An appeal to idealism lures young people into an aging and unsung profession.by Boryana Dzhambazova 23 November 2011
SOFIA | On a chilly November morning in the Bulgarian capital, a classroom of sixth-graders buzzes with activity. Students cheerfully greet the news that there will be a grammar quiz. So cheerfully, in fact, that teacher Milena Dimitrova has to calm them down so they can focus on the assignment.
Desks and chairs are arranged into tight groups as the class is quickly divided into three teams whose task is to spot different types of sentences in a text. The stakes are high: members of the winning team will get bonus points in their academic records. Dimitrova slowly circulates among the teams, encouraging their work.
She has dreamed about this moment for a long time, saying, “I’ve wanted to work with children since forever.”
The 27-year-old's voice was still full of anxiety when she recalled her first day in charge of a class. It was 15 September, the start of the school year, and she was as nervous as a first-grader. “I barely slept the night before,” she admitted.
Dimitrova is one of the first batch of 22 teachers who have made their debut in schools after an intensive training by Teach for Bulgaria. The initiative, funded by the U.S. government-backed American Foundation for Bulgaria, aims to find skilled and talented young people to bring new ideas and energy into the classroom. It also aims to help stop the profession’s slow demise, as the average age for teachers in Bulgaria continues to creep upward.
‘GRADUATES WHO WANT TO DO SOMETHING’
The project uses the know-how of the international Teach For All network, whose primary goal is to provide better education in troubled schools around the world, primarily those in poor communities where student performance is low and needs are high.
“We want to find the most gifted and motivated teachers. Often these are young people,” said Evgenia Peeva, director of the Teach for Bulgaria program.
“Teach for Bulgaria seems a wonderful way to address educational inadequacies in a unique way – by engaging Bulgaria’s best, brightest university graduates who want to do something to make a difference,” said Sarah Perrine, a program director at the American Foundation for Bulgaria.
Twenty two of 375 candidates were chosen to work in schools over the next two years. The selection process begins with an online application and a phone interview. Those who make it past those steps undergo a six-hour assessment during which candidates give a short lesson, solve problems, work in teams, and meet with the selection committee.
“We don’t want people who are just looking for a job. We want people who are determined to teach in troubled schools and regions so the students there can get an education that’s as good as their peers in good schools,” said Petya Veleva, a marketing and communications associate at Teach for Bulgaria.
The bear cubs, as the organization’s staff affectionately nicknamed the trainees, started their preparation in May. After months of training sessions, workshops, and meetings and thousands of reading and writing assignments, the teachers finally got a taste of real-life classroom work during a month of summer school.
But now the training is over, and the cubs are on their own, facing the everyday challenges and demands of the job.
The teachers are expected to use innovative methods and to show pupils that learning can be fun. For Dimitrova it has turned out to be a greater challenge than she expected.
“At first it was hard for children to get used to the new methods of teaching and evaluation,” she said. “But once they got over their frustration, they were highly motivated to study hard and meet their goals.”
Dimitrova made a break from the traditional one-way teaching that still predominates in Bulgarian classrooms. Discussions, games, quizzes, and after-school help are the norm for her students. Using a system developed by Teach for Bulgaria, she also instituted a system to reward good study habits and good behavior, awarding points to students who arrive on time, listen to one another, participate in discussions, and follow class rules she and the kids agreed on together.
For trainee Georgi Dyankov, innovation meant walking on nails. During summer school Dyankov demonstrated a law of physics by showing his students that one could easily walk barefoot on nails as long as they’re evenly driven into a board. Ivelina Pashova and Teodora Zareva, who taught entrepreneurship, inspired their students to hold a sale of handmade souvenirs.
RESUSCITATING A PROFESSION
As in many post-communist countries, the educational system has gradually deteriorated in Bulgaria since 1989. Turbulent politics and the economic downturn have left many schools without basic maintenance and supplies. At the same time, teachers have gone from being pillars of society under communism to low-paid workers.
The average teacher’s monthly salary in Bulgaria is around 355 euros ($480), according to the Bulgarian Teachers Union, and those at entry level make as little as 225 euros. Their counterparts in other Central and Eastern European EU member states get 400 to 800 euros per month.
Put off by the bad conditions, the low pay, and low regard for the profession, few young Bulgarians are lining up to become teachers.
Before joining Teach for Bulgaria, Dimitrova spent seven years in the military. “I wanted to teach very much. But all the schools that I applied for required previous experience,” she said. “Plus, everyone knows that you can barely survive on a teacher’s salary.”
But the subpar working conditions and pay aren’t the issues that worry educators and experts the most. Only 3 percent of Bulgarian teachers are under 35 years old, according to Yanka Takeva, the head of the teachers union. Some 6,000 teachers – about 7 percent of the current corps – are due to retire in the next 10 years, making the need for new recruits dire. Takeva said legislators need to change laws that make it difficult for people without experience to enter the profession.
INTO THE FUTURE
Boyan Zahariev, a program director at the Open Society Institute in Sofia, welcomes Teach for Bulgaria but says it can make a real impact only if it expands to towns and villages. Most of its teachers are in troubled schools in Sofia.
“Twenty-two or even 100 teachers can’t make a big difference, as this is an insignificant number. However, the program could become an important platform to promote training and could encourage more young people to become teachers,” he said.
In other countries that have the program, up to 15 percent of those trained continue to teach beyond the two-year commitment, while 50 to 60 percent remain in the education profession doing other jobs. At 22 trainees per year, Teach for Bulgaria would take a long time to repopulate Bulgaria’s classrooms, but the program officials expect to double the number of applicants they accept next year.
Other observers, including Takeva and Perrine, expect the initiative to draw more young people into teaching.
“Teach for Bulgaria raises the profile of teaching and reminds people that it’s a challenging, important profession and requires very high-caliber people,” Perrine noted.
Back in Milena Dimitrova’s classroom, the quiz is over and another group of students comes in. Some pupils eagerly go to a wall festooned with colorful stickers, tables, and charts that record their progress. Whether their new teacher has made a difference in their studying habits, the tracker will tell at the end of the school year.