Mihail Nenov: After We Go Back to In-Person Teaching Principals Should Invest in the Development of Teachers’ Digital Skills

Михаил Ненов ОУ „Александър Георгиев-Коджакафалията“
Mihail Nenov, principal of Primary School “Aleksandar Georgiev-Kodzhakafaliyata”

Mihail Nenov is the principal of Primary School “Aleksandar Georgiev-Kodzhakafaliyata” in Burgas. The school is quite new – the first and so far only newly-opened municipal school in Bulgaria in the past several decades or so. For its remarkably short history, the school has already established itself as an educational benchmark synonymous with innovative education. Before he became a school principal, Mr. Nenov was a Bulgarian language and literature teacher, a part-time lecturer at Sofia University, author, and consultant. He sees himself as a digital nomad and serious educator, dedicated to improving the world we live in with the power of knowledge.

Primary School “Aleksandar Georgiev-Kodzhakafaliyata” has been Teach For Bulgaria’s partner since the beginning of the 2020/2021 school year. It joined not just one but both of our main programs – “Model Schools” and “A New Way to Teaching”. We decided to ask Mr. Nenov to participate in the first interview with a principal for 2021 because of his strong innovative spirit and endless enthusiasm for education – we are all going to need both this year.

You are the principal of one the first schools in our new program “Model Schools”, but you are also one of our first partners in the region of Burgas in our other program “A New Way to Teaching”. What are the most valuable aspects of both of these programs to you and your team?

The most valuable aspect of both programs is your team. I have been quite familiar with Teach For Bulgaria’s work since 2013 when I was still a full-time Bulgarian language and literature teacher and had the opportunity to open my classroom for observations by the new teachers in your previous cohorts. I remember I was quite impressed by their motivation and eagerness to master the intricacies of the teaching profession. When I had to recruit my own team for this school, I realized that some of the most successful teachers I hired were career changers – they had already built successful careers in a completely different field before they decided to teach. These people have a different type of motivation – they have made the conscious decision to share their experience and shape the minds of the future of our nation only after experiencing professional success in a different field. The team of Primary School “Aleksandar Georgiev-Kodzhakafaliyata” resembles Teach For Bulgaria’s team quite a lot in this respect. This is why I think that our partnership is successful.

If you had to describe your school in three words, what would they be?

Primary School “Aleksandar Georgiev-Kodzhakafaliyata”

Primary School “Aleksandar Georgiev-Kodzhakafaliyata” is still in its early stages. This year, for example, our oldest students are going to finish 7th grade and move on to high school. This will mark the completion of the long process of gradual development of our methodology and vision. From then on, we’ll analyze and refine. We’ll be able to talk about the “image” of our school in three years when the first students who started first grade at our school back in 2017 will be finishing 7th grade as well. This will be the first class of students who have been exclusively educated in the framework of our system. But we’ll always have our four guiding virtues which we have painted on the pillars by the main entrance of the building: Honor, Partnership, Creativity, and Charity. I wouldn’t want to skip either of them in order to fit the word limit of the question. 

Your school was created with the purpose to provide innovative education. You use an integrated approach and strive to combine theory and practice. Can you tell us a little more about the professional support you provide to the teachers in order for them to observe these principles?

One of the key factors for the successful implementation of the integrated approach in our school is that the majority of our teachers come from different professional backgrounds. They’ve had to apply knowledge and experience from different fields in order to solve a variety of problems. This is what the so-called integrated approach boils down to – coming across a problem/project whose solution requires multidisciplinary collaboration and a certain level of soft skills. In order for our teachers to plan the process, they need to communicate very clearly with each other and to know the curricula very well. This allows them to make interdisciplinary connections and grow professionally in their work. This is a cumbersome process which requires excellent teamwork.

One of the greatest challenges over the past year has been the transition from in-person to online teaching. How did you manage as an innovative school with experience in online learning even before the pandemic? What advice would you give to other principals?

The majority of our projects have always been executed using cloud technology and Office 365, so our transition to online learning was quite natural – we were all familiar with the virtual classroom. Another factor which helped us was the fact that we had been using smart boards in every classroom, so our teachers already had a substantial amount of digital resources available for online classes. Even younger students found it quite easy to adapt to their new schedule because they’ve had IT classes since first grade, so they already had all necessary digital skills. 

What would you say should be the first thing schools should focus on when we go back to in-person classes? 

As we can all see, we live in challenging times. It would be hard to predict how long we’ll be in the classroom before another historic event forces us to switch to online learning. This is true for the business as well, so building our digital skills is even more urgent than before.

Part of the interior of the school

What the system has done so far is quite impressive. We truly managed to avoid disrupting the process of education, but we must acknowledge that this happened in a state of emergency and nothing urgent is ever of good quality. To be able to speak of true digitalization, however, we have to purposefully develop teachers’ and students’ digital competencies in accordance with the European reference framework. The framework has eight levels in five areas for citizens and six areas for educators which is only natural as it is exactly the educators (and not just IT teachers anymore) who have the responsibility to develop these digital competencies. So, I believe that once we go back to teach in the classrooms principals should invest in the development of teachers’ digital competences and teachers should be more purposeful about developing students’ digital skills. This will prepare us not just for another lockdown, but for the future in general. STEM education is very crucial in this process, it is also based on the so-called integrated approach.

What is the most valuable lesson from this pandemic? The one thing that will help us provide every child with quality education in these trying times?

The pandemic reminded us that we are not omnipotent. We may be on the verge of colonizing Mars, but an invisible pathogen, which doesn’t even belong in nature, can ruin our progress. I believe that adaptability is the most important takeaway here and we’ll have to teach our students how to be more adaptable as well. 

Teach For Bulgaria’s program “Model Schools” gives you an opportunity to work with schools across the country. What is the most valuable aspect of this collaboration, would you recommend this program to other schools, and why?

“Model Schools” is an exceptional program because Teach For Bulgaria’s team are all there for us to share valuable expertise. This program helps our school communities to “keep up” with the latest pedagogical trends, map out any areas of improvement and get in touch with other schools in order to find solutions to our shared problems.

Some of the teachers who are part of Teach For Bulgaria’s “A New Way to Teaching” program are absolute beginners. Why did you choose to work with them and what is their most valuable contribution to your team?

Students from the school during the 19th national science competition. They won third place in their age group (5th to 7th grade) with their project called “An Air Purification System for the International Space Station”.

We have two new teachers this school year – Vasilia Svileva and Nikol Gabrovska. They are part of the National Program “Motivated Teachers”. The program was launched by the Ministry of Education and Science. Teach For Bulgaria and the Bulgarian Union of Teachers are responsible for all teacher training and support activities in the framework of the program. It was only natural that they joined our team because, as I already mentioned, our philosophy and the background of our teachers are quite similar to those of Teach For Bulgaria.

I think both of them fit very well in our school and I even sometimes forget that they are beginner teachers. What I like about them is that they are always eager to try new things in their practice. I give them my full permission and support.

What makes a school team successful?

I believe that autonomy and support are the perfect conditions to have a successful team. Autonomy gives teachers the freedom to explore new territories, apply new tools, and execute new ideas. Support helps them feel more confident, amplifies the effect of their efforts, and this leads to synergy. 

What is the role of the principal in this process?

The principal is the leader who has the tough responsibility to create optimal conditions of autonomy and support, so that the team can thrive. It is of utmost importance to me to do everything within my power so that all good ideas can be seamlessly integrated into our practice.

Photos: Mihail Nenov’s personal archive

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