Teaching During a Pandemic

учители по време на пандемия

Three teachers with three different stories about the challenges of teaching during a pandemic and their decision to become teachers by joining Teach For Bulgaria’s program 

Angelina Dzhurova was born and raised in the region of Veliko Tarnovo. She currently lives in the small town of Lyaskovets. Angelina has a BA in social pedagogy and has worked as a social worker at a crisis center for victims of abuse and human trafficking. She has also been a volunteer in a mentorship program for children without parental care. She is a mother of two.

учители по време на пандемия

Aysel Karadayi is an artist at heart. She fell in love with music as a child and has used every medium of artistic self-expression ever since. Born and raised in Bulgaria’s capital city, she studied audio engineering at New Bulgarian University and is currently a member of several rock bands. She is also a piano teacher, a vocal coach, and works at a TV network. Aysel has toured outside of Bulgaria as well.

Karina Azizyan was born in Armenia a little over two decades ago, but her family moved to Bulgaria when she was only two years old. She grew up in Stara Zagora and studied marketing at the University of National and World Economy. Karina lived in Asia for a short period of time after graduation, but decided to come back to Bulgaria.

Angelina, Aysel, and Karina’s life trajectories couldn’t be more different. What unites their stories is that they have all decided to go back to school, but this time as teachers, and they have all chosen to do so as part of Teach For Bulgaria’s program called “A New Way to Teaching” (link in Bulgarian).

Teaching as a source of meaning

Thanks to her experience as a social worker, Angelina realized that children need to be supported by someone who will not just teach them how to read, write, and do arithmetic, but will also believe in their talents and abilities. 

Ангелина Джурова по време на лятната академия на Заедно в час през 2019 г
Angelina during Teach For Bulgaria’s Summer Academy in 2019

This conviction was only confirmed when her two children started school. Once she saw the impact teachers have on children’s lives, Angelina decided to become a teacher in order to help her future students grow.

“Children are like a mirror: if you believe in them, they’ll start believing in themselves and they’ll try to prove you are right. If you don’t believe in them, they will sense this and stop trying,” Angelina says. She has been working as a primary teacher at Secondary School “Vladimir Komarov” in Veliko Tarnovo since September of 2019.

Angelina joined “A New Way to Teaching” because she knew she would find a community of like-minded people at Teach For Bulgaria.

“I have worked with children before, I have tried to change their lives for the better, but I’ve always been alone in this battle. I do the same at Teach For Bulgaria, but I have the support of the entire community which inspires me to do more and to challenge myself,” she says.

Aysel is a primary teacher as well, but she also has music classes with students in 5th and 6th grade at 202nd Primary School “Hristo Botev” in the village of Dolni Pasarel near Sofia. She agrees with Angelina.

“No matter what defence mechanisms parents or children have, they eventually respond positively to your efforts, because if you approach them in a positive way in order to help, they will sense that,” says Aysel.

Aysel adheres to the national curriculum in her classes, but she also tries to develop her students’ critical thinking and communication skills. This is why she was genuinely happy to receive a call from the mother of a student who wanted to tell her about how mature her son had become. The mother and the boy had an argument, but he called her half an hour later and asked her if they could resolve the issue together.

“Teaching makes you face your own self,” Aysel says, “I am aware that I would also like to learn many of the things I explain to my students: not to be afraid to make mistakes, to have more patience… My coordinator (editor’s note: a coordinator in the context of our program is someone who provides teachers with professional support) helped me survive in the beginning because it was a huge shock, especially if you work with first graders. Then you suddenly realize what a huge responsibility it is to be all by yourself in the classroom. This is what I like about the program, they make us feel less alone, they’re always there, looking out for us, asking us what we need and providing us with plenty of opportunities to meet and talk.

The desire to find meaning in her work brings Karina into the program as well. 

She first heard about Teach For Bulgaria as a university student. Her involvement with AIESEC’s initiative “Business in Action” exposed her to Teach For Bulgaria’s work. She even visited the office of the organization to learn more about Teach For Bulgaria’s marketing strategy, but what she discovered was a lot more than she was hoping for.

Лятното обучение на заедно в час
Aysel with her colleagues from the class of 2019-2021 during their intensive summer training.

Karina also worked at an advertising agency as a student. She decided to travel across Asia with a friend after graduation because she wanted to challenge herself by being away from her friends, family, and familiar culture. After approximately 4 months of travel across Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia Karina came back to Bulgaria and dedicated the following 6 months to figuring out what she wanted to do professionally. 

Karina eventually realized that she wanted to find a rewarding career and remembered what she had heard years ago at Teach For Bulgaria’s office.

“My motivation to become a teacher is that in this role I can do something meaningful, something which can have a positive impact on many people. I wanted to work with communities with limited resources and no access to quality education because they are the ones who need this kind of support the most,” says Karina who currently works as a primary teacher at Primary School “Georgi Benkovski” in the village of Manolovo, Pavel Banya municipality.

Karina found a way to combine her future career aspirations with her preliminary training at Teach For Bulgaria and created content for prepodavame.bg – a website for best teaching practices from Bulgaria and around the world.

Distance learning as a challenge and a new opportunity

As an afterschool primary teacher, Angelina is responsible for three modules of activities: lunch break (with play time), homework, and electives. The sharp and sudden transition from in-person to distance learning in March of 2020 forced her to adapt her approach literally over one weekend. 

