managed to succeed in my plan! Both of my children started Polish lessons in Eindhoven when they were four and they now have the feeling that they belong to a Polish community. This helps a lot with their motivation to develop the Polish language. They have never felt ashamed and they feel proud. They feel both Dutch and Polish.
How did you end up becoming the director of the Polish school?
From the beginning, I was a very involved parent. I became immediately involved with organizing events. When my younger child was old enough to start as well, I then became a teacher for a group of Polish children aged 6 to 8.
Around that time, it was no longer possible for the person in charge to continue, and everyone thought that I should take over. I resisted a bit at first because I felt overwhelmed by the task and I was not sure I would be able to do it. But I had my own vision of what I wanted the school to become and it was important for the school to continue, so I agreed.
What was the state of the school when you took over and what was your vision for change?
The people who had been running the school were (like many people in Eindhoven!) engineers. They did not have a background in education, and they put the responsibility for deciding what would be done in a class to the teachers, who had been working there for 15 years. There was actually an educational program and books available in Poland for these types of schools, but these were not being accessed. Every year at the end of the year the organizers would have to see if they would have enough students the following year to continue, so the situation was always tenuous.
The major change I wanted to introduce was a teaching program with books and a higher quality of education. And in order to do that, we had to have enough classes to teach. You cannot actually teach children if you have a class with ages 6 to 12. Each child was a different age with a totally different level and nothing could really be taught. So we had to grow the school.
How did you grow the school?
We introduced regular workbooks, which the children had never had. We increased the number of teachers. There was a great group of mothers for me to work with as a team (Kasia Serafin 'Abee, Patrycja Jancura, and Kasia Węglicka Lauwerijssen), and together we introduced an organizational structure and more formalized documents. We make sure to only hire people who are trained to teach, as opposed to hiring enthusiastic parents. (We believe that parents can organize other things or assist in the class, but they should not be expected to be effective teachers.) We renewed the website and started a Facebook page – and when we post pictures there are usually about 1500 viewings.
People saw these changes and appreciated them. We also organized a workshop with speech therapists about bilingual development with a chance for parents to have a consultation. The word spread.
Our student numbers have been steadily growing since 2018 and in fact right now we have a waiting list for the youngest group! Keep in mind that in the Netherlands, the Polish community is currently the 6th biggest minority, so it shouldn’t be difficult for us to find interested families.
How many hours per week do you spend running the school?
It varies. It depends on how you want things done. You are the person who determines how much you put in. It is at least two full working days per week (from 9AM to 3PM, when my children are at school), but sometimes it is every weekday I have to take care of something.
Your school became a foundation officially in November 2020. Do you recommend that schools start a foundation (stichting)?
I definitely recommend it. Of course, it depends on the size of the school. You need some capital to start it, several hundred Euro. There needs to be some regular income (from parents paying school fees) because there are costs associated with running an official organization.
What are the benefits of operating as a foundation?
For us it was a natural decision to give it an official form. If you are registered (as either a foundation or an association), it is easier to arrange many different things because you are a legal entity. The most important for us is that we are now a recognized entity in Poland, which makes it possible for us to get some funding and books from the Polish government. Our students also now have official Polish pupil cards, which give them access to discounts to places like museums and parks, which they can use when they visit Poland.
Because we are now a foundation, we are also able to offer official volunteer contracts to the teachers and make use of the insurance for volunteers from the city of Eindhoven. We are eligible to use services from Stichting Supportpunt Eindhoven as well. Our status as a foundation now allows us to welcome two official Erasmus+ student interns. It even helps when we are collecting books for the library collection because then donors are more willing.
Becoming a foundation (or association) has opened up a lot of possibilities for our school. In our case, the benefits have been worth the trouble of the extra organizational obligations.
You mentioned that there are books and funding available from Poland. How does that work?
There are organizations located in Poland, such as Ośrodek Doskonalenia Nauczycieli Stowarzyszenia "Wspólnota Polska" and Ośrodek Rozwoju Polskiej Edukacji za Granicą, which work with the Ministry of Education to take care of matters concerning Polish schools abroad. They take care of the funding each year and they make sure that there are books available. A Polish school abroad must be registered as an official organization to be eligible for the funding and the books. The funding that we receive differs from year to year and it is not a big sum, which means it is not something we can rely on or base our school on. It’s just extra.
