Ralitsa Mateeva, a Teach For Bulgaria teacher in Bulgarian in the village of Tarnava, speaks about the profession-related responsibilities which go far beyond the classroom

The teams are at the starting line, the jury — at their places, the competition instructions are now being given. For the fifth-graders from the villages of Byala Slatina, Galiche, Harlets and Tarnava the schoolyear end is not simply about receiving back their mark books. Its highlight is a special event — a “Language Culture Competition” the purpose of which is to assess the students’ skills in Bulgarian language as well as their teamwork skills. Its aim is not simply to crown the winner, but rather to motivate the children, help them believe in themselves and give them the opportunity to share the results of the year-long work with many people. The organizer of the competition is Ralitsa Mateeva, a first-year Teach for Bulgaria’ Program teacher, who teaches Bulgarian language and literature in the “Hristo Botev” School in the village of Tarnava in the Vratsa Region. Two years ago she was inspired by another teacher working for the Program and involved colleagues and principals, including ones from neighbouring villages, as well as the community in the organization process. The jury for instance had the Mayor of Tarnava, Mrs. Gabriela Ralovska, as a member as well as the Regional Education Management Expert for Vratsa, Sonya Damyanova, the principals of the schools in Tarnava — Irena Yakimova and Galiche — Veneta Pacheva, and the secretary of the community center in Tarnava — Tatyana Marinovska. There are a number of benefits to this community inclusion — benefits for the teachers who feel the support of the larger community, for the students who step beyond the borders of the classroom, and for the whole school which attracts supporters for the cause of quality education.

The students go through a year-long preparation for the competition, while the students from the higher grades have taken on the very responsible role of making sure the criteria are observed during the competition. There are four rounds to the competition which include definite/indefinite articles tasks, spelling, parts of speech and parts of the sentence. It is carefully monitored whether the students work together, whether they show respect and listen to one another and whether everyone participates in the tasks completion. At the end, everyone receives a prize because as Ralitsa says “the aim is not to assess the knowledge of the students, but for all of us to leave the competition with a sense of satisfaction.’’

Teacher outside the classroom too
Ralitsa Mateeva

For Ralitsa Mateeva the profession of the teacher is more than simply teaching a certain subject in class. She has a degree in Bulgarian Language and History from the University of Rousse, followed by a master’s degree in the University of Veliko Tarnovo. She realized she felt well in the classroom during her university practice and started seeking opportunities for career development in teaching. While she was a substitute teacher in a village in the Rousse Region, she faced the ugly reality, which showed her that being a teacher does not end with the last school bell for the day.

“There was a fifth-grader in the school with the face of a child and the hands of an adult as he used to cut trees in order to earn money’’, Ralitsa remembers. She met poor children in the school, some with underdeveloped communication skills, having found themselves in hard family situations, including domestic violence. She also saw institutions turning a blind eye. And she realized that inaction could sometimes cost the life of a child.

“If a child doesn’t come to school because he or she has worked for two leva per day to help his or her family, what am I supposed to tell him or her, should I scold him or her?”, Ralitsa asks rhetorically. And this question reveals the gravest gap in the Bulgarian community — the inequality among children with all the consequences for their education, health and future perspectives. It is then that Ralitsa realized that being a teacher does not simply mean planning your lesson, but also spending quality time with the children. Thinking about the environment they live in and whether they have shoes and clothes to come to school with. After the experience she gained as a substitute teacher, Ralitsa decided to apply for the Teach for Bulgaria’ Program, which she saw as an opportunity to find support for her work, acquire good practices and actively develop her skills. She relocated from Rousse to the Vratsa Region and starting next year, besides the village of Tarnava, she will also be teaching in the school in Galiche.

What students need

Ralitsa was got a warm welcome in Tarnava by the principal and her colleagues. In her interaction with students she raises their awareness of the opportunities they have, motivates and encourages them to think about which school they would like to continue studying at after the seventh grade, which subjects they will need to take exams in on the way to the desired profession makes them pay attention to their Bulgarian language and math exams on which their admission to high school would depend. At the beginning, children found it difficult to even concentrate in class, but Ralitsa was patient to try out various techniques – delegated responsibilities, set teamwork tasks, reacted with a smile and jokes, because “students are like a radar — they quickly detect your emotions’’. She has noticed that after one year spent with her, her students have developed a more positive attitude to change and have become more organised and more responsible in the learning process.

“Trying to shout louder than them does not work”, the teacher has now realised and knows that the solution is to relax, make sure students are not overloaded with tasks and have the time to experience the class activities at their pace. Ralitsa is also trying to analyze for herself when it is she is satisfied with a lesson and what she had done differently in it.

“Students need a clear sense of purpose and achievement — what they do should give a visible result for their life outside the classroom, rather than a simple mark’’, Ralitsa explains. And goes on to give an example — when she teaches the definite/indefinite articles rules, she first asks the students to think about why it would be important for them to know the rule, and lets them independently reach the conclusion that they will need it in real-life situations.

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