The Actors of Dermantsi

Daniel Simeonov, the English teacher for whom unequal access to high-quality education is much more than statistics

After a few years of working in the corporate sector Daniel Simeonov became a teacher with a clear vision of what education should be – modern, adequate, positive, effective, and inclusive for every student in the classroom.

A few years ago when Daniel Simeonov, with a bachelor’s degree in Film Production, decided to move to Aglen – a village in Lovech region – he realized what the numbers in the studies of access to education which rank Bulgaria nearly last in Europe and worldwide mean in practice. 40% functional illiteracy among 15-year-old students translates as the wasted potential of thousands of young people who cannot understand what they read. High dropout rates lead to a serious economic inequality in the country. The huge inequality in the access to education deprives students coming from families with low socioeconomic status of their chance to be successful.

“I had been thinking of becoming a teacher before I moved to Aglen, but when I came here I decided that I had the time and I felt the need to take action,” Daniel shares. In 2016 Daniel applied to become a participant in Teach For Bulgaria’s program and started teaching English at Primary School “Neofit Rilski” in the village of Dermantsi. Today he is certain that his place is at school and that he is going to devote many years to teaching because “children take a lot, but they also give a lot.”

After a few years of working in the corporate sector Daniel became a teacher with a clear vision of what education should be – modern, adequate, positive, effective, and inclusive for every student in the classroom.

Library, Theater, and Guided Tours

Even during his first year as a teacher Daniel found multiple ways to work towards his vision. He focused on extracurricular activities and on providing more learning opportunities to his students. His first project at the primary school in Dermantsi was the renovation of the recently remodeled school library. Daniel organized the books thematically and fundraised for the library. He also set up a learning nook equipped with computers and Internet access which turned into a real information center.

Daniel also led the theatre club at the school. At the end of the school year the young actors performed an entertaining and innovative version of Romeo and Juliet entitled Ivancho and Mariyka. Daniel believes that theatre helps students develop their emotional intelligence. “Stage work, table-reads, role plays, and all discussions along the process help students get to know themselves and their emotions,” the teacher explains. He adds that he sees the biggest progress in terms of skills and mindsets in the young actors who know what the big goal is and are motivated to accomplish it – a process which is sometimes challenging to replicate in the classroom. As Daniel says, “grades are not the same as the applause and energy you get from the audience.”

Meanwhile, Daniel’s fifth-grade students dedicated their work during the 2016/2017 school year to the organization of a Dermantsi guided tour in English. The students planned to take international English speaking guests on a guided tour around Dermantsti during their summer break. The idea came up during a conversation between Daniel and his students about presenting their home village. The children got even more excited to share stories about the sights in Dermantsi when they were visited by guests from the international network Teach for All – part of which is Teach For Bulgaria.

Daniel raised his eighth-graders’ motivation to learn English by giving them the responsibility to teach fourth-graders. After that experience he had them reflect on the extent to which they could apply their knowledge of English while teaching.

The students in Dermantsi are not going to have a boring summer vacation. Primary School “Neofit Rilski” and a few other schools in the region are organizing a summer school for children who need to improve their reading, writing, and mathematical skills. Daniel is going to take part in the European Cinema Education for Youth project – CinEd – in collaboration with the French Institute in Bulgaria. The project involves European film viewings followed by discussions about the meaning, messaging, and nonverbal communication that the students have observed and discovered. “This develops students’ functional literacy because they analyze and extract meaning,” Daniel explains.

Breaking the Vicious Cycle

The biggest challenges that Daniel faces in his job as a teacher are mindset-related; developing children’s growth mindset, teaching them how to learn independently, getting them to believe that they can be successful, that the sky’s the limit, and that they can go as far as their heart desires can be challenging. “They sometimes believe that the world ends at the village limit sign,” Daniel says and admits that this “infuriates” him. According to Daniel, the mindset problem should be openly talked about and even though it is not purely a responsibility of the school system, schools cannot abdicate. “Whether children come to class regularly depends mainly on the motivation and expectations of their teachers – expectations both for the students and for themselves,” Daniel believes.

Another crucial aspect when changing mindsets is working with parents who, according to Daniel, are the most influential role models for their children and if they have low expectations, this is passed on to the students. “There is a need for national policies about engaging parents in order to break the vicious cycle of poverty which traps children,” Daniel states.

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