How to Modernize a Country’s Education System One Teacher at a Time

Bulgaria has the lowest levels of public spending on education in the EU. Many of the school facilities are old and crumbling. There are barely any public funds available for building 21st century classrooms equipped with multi-media facilities and language labs. Moreover, there are no public funds for modernizing the Bulgarian school curriculum or for teacher professional development.

Fortunately, the America for Bulgaria Foundation (ABF) has stepped in to address some of these pressing needs. Since its creation in 2009, ABF has invested millions of dollars to modernize Bulgarian classroom settings and introduce new classroom technologies in schools across the country. More importantly, however, ABF has also invested heavily in the professional development of teachers. In particular, the foundation supports programs that train educational professionals to learn the latest and most innovative pedagogical methods.

IIE is honored to be one of ABF’s partners in its ambitious endeavor to provide cutting edge teacher training. For the second consecutive year, IIE administered the Education Leaders Training Program (ELTP), a customized three-week professional development and training program for a select group of 10-14 Bulgarian high school teachers. The main goal of ELTP is to introduce program participants to the latest education technology and pedagogical innovations in the U.S., as well as to foster professional collaboration between outstanding Bulgarian and U.S. teachers.

To achieve its goal, the program has two distinct, but integrated components: an academic training component at Columbia University’s Teachers College and an observation/practical training component in select New York City high-schools such as the Bronx School of Science, Bronx International School, and Richard R. Green High School of Teaching. Each week of the training focuses on a different theme. During the first week, which focuses on design, participants learn about how to effectively design not only lesson plans and curricula, but also how to design/rearrange their classrooms to enhance student learning. The second week is focused on assessment; on how to go beyond the test and develop assessment systems that gauge critical thinking and understanding. The third and final week is focused on leadership; on how teachers form and sustain a professional learning community and work together to bring change to their schools.

On the last day of this year’s ELTP training, which took place in October, participants reflected on this “transformational” experience.

“Fortunately, we already have multimedia and smart-boards in my school,” said Marin Marinov, who teaches English in Burgas, a city on the Black Sea coast. “But we saw a lot of different uses of technology, and this will bring more variety into my teaching process.” 

The program’s emphasis on the design process helped teachers develop new approaches and projects organized around student understandings.

Elka Veselinova, an English teacher from the town of Vratza shared: “During the three weeks course in NY our assignments were in the online collaboration platform Moodle, which helped me realize how I can easily use the platform with my students in Vratza to track their progress.”

For Krassimira Topuzova, who teaches English in the southwestern Bulgarian city of Blagoevgrad, the main takeaways are about the different methods of student assessment. “I learned how to design authentic assessment assignments—assignments that require students to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of their knowledge and skills. In addition, I am committed to engage my students in peer assessment exercises because peer assessment is a great way to make the classroom experience fun and interactive” shared Krassimira.

“I will change the physical set-up of my classroom,” said Nellie Gospodinova, who teaches at a large vocational school in Silistra a small town on the Danube River in northwestern Bulgaria. “I can make my class more student-centered and introduce more authentic performance tasks so students can feel more engaged.”

The gist of the training was, perhaps, best summed up by Anastasia Dimitrova who teaches English in the town of Pirdop in central Bulgaria:” Instead of focusing on tests and grades, we teachers should help and encourage students to truly understand what they are learning and how it will be useful for their future.”

There are already 24 alumni of ELTP who are disseminating new teaching methods in 24 schools across Bulgaria. These teachers are forming a powerful network of education change harbingers in Bulgaria. A network that will continue to grow as next year, there will be 20 teachers who will participate in ELTP.

Modernizing the Bulgarian Education System won’t be easy. However, initiative such as the Education Leaders Training Program and the brand new Principals’ Training Program will go a long way towards raising the profile of educators in Bulgaria and equipping them with the tools and know-how to transform their classrooms and the future of Bulgaria.