Patrik Eliáš for Forbes Česko on Distance Learning Programme

From NHL star to home teacher

Two-time Stanley Cup winner Patrik Eliáš spent 11 seasons in the NHL and retired as a legend with the New Jersey Devils. Since finishing his hockey career three years ago, he returned to the Czech Republic with his family. The self-admitted sports nut has now become a teacher as schools are closed and he has been helping his daughters cope with distance learning. What does he think about online teaching in the Czech Republic?

He arrives at Hvězda park in Prague with his daughter Sophia in sportswear. Among the people who come to the park to run, few people recognize him. One man in his forties, here for a walk with his children, greets him respectfully. Patrik Eliáš returns the greeting with a smile. 

"I hope you don’t mind that we are dressed like this?" asks the former star of the New Jersey Devils and the Czech national team. "We want to run a bit. We take every opportunity to get out and exercise, without sport I would go crazy," he explains.

It has been two months since he had to put sports aside, assisting his children, nine-year-old Sophia Gabriella and six-year-old Kaila Patricia, together with his wife.

"It has been quite a challenging time for the children, parents and teachers. I’ve learned quite a bit myself,” says Patrik Eliáš. His daughters go to Park Lane International School in Prague. When schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, they had to get used to a unique distance learning programme.

Have you become a home teacher?

Yes, and after two weeks of online teaching, Sophia told me she was studying harder than back at school. I had to agree with her because it was a hundred percent more work for me. I definitely didn't study that much in the third grade! But I was surprised at how quickly the children got used to it. In the end it was really much harder for us parents. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s a battle – we’ve been under some stress, organizing the day and figuring out all the applications where the lessons take place. We take turns, my wife and I, helping the children with their tasks. You learn a lot by doing it yourself. 

Sophia: At first it was a bit hard, but now it's fine. I quite enjoy it.

Can the current situation positively change the way we educate children?

We’ve all had to adapt, but after a few weeks a huge shift was visible. The organization of online teaching has improved, children are more independent and can handle most of the exercises they receive on their own. Technology will be a part of their lives and it’s good that they have learned how to use it. Park Lane reacted quickly to the situation, found the most suitable platforms for teaching, and, in the end, it opened up a ton of opportunities. International families, some of whom live abroad for part of the year, now know that they have a tremendous opportunity to educate their children remotely. Sick children can connect directly to the class and participate in the discussions. All children can then easily collaborate on international projects with other schools around the world. I am definitely in favor of occasional distance learning in normal times.

Is online teaching more effective in some respects?

It depends on how the school sets it up. Some friends told me that their children just get homework to learn three hours a day. With us it is completely different - the girls work at a pace that is comparable, if not better than at school. They stick to the normal schedule, there are several video calls during the day, subjects change, the school creates a bunch of projects. Even physical education takes place online. The children have a lunch break, and then they connect again. My older daughter has school until three o'clock in the afternoon. Sometimes I am surprised how hard she works. You know, I never noticed it that much before. I feel she is more focused as no one disturbs her and she is more independent. But I also understand that after class she wants to have some quiet time and switch off.

Sophia: I loved the project where we had to select an endangered animal from the Prague zoo. I chose a narwhal, a kind of a sea unicorn. I had to find out as much as I could about them, describe the environment they live in and then design a pavilion where they could live. Then I wrote a letter to the zoo explaining why they should buy it! I also enjoyed playing witches, my dad took a wig and hockey gloves and showed us what a witch might look like. That was so funny.

Most of the day the children are in front of a screen dealing with a lot of information...

The school is aware of this. They created other activities for the afternoon and immediately launched several projects - afternoon online clubs, a game about old Prague for children and families, radio broadcasting for small children. Most of the time, however, it is understandably associated with technology which is why my wife and I try to come up with another program for our children. Fortunately, we have a garden where the girls can play. I'm mad about fitness, so I bought some cones, ladders and rings and I made an obstacle course. We practice, run, play football. Anything to stay active. When the restrictions were relaxed, we started running in a park, went cycling and took long hikes.

Sophia: We walked 16 kilometers yesterday! I also enjoy dancing and tap. Sometimes my sister and I make videos. We also help each other shoot videos that we do for various projects for school.

How much do children miss social contact?

Of course, they suffer just like the rest of us. You can see how happy they are when they see their friends at least on the screen. But personal contact cannot replace it. In Park Lane, they launched the Library on Wheels project - when the school is closed, teachers distribute books that children can borrow. I can see how happy my girls are to see familiar faces "live" and not just through a computer.

Sophia: I'm sorry I can only see my friends from a distance. At school, they let us talk only about the topic we’re studying, so sometimes we call after school and talk about what we want...

Should the school respond to the needs of families and adapt teaching to what children want?

We got used to expressing our opinions in America and the feedback works perfectly at Park Lane. The school wants to know how we manage everything, what problems we’re having and how to set up the teaching correctly. On the other hand, the school expects children to follow the rules. This is different from America, where teaching is usually freer. Personally, the balanced combination of freedom and rules at Park Lane is closer to my heart. Children need certain limitations.

When you and your family returned to the Czech Republic from the USA three years ago, how did you choose the school for your children?

I had references from friends who had also worked abroad. The priority was teaching in English and a curriculum at an international level. Sophia had already attended kindergarten in America, so we wanted the transition to be as easy as possible for her. At the same time, we wanted to prepare the girls for the possibility of returning to America at any time if I got an interesting job offer. We were looking for a school that would prepare them so that they could study anywhere in the world in the future. At the same time, we also wanted them to learn Czech. In the end, however, something completely different decided it for us - the friendly family atmosphere, which we felt as soon as we came to Park Lane for the first time. In addition, studies at Park Lane are completed by the globally recognized IB high school diploma. They also have a secondary school in Malá Strana...

The girls were born in the USA and had friends there, so they didn't want to go to the Czech Republic. But Sophia came up to me after two weeks and said: Dad, it's almost the same here as in America. She misses it, but at the same time she enjoys it here a lot.

Sophia explains eagerly: And next year we get to go skiing with the school for five days! There were no overnight trips in America. School in the Czech Republic is probably harder, but more fun.

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