Model Schools: The Stefan Tsanov Professional High School of Agriculture in Knezha
When you hear professional high school, what do you imagine?
Do you imagine education of the future?
And what do you think ninth graders do in an agricultural high school in a small town of only 11,000 people?
Let me tell you – the students are looking for the answer to the big question: if all the fossil fuels on the planet are depleted, and Knezha is the last place left with the resources the world depends on. What will you offer so everyone can have a good quality of life – heating, transportation, food resources, manufacturing, and education?
And they offer real solutions that they find by researching resources and getting information themselves, experimenting, validating hypotheses, creating models and real prototypes – for a solar house in a school, an agricultural map of the region, and a plan for producing bioethanol from corn and biomethane from manure.
In the process, the teachers only give them guidance – let them try, be wrong, and prove why their solutions can or cannot be implemented. They encourage them to present their idea to the local community – farmers, the mayor, and guests. In the process, the students face their fears to get a grade – beyond the one in the notebook and gain more from the experience than just new knowledge in chemistry, biology, or math.
This story is real. This is the journey of a class at the Stefan Tsanov Professional High School of Agriculture in the small Bulgarian town of Knezha. Last year, ninth-graders at the school learned in a different way because their teachers were challenged by their experience in the Model Schools program of the Teach for Bulgaria Foundation.
“The program, unlike any training before, offered us something radically different – it got us into a process of thinking, generating ideas, and perhaps making our own decisions about exactly how to engage students, how to make them feel happy and fulfilled. How to achieve higher results with these students.”, says Snezhana Drashanska, a biology and chemistry teacher at the Professional HighSchool of Agriculture in Knezha.
She is the driving force behind the STEM project that started this story and a member of the school’s leadership team in the Model Schools program.
Model Schools is the only training program in Bulgaria that supports school teams both to improve their management practices and update their teaching methods. The program is two years long and completely free for schools!
A school that realizes its responsibility and seeks change
Stefan Tsanov Professional HighSchool of Agriculture in Knezha is a school that impresses as soon as one steps through its gates. Founded more than 100 years ago, the high school keeps its traditions (the school even has its own museum), but also looks boldly to the future, aiming to provide modern education to its students.
The school’s management and staff are investing heavily in this direction – updating the facilities, and providing modern technologies that are applicable in practice classes so that students can keep up with the development of modern agriculture. The school is also creating a variety of classes to meet the modern needs of the economy in the region and the country. These include classes in systems programming, agro-tourism, plant protection, and agrochemistry, among others. And with its adjoining 833 acres of arable land, on which wheat, barley, maize, and sunflower are sown, and the equipped machine tractor and auto park, students actually apply what they have learned and are already in the field of practice.
The school is proud of achieving an annual enrollment of 100% in its classes, and students travel from all over the region to study in it. Teachers and students participate in numerous projects, exchanges, and innovations and visibly seek opportunities for improvement in every aspect.
But this idyllic picture doesn’t fool the school’s staff into thinking that everything is perfect and there’s nowhere else to grow in their journey. Despite the good facilities in the school, the teachers’ team realizes that they still need to find the right direction to connect, motivate and engage all students. They are looking for a way to address this challenge in joining the Model Schools program of the Teach for Bulgaria Foundation.
“Model Schools” was found by the school principal Svetlana Kalapisheva. She is the initiator of the idea of joining the program. Before submitting the school’s application, she wanted to make sure her team also appreciated the opportunity. So she shared with the other teachers, provoked their curiosity, and they motivated each other to participate even more. As a formal leader, the principal encourages the teachers in the team and encourages their initiative, giving them the necessary drive to work.
A program that gives the tools and helps focus on the big picture
“The responsibilities that I have in school are first and foremost to be a teacher, to do my best to communicate in such a way with my students and colleagues as a leader that we become a machine where all the cogs are moving.”
So began our conversation with teacher Snejana Drashanska over the summer when we first met during the final Model Schools event of the school year. At the time, Snejana’s school was completing its first year in the program and had just finished the inspiring STEM project with ninth grade students.
