Fast-paced, only in English, and over before you know it. This is how Plamen Margaritov’s English class slipped by at Secondary School “Neofit Rilski” in the town of Dolna Banya. The third graders taught by the 26-year-old teacher could only be described as unstoppable – hands raised high up in the air, chanting “Teacher, teacher!” in a frantic attempt to get Plamen’s attention.
“I teach entirely in English. My older students seem to be embarrassed to speak a foreign language, even though they use English every day. They just can’t break the ice. Younger students are the complete opposite – they want to know and say everything,” Plamen shared.
This observation was especially true for Pepi who just couldn’t stop fidgeting, he was overly excited because he wanted to translate Plamen’s every single word. His teacher, however, struck a balance between letting the boy speak and helping him calm down, so that his classmates could also participate in the series of interactive discussions which took up most of the class. Plamen, for example, asked Pepi to translate the some of the more challenging exercises and ask his classmates questions in English.
There were almost no pauses and interruptions and each student had the chance to participate by the end of the class.
“If a child goes to the UK and only communicates in English with native speakers, they will accomplish more in just one month than they could ever learn for seven years at school in Bulgaria. This is why I try to create an authentic environment and get my students to only speak in English,” Plamen added. “Of course, this doesn’t always happen, but then we have our Pepi who is always eager to tell his classmates what they need to do,” the teacher said with a smile.
Japanese Patience at the Foot of the Rila Mountain
The young teacher from Plovdiv who joined Teach For Bulgaria’s program in 2017 had a lot to share about his ability to adapt to new environments. After graduating from high school Plamen moved to Essex, UK, where he studied international relations at the University of Essex. He decided to pursue a master’s degree in conflict resolution at the same university. Soon the UK was too small for Plamen’s ambitious dreams and he moved to Kobe, Japan, where he completed another master’s degree, this time in policy analysis. Plamen completed his second master’s degree in Kobe with a full scholarship granted to him by the EU.
He shared that Japanese culture had a long, lasting influence over him. People’s sense of belonging to the community, the diligence they invested in their work, and their patience made a deep impression. Plamen became an assistant-lecturer at the university in Kobe and participated in several projects with his Japanese students which sparked his interest in the teaching profession. He decided to move back to Bulgaria and started working in Dolna Banya, which might seem odd, but for Plamen, it was the most natural thing to do.
“I felt the longing to go back to my roots when I was in Japan and I had to make a choice – I could either work at an office in Sofia, or start working on myself surrounded by like-minded people,” Plamen shared. He also added that in his work as a political analyst he had focused so much on his academic skills, that his basic human need to build relationships and be part of a community had been neglected.
“When I moved to Dolna Banya I was able to do just that. As a political analyst I was mostly interested in local self-government, so I wanted to live in a small community. Now I can test and see if change can happen from the bottom-up rather than top-down,” he concluded.
The Importance of Community
So, he started doing it. In his first year in the small town Plamen did some community research and was happy to discover that there was an active local community of teachers, parents, and institutions – they were all eager to learn how to provide quality education to the next generation. After a thorough analysis the teacher rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
“I know the local community now, we can agree on what matters most to us and on how to solve our problems together. I’m still working on building a two-way relationship of trust with the stakeholders outside of school – the municipality, local businesses, and parents. This will help us get even better results,” Plamen shared. He added that his big goal for 2019 would be to organize a round table on education with all stakeholders and organizations – to give them the opportunity to get together and come up with an action plan for the future development of education in Dolna Banya.
The round table would hopefully serve as the basis for a new community center which would connect students and local businesses. “This potential community center is going to help children develop their practical skills and possibly even provide them with actual internship opportunities. Students focus on subject matter and theoretical knowledge at school; this community center would help them build the skills they need to advance in their future professional development journey,” Plamen was excited to say.
His main reason to believe the community center was so important was that in the past year and a half he realized that young people had little faith there were any development opportunities left in their hometown.
“Perhaps the biggest problem we’re facing is the increasing rate at which young people are leaving Dolna Banya and moving to the bigger cities and even Kostenets. This is our biggest pain and challenge – how to motivate students to stay here,” the teacher shared.
Having Native Speakers in Class and Starting a Business at School
When Plamen started his second year as an English teacher he taught seven classes, initiated, and coordinated various projects and activities at school. “I try to invite native speakers in my classes with the youngest students. I had a guest speaker from Wales in my class with the fourth-graders, for example. My students got to speak with a native speaker and were very excited,” the teacher shared.
Plamen focused on project-based learning or as he put it “learning by doing” with his high school students. “English allows me to do whatever I want in my classes because the curriculum is so general, it basically covers the whole world – science, animals, sports, school, personalities… I can have my students make posters, newspapers, my eighth-graders even made a short film. This gives them the opportunity to develop practical skills,” Plamen said. He added that these projects motivated his students more than the endless grammar drills prescribed by their textbooks.
Plamen started working on additional projects with his students as well. He taught specialized entrepreneurship classes for the ninth-graders. This allowed him and his students to participate in Junior Achievement’s start-up program. It gives students the opportunity to start their own businesses – from developing a product, planning its production, designing marketing campaigns, pitching it to investors, and last but not least, selling the final product. “My students and I are currently working on a website for tourism in Dolna Banya. It’s called Discover Dolna Banyа. This project has been great for their motivation – they are passionate about making their own products, expressing their own selves,” the teacher assured us.
Does This Small Town Have a Future?
There were many initial challenges, of course, Plamen felt unable to bridge the gap between his most motivated and advanced students and the rest of the children. “Some of my students advance very quickly and have already built enough knowledge and skills to use the language. Others, however, experience more difficulties, they may even lack support and lag behind,” Plamen shared and admitted he was still trying to figure out how to cope with this situation.
People who live in the big city could never imagine moving to a small town. Plamen seemed to be enjoying it. “When I think about the traffic in Sofia I realize that living here has been good for me. Let alone the fact that we probably have the cleanest air in the whole country here in Dolna Banya. On the other hand, Dolna Banya and the village of Kostenets, where I live, are pretty close both to Sofia and to Plovdiv, so I can hop in the car every Friday and visit my family,” the teacher concluded. Moving from Kobe to Dolna Banya really seemed to be the most natural thing in the world to him.