Thousands of Slovak users have shared posts that gave the impression that Education Minister Branislav Gröhling did not know how to write the word “herb” in Slovak correctly. However, the photos shared were taken out of context; in reality, Gröhling made a spelling error on purpose as part of a game with school children, so that the third-graders of the Piešt’any primary school could correct him. This was confirmed to AFP by both the school’s principal, the photographer who took the images and Gröhling himself.
A Facebook page called Trúba N e published an image on January 27, 2022, composed of two photos and the caption in Slovak, “What a MYNYSTER”, a twist on the word Minister. The photos show Education Minister Branislav Gröhling writing the word “bilyna” instead of the correct spelling for the word herb — “bylina”– on a school blackboard.
The Slovak description of the post reads, “Lord God save our children from such education experts TEACHERS MUST BE ASHAMED OF HIM TOO”. At the time of writing, the post had been shared by more than 1300 users.
Gröhling previously founded a chain of hairdressing salons, which he later sold. In 2020, after his appointment as education minister, he faced accusations of plagiarism – according to Denník N’s findings, he copied parts of his master’s thesis without correctly citing his sources. Gröhling himself denied any wrongdoing.
The comments under the post from January 2022 prove that many social network users believed that the politician of the ruling SaS party does not know his chosen words.
The photos have also been shared in many other places on Facebook, such as here and here.
In reality, however, these photographs have been taken out of context. Minister Gröhling was visiting a school in Piešt’any, where he made the above-mentioned “error” on purpose. The school’s headmistress confirmed to AFP that it was part of a lesson, which the pupils enjoyed taking part in. The same was confirmed by the communications officer of the Piešt’any municipal authority, who told AFP that the minister had written the misspelled word deliberately as part of a learning exercise.
The origin and context of the photographs
AFP’s fact-checking team in Slovakia traced the origin of the photographs to the Piešt’any Municipality’s (MúP) website. According to a report published on the MúP website, Minister Gröhling visited the Primary School on Mojmírova Street in Piešt’any on Friday January 21, 2022. According to the report, he was also supposed to participate in a Slovak language lesson in a 3rd grade class. A full photo gallery of the event was published by local authorities on 26 January. The photo gallery also includes the photos that were later taken out of context and shared on social media.
We asked the school’s principal, Jana Chlepková, whether Gröhling really made such a mistake when writing on the blackboard and in what context the event took place. She told AFP on Friday 28 January that the minister was just having fun and trying to liven up the situation: “How foolish! The minister was joking with the pupils and checking their knowledge by spelling the chosen word wrongly. I am sorry that this particular photograph has given rise to and given an excuse for spreading negative attitudes towards him. All the Year 3 pupils who were in the class with him, with their critical thinking, understood that it was a joke and enjoyed it.”
With the same question, we also contacted Martin Ričány, Communication, External Relations and Promotion Officer of the Piešt’any Municipal Office, whose name is also listed on the website under the event report. Ričány confirmed to AFP on 28 January that he was the author of both the text and the photographs. He said: “The Minister of Education Branislav Gröhling wrote this misspelled word deliberately and intentionally. He then asked the pupils if it was correct and selected one pupil from the class who came to correct it. By doing this, he deliberately wanted to reduce tension in the classroom and create a friendly atmosphere, which he accomplished.”
Gröhling also responded to the rumor on his Facebook page and explained the event from his perspective: “I have this habit. When I come to see the first graders who are just going over their chosen words, I try to play a little game with them as a joke. For example, I tell them that ‘fish’ is spelled with a ‘y’. I write it on the board as ‘fysh’. And then the children always shout together, ‘Nooooo!’ They grab their heads, laugh, and we have a lot of fun with it.”
He described the situation behind the viral photos: “At Mojmírova Primary School in Piešt’any we were solving a crossword puzzle with the children. At the end, I spelled the word bylina as ‘bilyna’ and pretended that it was supposed to be like that. Again came the children’s eager cries of ‘noooooo’ and corrections. In the end, the children were delighted at how clever they were.”
The Minister’s visit to the school, as well as the whole crossword event, was captured by Gabriela Kiššová, one of the teachers at Mojmírova Primary School, who has her own YouTube channel where she posts recordings of various school events and educational videos for her pupils. On 26 January, she published the video “Minister Gröhling at Mojmirova Piešt’any Primary School”.
Starting at 1:26, the video shows the lesson with third-graders during which they and the minister solved a crossword puzzle. One of the pupils also described how the minister engaged with the lesson: “He helped us to work out the last line in the puzzle and he wrote bylina, but he put a soft i after the b and a hard y after the l. So it was completely the other way around.”
“And do you think that he didn’t know?” the author of the video asks the student. “I think he was just teasing us and just wanted to make fun,” the pupil replies.