As I said, we now receive books from the Polish government. It is interesting to know that the government financed a project to develop different sets of books, depending on where the Polish schools abroad are located. The assumption is that there are different needs depending on the country of residence. For example, they created a special set of books for the Polish schools located in Ireland. So attention is being paid to the content of the books.
The organization that supports Polish schools abroad also provides a conference at least twice per year in Poland that lasts a few days and is open to Polish teachers worldwide. They also provide a huge amount of free training – even to schools that are not official legal entities. There are more workshops being offered than we manage to follow!
What kind of topics are covered by the workshops?
Where do I start? There are plenty of training opportunities available about the methodology of teaching Polish to Polish children abroad, across different age groups, including secondary students. They provide an overview of different materials that are available, including online materials. They created a portal with an online textbook and workbook, so sometimes there are training about these specific materials.
When the lockdown started there was immediately a whole chain of trainings about how to organize online classes, how to use Google Meet. There was also a Polish school in Dublin that started an online Polish teacher’s academy for one year, so every week there was a free webinar! All of the webinars were recorded and put online.
Do you regularly follow training workshops? What is the quality?
If a topic is interesting, we follow the workshop, but the quality varies. Sometimes they just invite a teacher from another Polish school to talk about what they do. Sometimes they invite big names from Polish universities – and these talks are outstanding because they are up to date regarding the linguistic research. Sometimes they invite speech therapists and psychologists, or sometimes there are talks about how to work with specific groups of children. We like that the webinars go worldwide and we get to talk to teachers from Polish schools in places like Brazil or Australia.
Your Polish school is part of a national Forum of Polish schools (Forum Polskich Szkół w Holandii, FPSN). What does the Forum do?
The forum was started in 1995, actually by Stefan Żaczkiewicz who ran the Polish school in Eindhoven for almost 30 years. There are now 20 Polish schools that are members of the forum.
The forum allows us to gain from other people’s knowledge, to see that we are not alone. Whenever we have a question, we immediately get many answers! This is volunteer work that we do, and it is easier if things are not always so difficult, if we do not always feel like we are on our own to figure things out.
The forum also organizes events, for instance once per year there is a festival about poetry for all Polish schools across the Netherlands. There are individual and group competitions for the students.
What was it like dealing with COVID?
It was more difficult for the teachers and for the pupils because the type of contact is not the same. It was still important to stay in touch and we did it, and we are happy that we did it. There were some technical challenges, but we supported each other.
We did not lose a single student! No one dropped out because of COVID. We did not have 100% attendance, but there was no student who quit completely.
Not all languages enjoy this level of support (funding, books, and training from the home government; support from local and international forums; commitment from families/students during the lockdown). Why do you think this is for Polish?
Polish people are in general very organized and they put a lot of value in education. They have a lot of national pride and they want their children to speak Polish and to know about Poland. Education is just important.
What is your advice for other HL programs?
When I was starting, I got a lot of warnings from other people about how challenging and how hard this work is. I think that you just need to establish your vision, find a team, and work towards it. It will all come together. Little by little it all comes together.
For example, people always said, “Oh, it’s impossible to find teachers because no one wants to do it for free,” but we just put up an advertisement and we immediately found three wonderful teachers with no problem. If you want something, just do it!
My advice is also that you have to appreciate your staff. We always go out together at least once per semester with everyone in the whole crew. It’s important to create a sense of community and to appreciate each other.
In the end, this is people work! You have to build up relationships with people. You have to generate positive energy.
You have been interested in the activities of HLE Network since it got started (as HLSE in 2019) and your Polish HL program is an HLE Network Affiliate. Why have you taken time to stay involved, even with all of the Polish organizations you can be a part of? I was interested in your initiative from the beginning because I find it very important to promote HL education and to raise the awareness about it within the Dutch education system. We hear stories that in some villages around here, it still happens that teachers forbid children to speak their home language at school. There is still the belief in some places that Dutch has a higher status than the home language and that Dutch should be spoken at home. It is important to battle misconceptions around multilingualism, and it would be great if HL education could be included in the primary school curriculum in some way. We also know from experience how much language schools are able to support each other. We have so much support from the Forum of Polish Schools – for instance, there is a standard presentation each year for all new schools getting started that explains all of the formalities and how everything has to be set up. It is a lot of valuable information that you would otherwise have to look up for yourself. We are happy to make connections with other language programs and believe that it can be useful, even if they do not also teach Polish. In the end, this is people work! You have to build up relationships with people. You have to generate positive energy.