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Reluctant Reformers

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by Anush Babajanyan 6 November 2009 YEREVAN | Maritsa Abajyan was supposed to receive a set of colorful children’s furniture this year for her second-grade classroom – just one of the results of education reforms designed to create a more playful, interactive environment for the country’s youngest pupils. Instead, she was given just a few pieces and decided to give them away to a colleague, leaving her charges to study at the same old-fashioned, gray tables placed in traditional rows.

Yet the setting seems appropriate, given Abajyan’s own difficulties in embracing the new system. “I find the former strictness of classes correct,” the 41-year-old says, dismissing the notion of more creative, alternative activities. “The child should be strictly within the borders of the lesson. If you don’t work that way, the child doesn’t work.”

A student studies a textbook on the history of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

By now, Abajyan’s students should be receiving a different type of education, and she should be a different type of teacher. But three years into the changes brought about by Armenia’s shift to a 12-year education system, more in line with European standards, many teachers like Abajyan remain entrenched in the old ways. If previously the problem was a lack of trained teachers, now the issue is that some of the trained teachers have not bought into the system they were taught to implement.


Some say the new system’s requirement that a teacher adopt an individual approach to students can be unrealistic. “In the case of 12 students, which is how many students I have, you can do it,” Abajyan says. “Everyone speaks in class every day. But in the first grades we have 33 students [per class]. And with 33 students it is impossible to hold their hands and take them through the class.”

Abajyan is also not a big fan of the decision to make Wednesday a designated relaxation day for 5-year-old first-graders, feeling that the break stunts their development as students. “Honestly, I don’t honor that day, on my own initiative,” she admits. “I study mathematics with them on those days. I think that’s the right thing to do, and we’ve completed the curriculum just in time.”

Abajyan attributes the achievements of the 12-year system in Europe to cultural differences. “There’s a big difference between our children,” Abajyan says. “Their children are more liberal, more independent.”

Jemma Karapetyan, a teacher at another Yerevan elementary school, is 10 years older than Abajyan but appreciates some of the reasoning behind the reforms.

“I consider the group discussion method a good one,” said Karapetyan, a veteran mathematics teacher. “But because of my age, I can’t bear noise. Young and enthusiastic teachers can make this system work well.” She also worries that the changes, in which 5-year-olds go to school instead of kindergarten, have placed a greater burden on the younger ones.

“We have to make the classes easier so that they can grasp them,” Karapetyan says.

The Education Ministry says it will not negotiate with reluctant teachers.

“Starting in March we will implement teacher certification,” says Narine Hovhannisyan, the head of the ministry’s department of general education. “I think these issues will be solved through the certification process. Teachers who don’t measure up will [have to] leave schools.”

Hovhannisyan adds that school headmasters are responsible for the implementation of the new teaching methods. “The principals should want their teachers to have good qualities. It is also an issue of the school’s reputation.”

Bella Suqiasyan, the principal of a Yerevan high school, approves of the new methods but says that teachers in her school have not fully adjusted.

Story and photos by Anush Babajanyan, a freelance journalist and photographer in Gyumri and editor of TOL's Patchwork blog.

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