Tuesday, December 7, 2010


School. What is it like? That has been a tough one to answer, and probably the reason I haven’t written any blogs about it.  Unless you have experienced teaching in an American ghetto, it will be difficult for you to imagine what it is like day to day. We can look at it from many perspectives, examining it by looking at the students, the teachers, the administration, the facilities, and lastly the educational system at a national level. Each can be scrutinized regarding their attitudes, their behavior, their motivation, their level of performance etc. Of course each of those could be a PhD dissertation. So, instead of trying to tackle the whole thing I’ve decided to write a weekly update, highlighting the good and the bad from each week. In time it should hit on the many variables of teaching in the Bulgarian educational system.

Yesterday was a classic day, with a number of individual events that are quite typical. A year ago, I would have been beyond frustration, shaking my head and wondering how this could be. Yesterday, I just accepted this as the way it is, decided what I had any control over and how I wanted to proceed next!

My first class was my only 6th grade class. It follows a 20 minute break (like a recess for the whole school). The problem with this time slot as well as first period is getting the students to class on time. It is not unusual to start a 40 minute class with about 8 kids. The rest stroll in as they please, often eating whatever it was they purchased at the break. Some are up to 20 minutes late. They might have to ask to enter the class and explain their tardiness, but there are no consequences for being late. They are not expected to make up the time, to complete the work on their own, nothing. In reality there are no consequences for most behavior….only the most extreme. This a fairly large class of 25, but lately less than 18 have peen present. Non-stop talking is an ongoing issue.  Teachers constantly try to talk over their students, yell at them to quiet them, or bang a very large stick on the desk to get their attention. The kids are the quietest when they are writing. I don’t know if it is because this is the one constant in their educational lives or because it requires intense concentration. The first activity I tried failed. With the smaller groups we have been doing an opening exercise, standing in a circle and quickly greeting the person next to us, practicing my name is… what’s your name…..how are you….this is……he/she is…..etc.  With almost everyone present, arriving at different times, I just could not get it to work. Separating those who were pushing, jabbing, teasing etc was a constant. If I got the talking under control it was for less than a minute.Because their English is so poor, only a handful can do this without me modeling every word for them. I gave up.  We moved on with the lesson, and the rest of the class was a bit better if you think calling out, talking, combing hair, doodling, or doing nothing at all are acceptable. We sang some songs about days of the week and months of the year and had a hands on activity (sitting at their desks). when the bell rings, they do not wait to be dismissed. They are up and out!

With an hour and a half break I decided to hustle the 8 minutes to the other building ( our school is housed in two buildings a few blocks away from each other) to observe a 3rd grade class who’s behavior has been worse than usual. LOUD is the first thing that comes to mind followed immediately by PHYSICAL. However, as I was approaching the school 2 ½ hours into the day I saw many of the kids on the street heading home. When I got to school, the teacher explained the kids were supposed to have Art, but the Art teacher had something else to do, so the kids were released for the day. THIS IS NOT UNUSUAL!!! 

OK move on to something else. Petya ( my counterpart) appeared with news that she was just told that she would be on vacation starting tomorrow, until Dec 20. Apparently the central government decided that employees could not carry more than 10 days of vacation, leave, or whatever they call unused paid time into the new year. My thought was did they not see this as a problem sooner?  Because our directors call on Petya to do so much extra work, she has accumulated about 20 extra days over the last few years. If she does not take them now, she looses them. She may loose some of them anyway, as they are expecting her to be back for the last few days before break to write all the monthly reports for the assistant director  that need to be submitted to the central government. Why Petya does all the secreterial work for our little school is a question we keep asking ourselves. The anser seems to be because she knows how to and no one else is paid to do it. 

We talked about my covering classes for her, but decided against it. We are trying to get a major funding proposal finished before Christmas and this will give us time to work on that. Also the assistant director had been assigned to cover for her ( but will be teaching health and safety, not English). Apparently she will be paid extra for these hours. We are both convinced that if I am there, she will find a reason to not be in class, but continue to be paid as if she was. We both suspect the classes will be dismissed early a number of times as well. So, there will be no English for 3rd and 4th grade for the rest of the month. 

As part of the paper trail, Petya had to sign and submit a form to the school secretary. However, the secretary was not at school during the lunch break and Petya had to wait until 1:00 to drop the paper off ( that was all she had to do). Oh, but at 1:00 she has a class.  Too bad for the kids. They get written off, don’t have English and the paper gets delivered on time.

While she was waiting for the secretary to show up I returned to the other building for a class with a few of the teachers who want to learn English. I wasn't seeing anyone. Inquiries led to one not being interested today, one having a name day and going out with friends,one unaccounted for, and the last not in school because he is on vacation using up his extra days! Back to the other school for classes.

When Petya returned (the one secretary is in the other building) we prepped for two back to back classes. Planning, if there is any, usually occurs in the few minutes before class and consist of identifying a topic to be covered. The classes were OK. Nothing extraordinary  either good or bad. Finishing up the day though took a little time as Petya had to enter marks for the months of November and December into the mark books for the three third grades (I don’t know what happened with the fourth grades?)  This took about 10 minutes as we quite randomly gave each child a number (1-6) six being  an excellent. They were not based on anything other than general impressions of their English. There have been no tests, no quizzes, no grades on daily work, and no measurable marks of any kind since September. Sometimes a student would get the same mark for both months sometimes a different mark for the two months. If they were a “good” child they would generally get a higher mark whether their English was good or not. The lowest mark was a 3 even for those who rarely attend and really don’t know anything. The reason being, it really doesn’t matter, because the government has decided that no child in the elementary level shall be retained. In general, marks are not reflective of what a child knows.

So that was my day at school. Unfortunately, after more than a year, none of those events surprised me. Do they bother me? Absolutely. Do I loose sleep over them? No, not anymore. Have I given up? No. Though many of these problems are systemic and I have little or no power to change them, I can still try to raise questions, help an individual teacher change what happens in his/her classroom, and put my energy into making a difference for these kids.They need every ounce of help they can get. The good news... when the classes found out they would not be having English for the rest of the month they were very disappointed. Though I won't be teaching English to the majority of my classes in Dec, my plan is to work with them teaching them 4 square and other outdoor organized games. This will be in Bulgish...a combination of English and Bulgarian. Life goes on!!!!


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