A Teach For Bulgaria event brings together representatives of the education, government, and civic society sectors in a conversation about quality education and support for school educators.
“The conversation about education is not just a conversation about how to take care of the children today and how to better their experience in school, even though this is very important. It’s a conversation about the future of our society, what legacy we leave to the next generation, and how we live for decades to come.”With these words, the Executive Director of “Teach For Bulgaria” Trayan Trayanov opened the conference “There are enough teachers. What’s next?” on March 6, 2023
The event was held in a hybrid format with teachers, principals, representatives of the regional education departments, the Ministry of Education and Science, civil society, and trade unions taking part live at Launchee Sofia.
In recent years, the number of teacher candidates has increased significantly, and most subjects no longer suffer from the shortage of teachers that was the norm just three years ago. However, quantity does not equal quality. To be truly effective in school, teachers need solid basic training, quality mentoring, and continuing education. It is also time to consider a more demanding selection for entrance through the school’s front door.
“We need to talk about what should be the school of the 21st century – and it is much more complicated than it was when Petko Slaveykov talked about it,” as Trayan Trayanov said at the opening of the event.
Who are effective teachers?
In Trayanov’s words, an effective teacher helps each of his or her students not only achieve high academic results but also prepare for a fulfilling life and develop their full potential, regardless of their starting point. For him, effective teachers do not lecture from the safety of the blackboard while children simply take notes but create the conditions for students to explore, experiment, and create. They don’t just work with the most motivated students—the ones whose families pay the most attention to them—but rather work to engage every child in pursuing and achieving high goals.
“Effective teachers do not wait for the Ministry of Education or the Regional Departments of Education to solve a problem. They generate solutions on the spot with the assistance of their colleagues and then share everything they have found so that it can quickly spread throughout the system,” Trayanov said.
How do we find them?
“To have a conversation about what the skills of the Bulgarian teacher are, we must first obtain a clear picture of what we would like the student to have become after graduating from secondary education. Then we would be able to conduct an accurate search for the people possessing the qualities to guide them.”said Mikhail Nenov, principal of the Aleksandar Georgiev – Kojakafaliyata Primary School in Burgas, the first municipal school established in Bulgaria in the 21st century.
When he started building his team, Nenov believed that the school should create “children who will be fit for the future, not struggling to catch up with it”. Moreover, his prospective colleagues also had to “respond to the overall paradigm shift of education”—the move from a hierarchical to a network model of learning, from authority to plurality, from subordination and obedience to freedom, partnership, initiative, and entrepreneurship, from qualification to competence, from knowledge to skill”.
“These people were dreamers like me, they were ready to change their place of residence, to throw themselves into an adventure that has no history and tradition, but must be written by us, together,” said Mikhail Nenov.
Regarding the teachers who joined his team, he explains that they already had experience with teaching in a novel manner and relating what they share to life. Most of them were people who initially chose a different career path and then switched to being educators.
“To assemble an effective team, the first thing we need to do is define the school’s goals,” says Emilia Manolova, the principal of Sofia’s 97 Miladinovi Brothers Secondary School.
Important in the selection is also compliance with the values that all team members must adhere to. At 97 SU, they support young teachers at the starting stage in several ways. Each newly recruited teacher is given a character sheet highlighting his or her strengths and given opportunities to improve his or her professional competencies. Newly recruited teachers also have fewer hours to reduce workload and allow time for further development and learning. Teachers also have a professional mentor in the school with whom they develop a work plan for the academic year. At the end of it, the young teacher’s performance is evaluated.
How to prepare teachers?
Pedagogy is now the second most desirable field of study in Bulgarian universities. But are universities ready to meet the needs of the growing number of future teachers?
“There is also more interest from universities to train teachers,” stated Associate Professor Sylvia Tsvetanska from the Faculty of Education of Sofia University during the event.
She explained that universities traditionally focus on the methodological preparation of future teachers, but they are expanding to include a new set of skills—emotional intelligence, soft, and organisational skills.
“It is key that universities nourish teachers’ academic and contemporary way of thinking, refine their skills, stray from providing them with pre-prepared plans for what to do in class, and help them become flexible and develop their style and make decisions to meet students’ needs. They need to generate critical thinking and a proactive attitude towards establishing the role of the teacher as a transformer,”said Assoc Prof Tsvetanska.
