A little more on teaching…

Today marked the end of my 3rd full week of teaching, so I figured I’m about due to share more about my experiences in the classroom. Let’s start with the basics:

  • Peyo Yavorov, named after a famous Bulgarian poet, is a Foreign Language school specializing in English, German, and French. Each student selects two foreign languages, one of which is prioritized more than the other to attain a higher level of fluency. That means some of the classes I teach specialize in English while others are learning it as their secondary option. This means there is a wide range of ability!
  • At my school, the students stay in the same classroom all day. Instead, teachers move from room to room meeting with different groups of students. This allows the classes to get incredibly close because they spend all day together for 5 years (8th-12th grade). It’s fun because each class seems to have almost developed its own unique personality.
  • I teach every grade level, and meet with most classes 1-2 times per week. There are also a couple classes I only meet teach twice each month. For me, Mondays and Thursdays are quite busy with 5 and 4 classes respectively, while Tuesdays and Wednesdays are pretty light. The Fulbright mandates that we have Fridays off, which is incredibly nice for weekend trips. In fact, it’s Friday, and I’m on a bus to Sofia right now!
  • The 8th and 9th graders have tremendous amounts of energy and enthusiasm. Every question I ask is met with at least 7 or 8 hands in the air, and that doesn’t include the other 10 who belt out an answer without raising their hands. Some of the older classes have entered the “too cool for school” phase, so sometimes I have to work a little harder to get them involved.
  • My official title is “English Teaching Assistant,” which means I’m typically working with a colleague . I work with four other teachers, averaging about four classes with each of them every week. Despite the “assistant” label, my colleagues have been pretty hands off so far, and let me control the classroom (they seem to like the time to catch up on grading). I love the independence, but it’s certainly comforting to have a partner there if anything were to ever get out of hand. Working with multiple colleagues has its challenges too, because they all have their own unique style and approach to lesson planning. For instance, I meet with one of my colleagues for 30 minutes each week, and we plan content for all of our upcoming classes. Another prefers to send me her tentative plans for the week via Facebook on Sundays. Still another prefers to throw me curve balls frequently, and my entire lesson changes 10 minutes before it starts! Being a teacher in Bulgaria means spending a lot of time on your toes!

Now for a few of my favorite lessons so far:

  • My first week of introduction lessons were really fun. Because the first week of school is pretty relaxed, I decided to use the first lesson to get to know my students better, and share a little more about myself. I decided to play two truths and a lie. For those of you who don’t know how the game works, you essentially say three statements, two of which are true, and one of which is false. The rest of the group then tries to guess which statement is false. I was a little hurt that most of my students didn’t believe that I was in a YouTube video with more than 10,000 views, making me a somewhat of a minor celebrity (I’m not). Most also successfully guessed that I did not have a webbed toe, but I certainly got some of them!
  • I did one cultural lesson on the school system in America. While I was lesson planning, it dawned on me that the best representation of American schools was obviously Billy Madison. So my class watched clips from Billy Madison’s 2nd grade classroom and the Mr. Holland’s orchestra classroom from Mr. Holland’s Opus. Needless to say, they found quite a few differences in our compare and contrast exercise.
  • Who doesn’t love Aladdin? When I had the opportunity to do a lesson on describing characters, I decided to show this clip from Aladdin. The class then described the personalities and appearances of Aladdin, Abu, the magic carpet, and the genie. I also had the chance to talk briefly about Robin Williams and his amazing acting career.
  • In several of my 12th grade classes, we have been talking about job applications and interviews. This gave me the chance to show a clip from Step Brothers, one of my favorite movies. Talking about things that are NOT appropriate to do during a job interview paved the way for a great conversation about proper interview etiquette and attire. My students then came up with questions to mock interview one another and practiced good and bad interview body language in front of the entire class.

While I’ve had a lot of great classes, I’ve certainly had some challenging ones too. Just this week, for example, I had a class that was about as lively as a pile of bricks (no offense to any of the livelier bricks out there…). After the first hour, I was struggling to get them involved. I tried to be as energetic as possible, but they just weren’t having it. I decided to change things up a little during their second hour, and made everyone stand up. I asked them to complete an exercise that required moving to one side of the room or the other depending on which of two opposites they identified with more (Ex: impulsive/cautious, considerate/unfeeling, etc.). Despite getting the biggest eye roll I’ve ever received from one of my 11th grade girls (yes, I called attention to it in front of the whole class), it actually seemed to work. The second hour was slightly less painful than the first!

It’s hard to squeeze three weeks of school into one post, but in summary: I love teaching here. My students are creative, energetic (usually), passionate, and they seem to really appreciate me being there. There were times people told me I was crazy for quitting my job and moving to Bulgaria, and there were times I agreed with them. But being here and doing something that feels so purposeful is giving me the fulfillment I wasn’t finding before. It makes me feel more confident that my goal of transitioning into social enterprise, where I hope to find a similar sense of fulfillment, after this experience is the right one.

I’m curious to hear what questions you have about the schools or students in Bulgaria? I find some things are very similar to what I experienced back home, while other things are entirely different. Post any questions you have down in the comments section, and I’d be happy to answer.

Current Events

As I mentioned in the “About this blog” section, one of my key responsibilities as a Fulbright grantee is to enhance understanding between Americans and Bulgarians.  In my mind, a crucial part of this entails sharing updates on current events in Bulgaria.  Back when I first started my Fulbright application, I signed up for Bulgaria Google Alerts.  Essentially, this service sends a consolidated e-mail every day summarizing the top news stories in the region.  Several major stories impacting Bulgaria and the Balkan region over the past few weeks jumped out at me, and I wanted to give a quick summary of the most impactful ones.

1. Heavy flooding in June killed 12 people and caused significant damage along the coast of the Black Sea.  Varna and Dobrich (the 3rd and 9th largest cities in Bulgaria) were amongst the hardest hit, with many people losing electricity or experiencing extreme property damage.  A national day of mourning was declared on June 23rd to remember those lost.


 Cars and even homes were swept away by the force of the flooding

2. A massive pipeline project in Bulgaria has been delayed due to considerable political pressure from the European Union.  The South Stream pipeline is planned to run directly through Bulgaria, and pump natural gas from Russia to the rest of Europe.  There is rising concern in the US and EU that completion of the pipeline would increase European dependency on Russia for energy, and ultimately give Russia too much power.  There are also ramifications for the current crisis in Ukraine, as the pipeline would allow Russia to limit energy to Ukraine without impacting the rest of Europe.  This Wall Street Journal article gives some interesting historical context about why that’s important.

ImagePlanned route of South Stream pipeline

3. Five people were arrested yesterday for their involvement in a plot against some of the top banks in Bulgaria.  The conspirators used text messages and e-mails to spread false rumors about the instability of banks, which led to a mass withdrawal of ~$550 million in just a matter of hours.  The government quickly approved an emergency credit line of more than $2 billion, which restored stability.  President Rosen Plevneliev has been working to increase confidence in the banks, saying “We have sufficient reserves, means and tools to deal with any attempt at destabilization, and we stand behind each bank that becomes the target of an attack.”

Thank you Dave Gross for sending me the NYT article about the South Stream pipeline!