Verka Petkova is the principal of Secondary School “Hristo Botev” in the town of Kozloduy. She has 26 years of experience in education – 4 years as a biology teacher and 22 years as a vice principal. She became a principal six months ago after an open call for applications. She has always dreamed of being a teacher, so she feels content and accomplished. She believes that she runs the most successful school in Kozloduy and that she works with the best teachers. The students at her school are loved, happy, and successful.
Verka Petkova says that she has always taken advantage of any opportunity for professional development. She has a master’s degree in biology and she is also qualified to teach chemistry and chemical technologies. She is currently working on a thesis on “Social Communications in Education Management” at Veliko Tarnovo University. Secondary School “Hristo Botev” has been partners with Teach For Bulgaria since 2016 when the organization started working in the region of Vratsa. Nearly 10 teachers from Teach For Bulgaria’s “A New Way to Teaching” program have worked at the school. Some of them continue to work there even after the two-year program. The school is also a participant in the EU project FIERST which aims to scale up locally-generated best practices for inclusive education.
Secondary School “Hristo Botev” is one of the participants in the EU project FIERST whose goal is to establish effective PLCs and foster the development of 21st-century skills in the classroom. As the project is coming to an end, tell us how it has helped your school and what has changed in the way you work.
Our school is a leading regional and municipal learning institution. We always strive to apply contemporary methods of teaching, so in order for our school to be competitive and modernized, we had to establish a PLC (professional learning community). The teachers in our PLC are confident and positive in their collegial relationships and also in the way they communicate with our students and their parents. They are always eager to get involved in all types of school activities and inspire the rest of our teaching staff to do the same. They have influenced many of our colleagues to try some innovative and experimental approaches in the classroom and are always willing to share their experience or provide mentorship. Our PLC is a factor for successful teamwork. Everyone here is involved with training, research, and analysis when it comes to tracking progress or adhering to the rules, strategies, and priorities determined by the Ministry of Education and Science. The purpose of our PLC is to introduce innovations and effective teaching methods in order for us to improve our performance and boost our students’ motivation to learn.
We are going to demonstrate the effectiveness of our PLC in the spring of 2021 in Velingrad where we will be participating in “Innovations in Action” – a national program launched by the Ministry of Education and Science.
FIERST also helped us truly embrace teaching 21st-century skills in the classroom.
You became principal of Secondary School “Hristo Botev” quite recently. Can you share the main goals you have set for yourself in this new role and how you are planning to develop your school and your colleagues from now on?
I have worked at Secondary School “Hristo Botev” for more than 25 years, but I recently accepted the challenge to manage this institution and I did it with the responsibility, purpose, and ambition to keep our school in the leading position in the municipality and the whole region. This is all thanks to our team of dedicated professionals who can inspire any student from 1st to 12th grade.
My main goal is for this school to be an institution where every student forms and develops competencies in a sustainable, inclusive, and positive environment. I would like our school to be an institution with policies in the areas civic, health, environmental, and intercultural education.
I believe it is appropriate for our school to continue its specialization in the vocational education of future developers and entrepreneurs. We will also keep providing additional English language classes to our high school students and create a computer lab for applied programming.
I have a vision for the future of this school. I see it as an innovative learning institution – innovative because in my vision we are going to integrate IT with science. We’ll focus on STEM and exemplify a true school of the future.
We are also motivated to participate in Teach For Bulgaria’s program “Model Schools” where we’ll definitely learn and apply innovative practices in order to maintain a positive and inspiring learning environment.
If you had to describe your school in three words, what would they be?
Cosy, inclusive, the best school in Kozloduy.
From the point of view of an experienced teacher and informal leader, who is now a principal, what is the most important thing when it comes to forming a successful and effective team?
I believe that the most important thing is to have collegial relationships based on trust. This allows us to rely on each other and to have shared responsibilities. But we also need to be fully dedicated to the teaching profession and willing to collaborate with our colleagues. It is important to swallow your pride in the name of our team and our common goals. We also need to be able to speak with radical honesty and really listen when others are being honest about us and our work. We need to be able to forgive and apologize when necessary. We should also mention how important it is to embrace change, growth, and hard work. I had the pleasure of working with my wonderful colleagues under the management of our former principal and we were only able to be this successful because we followed the above-mentioned principles.
And what is your role when it comes to running a successful team?
