As a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteer I am placed at a secondary school here in Western Ukraine. In talking about the schooling here, I just want to be clear that this is a really big and diverse country. Everything here is based on my experience in Western Ukraine at my particular school, which could be very different than other schools and other volunteers’ experiences. We live in a town of about 9,000 and in our town there are 2 schools, 1 gimnasia, 1 vocational school, 1 college, and 1 internaut (combination orphanage/school for kids with special needs).
My school is a гімназія, in English gimnasia (him-na-zi-a), which is a specialized 5th-11th grade secondary school. To enter, students must pass Ukrainian and Math exams. Each grade is split into two sections A and б. But they aren’t labeled 5A, 5б , 6A, 6б . . . 11A, 11б . Instead the incoming class is 1A and 1б, the 6th graders are 2A and 2б, the 11th graders are 7A and 7б. This past year’s 1A will be next year’s 2A, this year’s 4A is next year’s 5A, etc.
This past year I taught 5th, 6th, 7th, 9th, 10th, and 11th graders. As a TEFL PCV, I am required to teach 18 hours (and do clubs/teacher trainings). So I had 5 co-teachers over 9 different classes, each of whom I saw twice a week. It adds up to about 250 students in a week. My school has around 350 students so I saw the majority of the students.
Differences between American Schools and my Ukrainian School
The biggest difference on which many others rest is that at American middle/high schools, teachers (mostly) stay in one room and the students switch around depending on classes. This happens for a variety of reasons, including allowing for differentiation of material, especially in middle schools. In Ukraine, students stay in one room and the teachers move around. At my school, students will be in that same room for all of their time at Gimnasia. The 1A room, for example, will have its label changed to 2A and students will continue to have all their classes there. The exception is for special classes like physical education or physics.
In American schools, with the exception of very small schools, because the kids switch around, each class hour has a different set of kids; the group of students who are in one’s History class is different than the group of students in one’s English class. And the students in one’s 7th grade Spanish class are different than the students who will be in one’s 8th grade Spanish class. Here in my school, the 22-28 students remain together for every class, for every year, until they graduate. The national law is that a class with more than 28 students must be split into two different classes, so legally there should never be a group larger than 28.
In American schools, teachers have a varied course-load and teach a different mix of kids every year. Here, teachers “move up” with their students. The English teacher who starts with the group in 5th grade will be their English teacher for the next 7 years, like with each other subject area. This allows for teachers to really get to know their students (for better or worse) and it means teachers don’t teach the same material year after year (also for better or worse).
In American high schools, which don’t use block scheduling, students take 7 or 8 different classes a day, 5 days a week, all semester long. There are 3-5 minute breaks between each class. American students have the same schedule on Mondays as on Tuesdays, as on Wednesdays, as on Thursdays, as on Fridays. In Ukrainian schools, students take 12-15 different classes a week. Monday they might have 6 classes, Tuesday 8 classes, Wednesday 7 classes, etc. Each day is a different schedule with a different mix of classes. Students might have 4 lessons of English in a week, but 5 Ukrainian lessons, and 3 lessons of their second foreign language. Each of these classes is 45 minutes long, and there is a 15 minute break between each. Students don’t have an hour for lunch like in American schools, they eat during these 15 minute breaks.
American schools work on an A, B, C, D, F scale, which corresponds to a 100% scale. At many schools an A is a 90% and up, etc. At Ukrainian schools, there is a 12 point scale. A 12 is the highest score a student can get, a 2 is the lowest.
Lastly, in America it is really important that religion is not a part of the public schools. Here, in this school, in this part of Western Ukraine, there is a religious icon in every classroom, some of the classes start with a prayer, all students take a course on “Christian Ethics”, and an Orthodox priest speaks at graduation.
School is mandatory to the 9th grade, then students can choose to leave school or continue to the 11th grade. There currently is no 12th grade in Ukraine (more on that later). Students who leave after the 9th grade often go to either vocational schools or a 2-year college. Graduating from a college is similar to getting an associates degree in the States, and like in the States, some students do go from a college to a university, but for the most part, students who are going to go to university stay in secondary school through the 11th grade. In our town, we have both a vocational school and an agricultural college. To the best of my understanding the vocational schools, students study for careers in cosmetology, the food industry, and carpentry/metal work. At the agricultural college students are preparing for careers in agriculture and economics.
Students who stay in secondary school through 11th grade and go on to university must pass ZNO exams in the summer after 11th grade. There is a separate exam for every subject area (Ukrainian, English, Chemistry, History, etc.). Students must take the Ukrainian exam and they can take up to 5 exams. The other subjects are determined by the university to which a student is applying. This testing is really high stakes. It determines acceptance into a university and unlike the ACT/SAT students can’t continue to retake until they like their score. Many many students have private tutors in their ZNO subjects, and they begin seriously studying the summer after 10th grade. For teachers it is high-stakes as well. The final grade a student gets in a class must align with their ZNO score, but scores in classes must be submitted before the ZNO scores are announced.
There is a lot that is different between American and Ukrainian school systems, and I’m really lucky to have an inside look on how American schools work to compare to my current understanding of the Ukrainian school system. But at the same time, when my kids now ask me “How are American students different?” the answer is that they really aren’t. Teens are teens. They love their friends and their cell phones. They like fashion that reflects their personalities. Some of them are goofy and some are studious. Some are snots and some are sweethearts. (This is a disappointing answer to my students here…) But really, despite all the institutional differences, on either side of the Atlantic, the students makes everyday worth it.