Romana Žihlavníková: if one student fails then it’s their mistake, but if the whole class does then it’s on me!

Romana Žihlavníková has been teaching psychology at NEWTON for five years. Alongside teaching, she runs her own NGO developing courses to train people to work on suicide hotlines, and also works with Doctors Without Borders. Here, she tells us what she loves about teaching, and why she sometimes views her students’ failures as her own… 

So Romana, what brought you to NEWTON University?

When I started in academia, I was teaching at a public university and I found the students there very passive. There were also really strict rules about how to teach psychology, and, as a young teacher, I had my own very strong views about how to teach – I want to make it interactive, to use experiential learning techniques — and these things just weren’t possible at a public university. So I wanted to find a university where I would be able to play during lectures, and have flexibility in terms of how to teach. I also wanted smaller groups – at the public university I was teaching 150 students at once, which made it impossible to teach in the way I wanted to.

How long have you been teaching at NEWTON?

Well, I started part-time, around 5 years ago. And then I was full-time for two years, but now I’m back to part-time and I’m only teaching on the English programme.

Are you working on other things, alongside teaching? 

Yes, quite a few things! The main project is my own non-profit organisation, which develops courses to train people to work on suicide hotlines. We teach people how to work on the hotline, but we’re also continually trying to improve how we teach it, so every course is a playground for experimenting with new ways of teaching. I’m also a suicide hotliner myself, working as a psychologist. And I also work with Doctors Without Borders as an Events and Campaign Manager, so I’m responsible for every event and campaign that is organised here in the Czech Republic. And finally, I also work at another non-profit organisation that teaches first aid courses. I am the head lecturer and team leader, and my focus there is on improving and evolving the course to be more interactive, hopefully leading to better information retention by the students.

Wow, it sounds like you’re extremely busy! And everything’s related to teaching, or to developing courses. What do you like about teaching?

I like the process of finding effective ways to teach people, it’s very creative. If I see that every student in a class has a problem with one particular thing, then it’s probably because we are not teaching it very well. So we begin with the information that something is not working, and then it’s our job to find out why, and to work out how to teach it better. This is the same principle for all teaching, including in my teaching at NEWTON University –  if one student fails, it’s their mistake, but if every student doesn’t understand, it’s feedback for me. 

What are you teaching on the English programme?

I’m teaching Psychology for Managers, Basics of Social Psychology, and part of the course for Presentation Skills.

So why do business students need to study psychology? 

I only teach things that will be of practical use to students. For example, the course looks at how the mind works, our biases, how we are prone to making mistakes, how intuition is not reliable, and the limitations of our mind when it comes to things like intuitive statistics — and we study them all in as fun a way as possible! I think these kinds of things are important for everyone to know, but in business especially they can help people make better decisions. And I use examples from areas they’re studying, or workplace situations that they might experience in the future. 

And how is this year going so far?

I like all of the students this year, they’re good fun. And now it’s got to the time in the year when they realise they can laugh if I make a joke, and then they relax, participate more and become more authentic, which is great. That’s also why I stayed on the English programme — the group is small, so they are not too shy to share interesting stories and have discussions, which makes it fun!

Are you involved in any research at the moment?

I’m trying to finish my PhD, so I am focusing on that right now. It's about transgression and bending rules – and how to manipulate people into not transgressing without them knowing it! This year it will end, and that’s great, because I really need it done!