ⓘ Maria Grzegorzewska was a Polish educator, who brought the special education movement to Poland. Born to a family from the Zmudz region, she was strongly influe ..


ⓘ Maria Grzegorzewska

Maria Grzegorzewska was a Polish educator, who brought the special education movement to Poland. Born to a family from the Zmudz region, she was strongly influenced by her parents beliefs in humanitarianism. After attending clandestine schools to earn her basic education from Polish rather than Russian educators, she obtained her teaching credentials in Lithuania. She continued her education at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and in 1913 joined her countrywoman, Jozefa Joteyko in Brussels to study at the International Paedological Faculty. When her studies in Belgium were interrupted by World War I, Grzegorzewska made her way to Paris and earned her PhD from the Sorbonne in 1916.

After the establishment of the Second Polish Republic, Grzegorzewska returned to Poland intent upon creating programs which addressed the needs of disabled children and introducing educational reforms to improve their lives. In 1919, she began working for the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Public Education, establishing facilities for the care of disabled children, schools for special education, and training programs for teachers. Using her own methodology, she designed curriculum which in 1922 was implemented at the newly founded State Institute of Special Education. She would direct this institute from its founding until her death.

During World War II, Grzegorzewska worked as a nurse, was active in the Polish resistance movement, and taught in Warsaw. She joined Zegota and provided assistance to Jews. When Poland was liberated in 1945, Grzegorzewska reactivated the Special Education Institute and within five years introduced graduate and extramural courses to the curricula. In 1950, during Stalinism, the school was renamed the Panstwowe Studium Pedagogiki Specjalnej State College of Special Education and a state curricula was introduced. She struggled against the state program to protect special education and people with disabilities. After the 1956 thaw, the former name was reclaimed and she regained support from government authorities. Between 1957 and 1960, she served as a full professor at the University of Warsaw. Her work in science and for the Polish education system were honored with numerous awards and distinctions.


1. Early life

Maria Stefania Grzegorzewska was born on 18 April 1888 in Wolucza, a village in the Kingdom of Poland of the Russian Empire to Felicja nee Bogdanowicz and Adolf Grzegorzewski. Both of her parents were from Zmudz, a region now located in Lithuania, and had moved to Wolucza, where they leased an estate. Her father served as the estate administrator and also oversaw neighboring farms, advocating for modernization of agricultural practices and humane treatment of workers. The youngest of six siblings, including Zenon, Wanda, Helena, Witold and Wladyslaw, Grzegorzewska was influenced by her fathers care for the land and his neighbors. Equally influential, her mother was involved in social projects to help local villagers, providing medical care and services to assist them in their lives. Felicja saw service towards her neighbors as a duty and from a young age, her daughter developed a sensitivity to the needs of others.

At the time that Grzegorzewska began her education in Poland, Russification programs caused many parents to send their children to clandestine private schools so that they could study their own culture and language. She studied at a boarding school in Warsaw operated by Mrs. Kotwicki for four years and then entered Paulina Hewelkes school, completing an additional three years of schooling before graduating in 1907. She immediately entered a one-year, university preparatory course led by Ludwik Krzywicki from the Department of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Warsaw. During her studies, she met and became involved with a group of social activists which included Marian Falski, Helena Radlinska, and Stefania Sempolowska. Participating in the socialist youth underground and providing education for workers brought her to the attention of the tsarist police, forcing Grzegorzewska to flee to Lithuania. In Lithuania, she earned a diploma as a private teacher and took in students in their homes to earn money to enter university.

In 1909, Grzegorzewska began her studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, simultaneously working as a tutor, lecturing at the Adam Mickiewicz Peoples University, and performing odd jobs, like gluing envelopes. For two years, she intensely studied and worked in Krakow, but the lack of proper nutrition and sleep impacted her health. Suffering from a lung disease, Grzegorzewska left school to seek treatment in Zakopane, where her fiance Czeslaw had been taken for his tuberculosis. Czeslaw died after a few months, sending Grzegorzewska into a depression. Staying at the Villa Osobita, she met Wladyslaw Heinrich, who told her of the work being done in paedology by her countrywoman, Jozefa Joteyko in Belgium. She began a correspondence with Joteyko and after a trip to Italy with her family, returned to Zakopane, where she tutored to earn enough money to continue her studies in Brussels.