She believes that teachers need to prepare themselves for the “mission of change” and that universities need to help them believe in and empower themselves to lead the change.
What kind of students do we want to see graduate from the education system—this is a question we have to answer when defining useful continuing education programs for teachers, says Ivelina Pashova, Head of School Team Training at Teach For Bulgaria. We need to make sure that “all teachers experience and build up the knowledge, skills, and competencies that we want them to pass on to children,” she adds.
“Our increasingly complex world has long required that we all be able to work with others to generate solutions to very perplexing problems. This is happening in schools, too. Teachers in schools must be able to work with each other, define their challenges, generate alternatives, and know how to measure the degree of impact their work has had on students,” said Ivelina Pashova.
From the experience of “Model Schools,” a two-year leadership and professional development program for educational teams, teachers need tools to foster collaboration in schools. They also need to be provided with a list of practices and tools that are proven to have an impact on students.
How are teachers supported?
At the end of 2021, the World Bank published a comprehensive analysis of the introduction of novice teachers into their profession and recommended that Bulgaria establish a quality mentoring programme. The experts’ conclusion at the time was that mentoring remained inscribed in normative documents but was not sufficiently implemented in practice. Meanwhile, less than 10% of new teachers continued practising their profession beyond their third year in school. Possible reasons for leaving include a lack of effective mentoring.
In theory, mentoring is covered in the regulations and within two months of a new teacher being appointed, they should already have a mentor. Its implementation in practice, however, is another matter.
“In most cases, it is assumed that the mentor should explain to the novice teacher how to fill in the electronic diary, clarify some organisational things—what is where, if he needs to fill in a declaration, who to turn to, etc.,” Sonya Damyanova, senior expert in Bulgarian language and literature at the Vratsa RDE, said during the conference.
She explained that mentoring in the sense of support cannot be provided in many of the smaller schools because there is often only one teacher in a subject and they are busy with many other tasks. In these cases, the role of experts from the regional departments who support novice teachers is important.
According to Sonia Damyanova, the new teachers need to continue the scientific and methodological training they have received at university. However, emotional and “human” support is also essential.
“The inability to cope emotionally with the challenges at school is the reason behind a significant portion of the cases, in which young teachers give up on being educators,” shares Damyanova.
“I was about to give up several times, mostly because of the lack of motivation, because I was going alone, because of the discouraged people in the system, because of the low expectations of the students, because of resignation and powerlessness,” said Silvia Itova, a teacher of Informatics and Information Technology and deputy director of Geo Milev Primary School in Plovdiv.
What keeps her going are the students and the sense of moving forward because they are the future generations of Bulgaria. In her early years, Sylvia felt unsure in the classroom and not sure she could contribute to students’ experience. Even the small achievements of the youngsters were important to her then, as well as the support from her more experienced colleagues in Teach For Bulgaria’s “New Way of Teaching” programme.
“There is a huge deficit of support in the system. Those teachers who feel supported and cared for usually give this back to the students,” Nelly Koleva, head of the international consortium of the NEST project and part of the Teach For Bulgaria team, commented during the event.
The foundation, the Ministry of Education and Science, and the Education Trade Union of the LC “Podkrepa” have been working together on the project Nest together for two years now. In the framework of the project, experts from half of the regional departments of education are being trained through an innovative support programme for beginning teachers.
“I firmly believe that RDE experts are an extremely valuable and neglected resource in the system. They are people who, with their knowledge of the local context and the trust they command, can contribute to positive change in schools,” Nelly Koleva said.
“New teachers need to see colleagues with experience in teaching, to see different teaching styles so that they can adapt different methods, to see how different tools can be implemented in one lesson,” shared Nelly Georgieva, Senior Expert in Informatics and IT, RDE Sofia-city, and NEST participant. According to her, mentors need different tools and strategies that they can easily implement in their work with new teachers, as well as meetings to share case studies and solutions with fellow mentors. “I hope that the newly recruited teachers will be less burdened with administrative work,” added Nely Georgieva.