The principal of any modern school is both a manager and a leader. In order for a team to be successful, the principal has to strike the right balance between their administrative responsibilities and innovation, between all systemic normative tasks and creativity, between respect and devotion, between control and trust. A principal has to know the people on their team – what their responsibilities are and how they are handling them. A principal should be transparent, credible, and able to delegate – rights, duties, and responsibilities. They should also recognize and praise the success of any teacher on the team; set an example for everyone, embrace diversity, and seek unity.
When I first became a principal I presented my vision in front of my colleagues and also shared the principles I would be observing in my new role. This brought clarity and showed that I was ready to work with everyone and that I had high expectations that everyone would be doing their best and work hard.
One of the greatest challenges over the past year has been the transition from in-person to online teaching. How did you manage to do it? What type of advice or recommendations would you give to other schools?
Transitioning from in-person to online teaching was challenging for teachers, parents, and students alike. Our school has established a well-organized and effective online learning environment. We use Microsoft Teams. We have also been focusing on project-based learning and utilizing a competence-based approach. Our students are motivated and eager to discover the practical applications of the things they have been learning in IT class, they have also discovered many new functionalities of their devices. We have noticed that our students have been very diligent about accomplishing their tasks. We have also been holding online consultations quite effectively. You can see it clearly in the results of our students in our digital records.
Over 20 teachers from our school have shared over 40 resources and best practices in the Ministry of Science and Education’s digital library E-learn. Our school counselor and psychologist have also been working with families online via Office 365.
Our IT teachers created specialized resources – video instructions for our teaching staff. We have a facebook group and a group chat where we exchange tips and tricks as well. Everyone feels confident, this transition has been revolutionary in terms of breaking old habits and stereotypes. Our team is now more mature, intelligent, and capable. I am proud of them and I appreciate their efforts.
Editor’s note: During the first lockdown back in March of 2020, one of Teach For Bulgaria’s alumni, Ivan Dragomirov (class of 2018-2020), created an online treasure hunt in Minecraft. He built a model of the school and his students had to explore it, solve problems, or answer questions in order to progress. Take a look:
What would you say should be the first thing schools should focus on when we go back to in-person classes?
Supporting all students who have lagged behind. Modernizing the entire school campus. Making sure that all teachers have the opportunity to pursue further training and qualification in case we have to transition to full-time or part-time online classes again. Working with parents in order to provide every child with an optimal learning environment at home, especially if they come from vulnerable communities. Focusing on education as a universal human value, as the one true path towards success.
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?
Developing independent learners. Using digital textbooks. I believe that literacy is key for independent learning in an online environment. Teamwork skills and having a growth mindset are also going to help us provide quality education to all children.
I also believe that the competence-based approach is also a motivating factor for contemporary students.
Secondary School “Hristo Botev” has worked with teachers from Teach For Bulgaria’s program “A New Way to Teaching” since 2016. Some of them chose to stay at your school even after the end of the two-year program. What is their contribution to this school and how do you manage to motivate them to keep working here?
I am very familiar with these teachers’ work and I am proud to have the privilege of working with them and learning from them. They are innovative, purposeful, and motivated. Their methodology is effective both in the classroom and when it comes to school projects. They participate in all aspects of our school community with ease, eagerness, and creativity. They also have many virtues – openness, a sense of justice, humanity, agency, responsibility. They communicate with ease with colleagues, students, and parents.
How do we motivate them to stay? We offer mentorship and creative freedom to all new teachers. They helped us launch the project “The Town and Us” and made it possible for many students to participate in a variety of workshops focused on emotional intelligence. Our students also participated in the national students’ conference “It’s Up to Me”, etc.
Of course, the financial aspect is also very important – we cover our teachers’ travel expenses, for example. We also give them internet vouchers and a certain amount of money for professional attire. They all sign a labor contract which has no expiration date.
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?
They go through an amazing training process. This training shapes them into becoming the most popular teachers almost immediately after entering the classroom. They are innovators and facilitators in class. They pursue creative passions with a sense of responsibility and care. These teachers contribute with wonderful ideas and they also often train our colleagues when we organize internal training forums for our staff. They are always eager to share their knowledge and best practices and are wonderful team players.
I believe that experienced educators and innovative motivated teachers form a unity – a successful pedagogical team capable of creating a positive learning environment and working towards our vision: happy today – successful tomorrow.