Snezhana is a warm and smiley person and in just a few minutes you can feel her passion in her work with the students. But she is also something more – a unifying figure who supports other teachers in the high school to also believe more strongly in the change that is possible in their school – at all levels.
“I’ve always been passionate about what I do and love to communicate. But now the program has given me another perspective – how to make communication effective with both students and colleagues, not just communicate.”
Snezhana, together with the school principal Eng. Svetlana Kalapisheva and the young teacher Silvia Naneva are in the leadership team of the school in the program “Model Schools”. Subsequently, two other colleagues, Angel Baciiski (history teacher) and Cvetomir Kilogramski (pedagogical advisor), joined to make a leadership professional learning community in the school. They all care about contributing to the deeper learning of all students and teachers in the team, to pass on what they have learned from the trainings in the program and adapt it for their team, to motivate other colleagues, to support their work with students.
During the first year of training, they go through different training modules that help them distribute their responsibilities in school better, foster collaboration among colleagues and learn more about themselves and the students. An example of the teachers working well together is the STEM project itself, including Tanya Nakova – an agronomy teacher, Petranka Petrovska – a physics and mathematics teacher, Sofia Dimitrova – an IT teacher, and Tsvetelina Litzanova – an entrepreneurship teacher.
“The good thing was that we worked together as a team of teachers who teach different subjects at school and we managed to provoke the students. We took both students and colleagues out of their comfort zone,” says Snezhana.
Their mentor in the program Temenuzhka Hristova, a long-time principal of the school in the village, helped the school team in the adaptation process. She is also an alumna of the first class of the Model Schools program.
“She [Temenuzhka] is someone who has been there for us all the time. We had the opportunity to communicate often to get positive feedback on what we were doing, to be encouraged, to be challenged, to get answers to the questions we asked her,” the high school team tells us, emphasizing that the positive attitude and support they felt from their mentor and everyone else at Model schools gave them more confidence that they were in the right place and on the right path to achieve their goals.
This is also the role of the mentor in the Model Schools program – to support schools with their experience and skills in achieving the goals they have set for themselves. To be with them all the time, not as an inspector, but as a confidant and partner in the journey of change.
The role of the mentor in Model Schools is unique for the teaching profession in Bulgaria. Mentoring support is also the element that the participants of the first three editions of Model Schools rate the highest as an added value to their work.
In Knezha Temenuzhka sees huge potential and energy of the team, opportunities, and willingness of teachers to work for quality change, but very often the efforts could be more cohesive and bold. With her support, the teachers could find the big picture, identify the big goasl, and be bolder and more confident in seeking solutions like the STEM project. As a positive side effect of her work, Temenuzhka also reports that all three schools she supports are finding their way to each other, helping each other and looking for opportunities to learn from each other.
Alongside her participation in the leadership team, Snezhana is also involved in the selected pedagogical course “Integrated Approach in Science Education – STEM in School”, which supports teachers in upgrading their skills in their field and focusing on students as the center of the educational process.
The experience in both courses provoked the creation of a STEM project with the students as a direct application of what was learned:
“The program helped us by telling us what a big question meant, getting us into an experience. We ourselves were part of such questions in the learning process. And we actually got some interesting pointers on how students can work and be much more successful, much more engaged in the process,” says Snezhana.
And then adds:
“It’s worth it because the point of everything we do as teachers is to create desire, to challenge students, to engage them, to make them feel doing, knowing and able.”
The Professional High School of Agriculture in Knezha is one school where the change started long before Model Schools. However, the program is the catalyst that helps the school collective to create its big picture – to work even more purposefully, systematically, and organized with a clear direction and more understanding of the path of change.
When I visited the school with his mentor a few weeks ago, we didn’t just meet some of the teachers who are involved in the program. Almost all of the teachers in the school volunteered to stay after classes and were present in the high school conference room. They spoke passionately about the goals they wanted to set for and with the students. They were looking for commonalities, building on and reflecting on their journey to tie all the processes together and be even more successful in preparing students for the future.
The road ahead for this high school continues in the coming months with more trainings, mentor meetings, and applying everything learned from the program into the classrooms.