Friday, September 11, 2009

The Little I Know

The kids arrive at school on Sept. 15, and I truly feel unprepared. The Peace Corps teachers have had seminars

and workshops on how to write lesson plans, teach multi-level classes, and have been alerted of the discipline problems we might run into. We’ve had special language lessons to learn “the language” of teaching. We’ve observed and taught in Bulgarian classrooms, but nothing the training staff offers can really prepare us for our first year as teachers of English in a foreign country.

I’m one of the lucky ones who have actually taught for many years and have some experience to draw on. I’m also Team teaching which is not true of all the PC volunteers. I am working with the youngest English learners, 2nd through 4th grade (at least to begin the year), close in age to those I have taught before. There is a higher level of excitement for learning at the earlier ages, making it easier to engage them and more forgiving of what you do not know.

All of the Peace Corps teachers are in very unique situations. Mine is that I am working in the 2nd largest segregated community in the country, a very densely populated area with 60,000 minorities (primarily Roma Gypsies) living within its boundaries. It is obvious living conditions for most families are very difficult. The school is one of five or six right within this neighborhood (called a Mahala). The classes are large running between 25 and 30 and the resources meager. The building is equivalent to many other Bulgarian schools, not always the case for minority segregated schools. Though I observed great effort by four industrious women to clean the school paint would give it a completely different look and lift the spirit of all within.

With the start of school only days away, I know very little about what I will be doing…other than teaching English. Class lists are still fluctuating and will continue to do so until the end of the month. A schedule has yet to be announced and that too is fluid for several weeks. My counterpart who is an English teacher was told on her first day back that she would also be covering for an ill first grade teacher for an undetermined amount of time. The Bulgarian schools do not have a substitute system. If a teacher is sick, either another teacher covers for them or the children do not have class. Petya (my counterpart and team teacher) and I are very unsure what the changes in her schedule mean for us.

The Educational system in Bulgaria is very centralized. There is a lot of reporting up and paperwork that is redundant (they are not alone with this one). It seems everything needs to be approved by the central government including the daily schedules of all teachers in Bulgaria.

Teachers reported to school on the first of September and have 10 days to prepare for the year. There is a lot of time put into the yearly plan of lessons which is one of the documents sent up through the chain of command for approval. The plan is a listing of the lessons in the textbooks for each subject, divided by the number of days for teaching with some days built in for review. The plans for the most part remain the same from year to year but are refreshed with the current year’s dates for teaching each lesson. There are a few computer savvy teachers who bare most of this work and one desktop printer for producing them.

Because regular attendance is an issue for this community of families, each of the teachers does a home visit to see the children, encourage them to come and remind the families of how important it is to go to school daily. This is not an easy task as there are many 8 story “bloc” apartments without working elevators. Finding the families may require knocking on neighbors doors, talking to grandparents, aunts cousins etc. Many of the teachers already know their students as teachers in my school are promoted with their class each year. Having one teacher for the first four years of school can be a double edged sword. The pros and cons of this theory would be an interesting discussion, but will wait.

Time is also spent preparing the room. It is important that it look “beautiful”. The teachers have limited resources with which to work. They do not each receive a supply of tape, scissors, crayons, markers, rolls or stacks of colored paper, with which to accomplish this task. A few of these things might be available from the art teacher. The teachers start with the few educational posters that every class has, usually a map of Bulgaria, the alphabet and number chart. Beyond that, they find simple creative ways to add some color and interest. The halls have some permanent displays of children’s art and the art teacher puts effort into making the entryway of each corridor inviting. What is quite different from American classrooms is the lack of teaching materials. Beyond textbooks, there are no shelves of books, games and teaching resources for every skill to be developed throughout the year. There are no cupboards of paint, paper, craft supplies, and seasonal holiday decorations.

There are no charts depicting how many teeth have been lost, when each child’s birthday falls during the year, who is the star of the week or who are the helpers of the week. Teachers of America, look around as you start your school year, an

d be thankful for all you have. You are rich in ways you cannot even imagine.

These lack of resources seem to be part of “the Bulgarian Way”. There always seems to be a shortage whether it is in human or material resources. Bulgarians’ lives encompass a “make do” attitude with little expectation that things can or will change. Teachers are poorly paid even by Bulgarian standards. They are expected to work 21-24 hours a week in the classroom in what would generally be considered difficult conditions. There are accountability issues (not just for learning) that influences many practices

such as grading. They do not have a space they can call their own in school with the possible exception of a drawer in the teacher’s room. Prep, grading etc is done at home. Most schools run on double sessions so even a classroom is shared. Some of the classrooms in my school are half the standard size (probably some kind of storage space originally), with one high window. Desks and chairs fill 85% of that space. I can’t imagine the noise, and how difficu

lt it must be for both first graders and their teacher!

So as school is about to begin, there is still so much I do not understand about how a typical day unfolds. I’ve asked questions and gotten answers, but somehow it is all still so murky. I’m trying desperately to remain patient with my uncharted course, prepared to chart it myself if necessary. I’m anxious to meet the children, many of whom only speak their native Romi language leaving us with smiles and gestures as the base of our relationship. I’ve been told they are free spirits and love lif

e. What a great place to begin.


1 comment:

Andy said...

Lynn, I can sense some exasperation - reminds me of the famous McEnroe quote: "You can't be serious!" It sounds like you face plenty of bureaucracy yet have few resources.

Hope things are beginning to settle in at school.

All the best,