Angelina started by creating Google accounts for every single one of her students and added them to a Google classroom. She also sent them detailed instructions on how to work with Google Classroom and Gmail. The beginning was tough for everyone, but Angelina can see the benefits of this challenge as well – her students learned to use this platform for example. She and the class teacher checked their students’ homework and then Angelina was in charge of the elective activities in the afternoon.

When they had to transition back to distance learning back in November things went more smoothly than Angelina expected, even though she started working with first graders at the beginning of the school year. This transition was smoother for two reasons: the teachers received a lot of support from the parents and they had more time to prepare this time. 

Angelina and the class teacher showed children how to complete basic commands on their devices in order to participate in the virtual lessons. Angelina also gave them worksheets for the entire month of December. She now gives them instructions, shows them what they are expected to do, and lets them work on their tasks independently and away from the screen. 

She also reads Pippi Longstocking with them and discusses the actions of the main characters with her students.

“I let my older students last year watch cartoons, but this year I decided that I didn’t want the first graders to watch cartoons. I want them to fall in love with reading and literature, to fantasize while I read out loud, so that perhaps one day they will want to read a book all by themselves. I don’t know if this is exactly what’s going to happen, but I’m working towards it,” Angelina says and adds that these readings also help her students learn how to retell a story because whenever someone is late she asks a classmate to summarize what she has already read to the class.

Experimenting and learning on the go – this is Aysel’s formula for adapting to the new way of virtual learning.

Айсел Карадайъ по време на лятното обучение на Заедно в час
Aysel is the first successful candidate from the class of 2019-2021. As per tradition, the first person to accept their offer gives a speech at the opening of Teach For Bulgaria’s Summer Institute.

Most first graders at Aysel’s school in the village of Dolni Pasarel do not have access to smart devices and their internet connection is not stable. She decided to make a schedule and talk to them on the phone. Their parents had to take pictures of their children’s work and send them to Aysel on Viber. Towards the end of the school year all of Aysel’s students were able to join their Google Classroom. This school year they are working on a school newspaper and even have a Viber group for easier communication.

“I feel great as a primary teacher because I have always loved art and reading and primary teachers need to be passionate about art in order to create a magical experience for their students,” says Aysel. She highlights that good planning is even more important because it is the only way for teachers to deliver effective lessons and to keep their students’ motivation strong in these trying times.

Aysel gives her older students special musical assignments – they have to listen to specific songs and write about their impressions. This allows them to communicate with each other and learn at the same time. Aysel is online the entire time, ready to answer questions or support her students in any other way. Distance learning opened Aysel’s eyes to a very important aspect of teaching – rest. As one of her pedagogy professors from Plovdiv University says, “it takes fire to start a fire.”

In other words, teachers should take the time to recharge their batteries in order to teach well and support their students in the best way possible. 

This is why Aysel decided to return to her passion for music at the beginning of this school year. She started a YouTube channel where she uploads covers and original songs. Something she had entirely neglected during her first year as a teacher. 

Even though Karina started teaching just a few months ago, she was convinced that she was well-prepared to deal with distance learning. She was concerned, however, about her Roma students who did not even have running hot water at home, let alone smart devices or internet access. 

Карина Азизян в офиса на "Заедно в час", малко след започване на първите обучения от предварителното обучение в програма "Нов път в преподаването"
Karina at Teach For Bulgaria’s office shortly after the beginning of her preliminary training

Her students were able to participate thanks to donors who provided them with devices. Even those students who did not have access to computers or the internet were able to learn because they received printed materials – Karina delivered their worksheets in person.

“There are many tough moments, but I made friends with three other girls in the program. We became very close during Teach For Bulgaria’s Summer Academy. If I run into problems, I always turn to them or to other people from Teach For Bulgaria’s community.”

Just like Angelina, Karina believes that she should also try to develop her students’ basic digital skills. She gives her students personalized assignments, based on their level of knowledge, skills, and learning habits. If, for example, a student prefers to read out loud, they can simply mute their microphone, says Karina.

Education as a conscious choice and a worthy cause

“I found my calling thanks to Teach For Bulgaria. I love my students. I started teaching them in first grade – my first year as a teacher and their first year as students. And I will be by their side until they finish 4th grade, then we’ll see,” Aysel is adamant. She feels lucky to be working at a school with a great team of teachers, some of whom Teach For Bulgaria alumni themselves.

Angelina has yet to decide what to do after she completes the program, but she wants to work in education. This is why parallel with her master’s degree in pedagogy at Plovdiv University she is completing another master’s program in school management at Veliko Tarnovo University.

“I am grateful for this chance, I am grateful to the people who have trusted me and I hope I can make them proud,” says Angelina. “It is tough, perhaps because I have high expectations for myself and because I don’t want to disappoint the people who hired me at this school. Perhaps, I make mistakes sometimes, but I am constantly trying to improve and it gets easier. It is very tough, but I would certainly make the same choice.”

This is Karina’s first year at school and she has no plans for the future yet. Based on her limited experience, she feels that she enjoys teaching, but she might want to work with older students in the future.

“When somebody can learn something without you telling them the solution, if they get to the solution by themselves, they get this spark in their eyes which I love,” Karina sums up.

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