2. Life abroad

In 1913, Grzegorzewska arrived at the International Paedological Faculty of Brussels and began studying with Joteyko. Taking courses in pedagogy, psychology, and sociology, she began to meet eminent scholars and scientists, who influenced her development. Though the faculty of the school was an international mix of scientists from Argentina, Belgium, France, Georgia, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, and Spain, she shared lodging with Polish students Jozefa Berggruen, Stefania Chmielakowna and Wanda Wosinska. As part of her research, Grzegorzewska began a study in the public schools in Brussels on childrens aesthetical development. Initially, Grzegorzewska was drawn to the broad range of Joteykos knowledge and her empathy toward children and the poor. As their relationship evolved, they became companions in both their professional and private lives. In 1914, Grzegorzewska returned to Poland on a vacation to see her family and was there at the start of World War I. Traveling on a war ship, through the mined North Sea, she rejoined Joteyko in London in 1915. After a short stay, the two migrated to Paris, where Joteyko began teaching at the College de France and Grzegorzewska enrolled at the Sorbonne.

Continuing her interest in aesthetics, Grzegorzewska compiled her research from Belgium into a thesis Studium na temat rozwoju uczuc estetycznych – badania z zakresu estetyki eksperymentalnej przeprowadzone wsrod uczniow szkol brukselskich Study on the development of aesthetic feelings – research in the field of experimental aesthetics conducted among students of Brussels schools, earning her PhD in 1916. While she was working on her dissertation, Grzegorzewska took part in a field trip to the Bicêtre Hospital, a psychiatric facility which treated people with severe intellectual disabilities. The excursion had a profound effect on her and though since childhood Grzegorzewska had been uneasy at the sight of physical impairment, she determined that her lifes work would be involved with providing equal access and education to people with disabilities. She began working in a school for intellectually challenged students in Paris and created a method to work with pupils, combining her experience from Poland, Belgium and France. In 1918, she and Joteyko founded the Polish Teaching League Ligue Polonaise dEnseignement, Polska Liga Nauczania in Paris with the purpose of helping exiled Poles involved in the independence movement gather materials on education and teaching methodology. They planned to use the materials to help develop a modern school system once Poland regained its independence. Grzegorzewska wrote an article for the League O koniecznosci zorganizowania specjalnego szkolnictwa dla dzieci anormalnych w Polsce On the need to organize special education for abnormal children in Poland.


3. Return to Poland

In May 1919, Grzegorzewska and Joteyko returned to Poland, soon after the establishment of the Second Polish Republic. Within a few months she was able to secure work as an assistant in the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Public Education. She was tasked with managing the development of special education for schools, institutions and educators. As Joteyko had been denied placement at the University of Warsaw, Grzegorzewska helped her find work as a lecturer at the Panstwowy Instytut Pedagogiczny National Pedagogical Institute and National Institute of the Deaf in Warsaw. Though at the time in Poland, there were limited facilities which had been established for deaf, blind, and mentally disabled people, there was no national system to address the education of those living with physical or mental impairments. Grzegorzewska aimed to implement educational methods she designed, mandatory training for teachers, and on-going research projects to assess the system over time. Her educational method adopted a holistic approach which included addressing care, barriers to everyday functioning, and the education of disabled people, but also their social integration and socio-professional development. It approached evaluating chronically ill, disabled, or socially maladjusted children from an interdisciplinary, scientific stance, rather than focusing on their perceived defects.

After a three-year period, in which she reorganized her teaching course several times, Grzegorzewska founded the State Institute of Special Education in 1922. She served as the director of the Institute from its inception until her death. In 1924, she founded the journal, Szkola specjalna Special School to publish about the field and spur scientific work to develop "innovative methods of revalidation" for maladjusted and disabled children, which she directed to the end of her life. In spite of her numerous obligations, when Joteykos heart condition became worse in 1927, Grzegorzewska took charge of her care until her death the following year. In 1930 founded and directed the Panstwowy Instytut Nauczycielski State Teachers Institute, to give educators a facility for improving their skills through both further education and training on teaching techniques. She was dismissed from the Teachers Institute in 1935 because she opposed the authoritarian rule advocated by the Sanacja movement. She participated in many conferences, including the 4th Congress of the International New Education League held in 1927 in Locarno, Switzerland; the 2nd Congress of Teachers of Special Schools hosted in 1934; and the 1st National Childrens Congress of 1938. In 1927 she published a book, Struktura psychiczna czytania wzrokowego i dotykowego Psychological structure of visual and tactile reading.

