In 2017 the America for Bulgaria Foundation launched an Education Leadership Academy. Its goal was to help teachers and school leaders develop new teaching strategies, understand how to use technology in their classrooms, and exchange best practices.
By that point, Secondary School “Panayot Volov” in Shumen had already been applying innovative teaching methods such as project-based learning and interdisciplinary teaching. Even up to this day the teachers share their best practices on the school’s facebook page.
Not surprisingly, everyone at the school was eager to participate in the first edition of the Education Leadership Academy. Some of the teachers had the opportunity to complete a course on progressive teaching practices. They were also able to network with teachers from other schools and form a professional learning community at their school with the goal to have better collaboration among colleagues who teach different subjects.
Teach For Bulgaria launched Model Schools in 2020. The program is a successor of America for Bulgaria’s Education Leadership Academy. The team at Secondary School “Panayot Volov” in Shumen saw this as a wonderful opportunity to keep learning and growing professionally. So after successfully completing the entire selection process, the school became part of the first class of participants in Teach For Bulgaria’s new program. 25 other schools with over 230 teachers, principals, and school counselors from 15 regions of Bulgaria also joined the program.
“Model Schools is in complete alignment with our strategic goals,” says Rosina Indzheva, the principal of the school, who is responsible for a team of over 60 teachers and nearly 800 students. “The previous principal and I have been trying to build upon our school’s history – that’s over 100 years of history.”
Independent, yet able to collaborate
Model Schools has two main components: a course in Instructional Leadership and an elective course based on the specific needs of the participants. Examples of the elective courses are social and emotional learning or STEM. The leadership team of each school, at least three teachers selected by the school, receives mentorship. The program is free of charge, so the schools don’t pay for any of the training or mentorship.
When Rosina Indzheva took up the leadership position in the summer of 2020, the school had already been accepted in the program. In the dawn of the pandemic, Rosina decided to let her leadership team participate in the training without her because of her numerous responsibilities as a new principal. However, she reassured them that she was always there, if they needed her.
The leadership team included five teachers with diverse backgrounds and experience.
The head of the leadership team was Milena Ivanova, arts and graphic design teacher with extensive experience. The other four members of the team were Galina Abadzhieva (Bulgarian language and literature), Tsvetomira Georgieva (technology and entrepreneurship), Katerina Koleva (primary school), and Galina Petrova (primary school).
Up to this day, the trainings have been conducted entirely online because of the pandemic. Only one training was conducted face to face in August of 2021. During the first year of the program, five more teachers from the school took advantage of this professional development opportunity by joining an elective course on 21st-century skills. Milena Ivanova and her colleagues shared their experience with the rest of the teachers.
“What I like about the teachers I am working with is that they try to share the essence of everything they learn with their colleagues at school. They usually choose one part of a training session and recreate it for their colleagues,” says Kina Kotlarska, principal of Secondary School “Emilian Stanev” (Veliko Tarnovo) and mentor of the participants from Secondary School “Panayot Volov” and two other schools in Kazanlak and Targovishte.
Investing in people
One of the modules of the leadership course was on school culture, so the leadership team at Secondary School “Panayot Volov” in Shumen created a vision for their school community, centered around specific symbols and values and aimed towards the personal development of the students with the support of both their teachers and their parents.
All students, teachers, and parents were supposed to embody this new school culture through their actions. So they created numerous events and activities for Earth Day and Water Day, they planted trees along one of the streets in Shumen, and built birdhouses for the birds in a forest park near their home town.
The training on how to build an inclusive school environment inspired the leadership team to launch a project in this field as well.
“We developed a school policy in support of diversity and intercultural education,” says Milena Ivanova. “We presented it to our mentor and a representative from Teach For Bulgaria and received some positive feedback about its structure. Our main goals are to acknowledge the importance of each person, their identity, to recognize their contribution and right to be different, and accept the equality of everyone in our society, including gender equality.”
Inspired by this project, the seventh-graders from the school visited religious and cultural monuments of different ethnic communities in Shumen. The older students created a video report about Tombul mosque and the Armenian church “St. Mary”. Their report was aired on Shumen Television.
The leadership team used what they learned from the program to develop their students’ communication skills.
“Communication is the key to success. If there’s no communication, students won’t be able to work in teams. Communication skills are also key for us as teachers,” commented Milena Ivanova.
As Kina Kotlarska explained, Model Schools is not a test you have to pass, it’s a joint effort which targets teachers’ personal and professional development, thus improving the quality of the way they teach.
“The goal of the program is not to have the schools compete with each other, but for every school to make progress. We’re investing in the people who can make the school a better place. This type of investment is hard because it takes a long time to see results,” says the mentor and adds that the program gives her an opportunity to share her experience and learn new things – for example, how to conduct training sessions for adults online.
A Community for Learning and Collaboration
According to Milena Ivanova, Teach For Bulgaria’s program provides training for school staff which is constantly adapted to the ever-changing requirements and conditions of the teaching profession.
“Model Schools provides just the right amount of resources and these are resources that teachers really actually need,” she says. “Our curriculum is focused on creating a positive climate for learning, reflecting on our identity as teachers, and accepting social equality.”
As a principal of Secondary School “Panayot Volov”, Rosina Indzheva is grateful for the help that her leadership team received from Kina Kotlarska.
“I participate in most meetings with Mrs. Kotlarska. She has always been very supportive and has given us specific advice and constructive criticism. She has an extensive experience as a teacher and as a manager, so she is definitely a great asset to us,” commented the principal of the school in Shumen.
Last fall the team participated in a training which made them think of their school as a learning organization. By the end of this school year Milena Ivanova and her colleagues are expected to create standards about how to manage the quality of education. One of the standards they are currently working on is about growth mindset and the need for collaboration between teachers and students.
“As teachers we believe in the importance of having a growth mindset and we try to develop this mindset in the students. We need them to realize that they won’t just stop learning when they finish school, they’ll have to keep growing,” says Milena Ivanova. According to her, online learning is an example of applying teachers’ growth mindset in practice.
Today, over a year since the start of Model Schools, Rosina Indzheva and Milena Ivanova feel more confident and open to new ideas. They only wish for the pandemic to end sooner rather than later, because they want to apply what they have learned in person with their students.