An Interview with Jana Zalska Director of IFSA Prague Programs

October 11, 2018 8:21 pm

Jana Zalska, IFSA’s Resident Director in Prague is completing her PhD in Mathematics Education from Charles University. In fact, she just defended her thesis. She holds a Professional Masters in Mathematics Education from the Illinois Institute of Technology, a M.Sc. in Mathematics and Economics from Masaryk University in Brno. We spoke with her about education, Prague, culture, and identity.

What does being a global citizen mean to you?

On the surface, it means belonging to the relatively large group of people who have lived/studied/worked/pursued happiness in living abroad. To me, it means having started on the journey of learning about own identity and culture through learning about others. It also means recognizing individuality while understanding the unique qualities of what it means to be human. That we are on the same boat and that our traditional view of institutions like competition and national boundaries may no longer be serving us as humanity.

You just recently defended your thesis for your PhD. Tell us about your research.

My research in mathematics education was initially motivated by a cross-cultural professional experience: when I worked as a mathematics teacher in a Chicago progressive charter school, I was struck by how differently mathematics (and not just mathematics) was taught and learned in my Czech schooling experience and at the school in Chicago. After I returned from the US, I decided to find out what characterizes and influences Czech teachers’ beliefs and practices about mathematics and its teaching and learning. I focused on the practice of argumentation in classrooms and justification of mathematical rules in particular. The PhD research experience helped me to not only appreciate the process and nature of qualitative research work but solidified my pedagogical beliefs about experiential and individualized learning and sense-making.

What’s your favorite excursion to take students on in Prague?

Within Prague limits, it is any walk through Prague’s three adjacent neighborhoods: Královské Vinohrady, Vršovice and Žižkov. It is my locale and I feel I can always discover more when students walk through it and share their observations. My favorite one just outside Prague is a short trip to the ruins of the Okoř Castle and a walk back through the countryside, visiting the Únětice brewery and discussing, for example, the business and cultural role castles and breweries have played in the Czech culture, urban and rural lifestyle and history. I get to learn so much about the students’ home culture and history, too.

How did you come to IFSA?

IFSA came to me, here, in Prague. How? I learned about this opportunity through my long-time colleague and later friend, Maria Scriven, who has been a Resident Director for IFSA in Ireland for many years. Why? When I met with IFSA’s staff and learned about IFSA’s key values, I knew their vision resonated with my desire to give back and facilitate opportunities for learning that is aligned with my own worldview. Since that time, I have come to appreciate how much more there is to this field and how the why of each of us – so many wonderfully creative and empathetic people – matters.

Have you noticed a commonality in the type of students who come to Prague?

I am not sure if this will describe types of students, but most students have clear academic goals about what they want to accomplish and learn while here in Prague. They come to Prague because they are interested in meeting their goals in the areas of study that IFSA programs offer here and they all expect to live in a beautiful city (both expectations have been consistently met). They all possess a good amount of curiosity and are definitely willing to step outside their comfort zone (in a non-fully English-speaking environment, in a bigger city than they are used to, in a climate different from theirs, and on public transport). They want to travel and experience European urban travel and the local country. They often seek help figuring out how to manage their limited time here wisely. Many are looking for ways to figure out what to do in a longer-term plan.

Do you see an overlap in the work that you do with international education and your professional academic pursuits in mathematics?

Though I completed a master’s program in mathematics, I do not consider myself a mathematician. My interest has always been in teaching and learning and, later, the cultural aspects of education. My mathematics education gave me certain privileges and led to opportunities that allowed me to pursue these interests in various international settings and professions. All of these have recently led me to IFSA, an amazing global community, that allows us to learn and grow while helping our students and locals (including local partners) do the same.

What was a formative experience for you that shaped how you view culture and identity?

As you may suspect, there was no one experience. I am incredibly fortunate to have been part of many cultures and communities throughout my life, and mostly by choice. What I am grateful to IFSA for are the conversations and language that have helped me reflect and find deeper meaning in anecdotes from the past (like my teaching experience in Chicago’s underserved neighborhood) to shape my interpretation of present experiences. The journey does not end: I believe that understanding of your own identity and culture is not something to be mastered in one day, semester or even lifetime. We get better at it, we grow with it, and that is precisely what makes it worth the while.

What value do you see IFSA programs providing that others might not?

Being relatively new to the field, I can base this on my own experience and on students’ observations. It is the people on the ground, at the individual sites, all those who come to contact with students and give them opportunities to grow, not only intellectually but as responsible and creative human beings.