With the onset of World War II, the Special Education Institute was closed, and Grzegorzewska began working as a nurse in an army hospital run by the Polish Red Cross. Between 1939 and 1944, she taught at Special School No. 177 in Warsaw and participated in the clandestine educational system. Active in the Polish resistance movement, she distributed arms and pamphlets; joined Zegota, providing "meritorious" assistance to Jews; and took part in hiding Jews to save their lives. She served as a member of Ochotas health patrol during the Warsaw Uprising. During the uprising, her house was destroyed, and in it, unpublished manuscripts of two of her books, second volume of "Psychologia niewidomych” Psychology of the Deaf, first volume published in 1930 and "Osobowosc nauczyciela” Teachers Personality. After Poland was liberated, Grzegorzewska reactivated the Special Education Institute, which had been destroyed during the conflict. Recognizing that 30% of the teachers had died in the war, she initiated programs to help train new teachers quickly. The Polish Teachers Union was reestablished and she began research to evaluate existing educational programs, teachers socio-economic status, and the role of schools in their communities, among other topics.

In 1947, Grzegorzewska published the first volume of her magnum opus Listy do mlodego nauczyciela Letters to a Young Teacher in which she set forth her thoughts on the relationship of teachers to their students and the impact that educators have on a pupils development. In the book, she discussed solutions to validate the lives of people with disabilities by overcoming their functional limitations and improving their living conditions. She stressed that lession should be grounded in flexible activity, which met the abilities of students and stimulated their learning. She noted the importance of adequate breaks to prevent overstimulation. Creating a detailed classification system, she advocated that the spectrum of disabilities was extremely broad and required teachers to individualize training to meet students needs. She chose the title to convey that the information in the book was a dialogue, intended to generate reflection and inspiration, as well as feedback from teachers. The entire work contained 24 letters, published in 3 volumes, between 1947 and 1961. The first volume along with practical advice, focused on building community among teachers, encouraging them to help each other. Other letters gave historic information on innovators in education, and still others discussed humanitarian and ethical values as the keys to self-knowledge and coping mechanisms for change, which could in turn motivate and inspire others. She was less interested in structure of materials and more focused upon providing assistance which recognized the dignity and right to equality of all life. The volumes were influential in the international development of thought on education in general, as well as special education.

In 1950, Grzegorzewska introduced extramural and postgraduate courses at the Institute of Special Education, but in March, the school was renamed the Panstwowe Studium Pedagogiki Specjalnej State College of Special Education and a state curricula was introduced. During the remainder of the Stalinist period, her activities were "received coldly" by those in power in the Polish Peoples Republic, as the official position was that people with disabilities needed no special consideration. Teachers who were insufficiently Marxist were dismissed or demoted and teacher training was eliminated. She fought to protect special education and people with disabilities to prevent them from being harmed by production quotas and communist ideology, putting her job in jeopardy. When the 1956 thaw granted the Polish government greater autonomy from Russian policies, she regained the former support of authorities and the name of the Institute was reestablished. In the years 1957 to 1960 she was a full professor at the University of Warsaw and the chair of the first Polish Department of Special Pedagogy. Her later major works include Analiza zjawisk kompensacji u gluchych i niewidomych Analysis of compensation occurrences among the deaf and mute, 1959 and Wybor pism Selection of Works, 1964. Her work in science and the Polish education system were honored with numerous awards and distinctions at the end of her life.


4. Death and legacy

Grzegorzewska died from a heart attack on 7 May 1967 at her home in Zalesie Dolne, a former town, which has been incorporated into the present city of Piaseczno, near Warsaw. She was buried in the Powazki Cemetery on the "Avenue of the Meritorious". She is remembered as the founder of the system of special education in Poland, as well as one of the people who advocated for the name of the field. Her approach of using special education to give to disabled or maladjusted children training to allow them to adapt to society and overcome the limitations of their mental and physical health, was significant. It marked a shift in the evolution of educational thought from treating the disability to recognizing the needs of the person. Jerzy Zawieyski based his novel Droga do domu on the relationship of Grzegorzewska and Czeslaw.

A special education school in the city of Poznan, the Zespol Szkol Specjalnych nr 103 im. Marii Grzegorzewskiej, was named in her honor in 1972. In 1976 the State Institute of Special Education in Warsaw which she had founded was named after her; it is now known as the Maria Grzegorzewska Academy of Special Pedagogy Akademia Pedagogiki Specjalnej im. Marii Grzegorzewskiej. There are two monuments dedicated to her; one near the school in Poznan and another one in Kurzeszyn, near Grzegorzewskas birthplace of Wolucza.

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