The journey from a small town in Bulgaria to UWC USA and beyond
Please describe how your students exercised their leadership and the impact they had.
The only school in a small town (1000 inhabitants) in isolated area in the mountains in Bulgaria. The majority of the students come from low socio-economic background. These two facts make the school not rigorous environment where students easily get labels for their performance. When you have the label of being an excellent student, you do not need to push yourself further because the teachers generally believe that you deserve excellent marks, and vice versa. But what was called “excellence” in this non-rigorous environment, was far from the performance expected in the best schools in the country.
Nasko was one of those “excellent” students. The expected trajectory for him when I met him was for him to graduate from high school without putting much effort, taking advantage of comfortable position he was in.
Nasko began his journey towards being owner of his own learning by accepting three challenges. The first one was to take higher level of ESL instruction even though he was not expected to. In 8th grade his peers were supposed to be learning ESL at A2 level according to CEFR. Nasko has already reached that level and was bored in class. I offered him to study B1 level on his own in class and asked him to come for extra tutoring if he needed help. In the beginning he was getting lower marks than he was used to get and had to study a lot more to improve them. He attended extra tutoring in the afternoons and managed to cover B1 level by the end of the school year.
The second challenge was to take responsibility for a group of younger students during Summer academy project that me and another TFB teacher organized in 2012. The idea of the Summer academy was to support students who had lower results during the school year and low level of self-esteem by providing extra tutoring and project based learning focused on the core subjects of the curriculum. Nasko had to take care for a group of 10 other students by making sure that everyone participates in the activities, feels safe and supported and learns intensively during the Summer academy. This experience helped him to see himself not only as a person who achieves a lot but also as a person who can support others to achieve.
The next challenge was to encourage him to apply for a volunteering project in France which was one step further out of his comfort zone. It is very unusual for students from this community to participate in youth civic engagement projects and even more so when it is out of the country and in an international group. Nasko had first to overcome his own fears of being alone and away from his family in an English speaking environment and then to convince his parents to allow him to go. He succeeded and took part in the restoration of an ancient building in a small village in Southern France with participants from five other European countries.
Reflecting on it now, I see these three challenges as the foundation of his belief that he could aim for something more than just finishing high school and applying for university in the region. In 2014, he reached to me with the request to help him prepare for an international exchange program which would give him the opportunity to spend a year in another school abroad. Usually, the students who apply for such programs are studying in selective schools with intensive language training. Nasko had to prepare not only in order to improve dramatically his ESL level but to build up skills to go through such rigorous multiple stage selection process. This was the first time he had to write an application essay in English, to prepare for an interview in English and to pass certification English exam.
We worked relentlessly for several months. We had 1,5 hour meetings three times a week. He spent 6 more hours per week doing additional homework to improve his ESL skills. This independent work included writing impressive amount of essays, getting and integrating feedback and starting over again, as well as doing mock interviews with colleagues of mine he did not know and reading college level texts.
Despite this effort, Nasko was not selected for the program he applied for. Not for the first one, nor for the following two available programs. Instead of discouraging him from trying again, every unsuccessful attempt made him more motivated and willing to look for other opportunities. His fourth attempt was applying for United World Colleges. This was the most rigorous selection process compared to the previous ones. Nasko was selected to study in UWC USA, with full scholarship for the final two years of his secondary studies.
Nasko’s effort to study abroad continued after the selection process as well. Being the first student from his community to apply for an international school, his success was not necessarily perceived as positive result. Some of the comments were ”you are going to ruin your life” and “leaving your country is betraying it”. Nasko managed to turn that around by focusing on his learning path towards this result. He organized a presentation and shared with the students from the school that he is proud of this achievement but he is even prouder of the journey towards it. He shared that he learned the most from his failures and from his hard effort. The big takeaway for him from this experience was that in order to have such a journey you need to set ambitious goal that takes you out of your comfort zone.
Nasko’s success was not only inspirational for other students but he personally took responsibility to pay it forward by supporting another student to apply the following year. He made mock interviews with her and supported her through the whole process. He also supported many other Bulgarian students who reached out for help during the application process for UWC. As a result, one student from our school and another from our region got accepted to UWC in May 2016
Furthermore, Nasko is also actively engaged in the process of improving our school. He reflects deeply on his educational experience in Bulgaria and in the USA. This metacognitive process inspires insight on what makes learning experience meaningful and developing. We often discuss what are the expectations for him and his peers in UWC and what needs to happen in our school in Bulgaria so that all the students have learning experience as rigorous and as provoking. This conversations have great influence on the areas of improvement I focus on in my work as assistant principal in the school.
The most significant impact of Nasko’s achievement in 2014 and his effort to support other students afterwards, is that now, two years later, the idea of a student from our school striving for rigorous educational opportunities and actually achieving them is regarded as something ordinary and accessible to every student in the school. What is even more important is that in out student’s view, Nasko’s example is a relevant proof from their community that great success is possible only as a result of great effort and persistence.
What role did you play in supporting your students’ leadership?
I see my role as the person who initially pushed him to persuade opportunities out of his comfort zone and to dream bigger for himself. I think that the most important part was that I could support him in this journey, help him reflect on his experience and being his critical friend when he was ready to settle for less.
What did you and your students learn in this activity that will endure beyond today?
I have two major takeaways from my work with Nasko and with other students in my school. The first one is that in order to achieve long term impact on our student’s lives we first need to provide little challenges that take them out of their comfort zone, build up their confidence and develop their skills so that they can achieve big goals. If we skip one of these steps, it turns out that the students might have the skills but not the attitude to go for bigger dreams and vice versa. Additionally, I learned that these challenges and goals are quite different for every student, so we need to invest time and effort to understand what could be the appropriate challenge for each of them and to teach them how to identify such challenges for themselves.
That is why one of my priorities as an assistant principal is to make sure that the school provides broad variety of challenges in class and in other forms (extracurricular activities, learning trips, etc) as well as the appropriate support from the staff so that every student can find his own way to grow.
The second takeaway is that achievements such as Nasko’s and the impact they have on a community as small as ours is enormous. It changes the perception of what is possible and creates different culture within the school and the community as a whole. It helped us a lot to start redefining what success is and was one of the main examples when we started the process of creating a vision for our school.
As for Nasko, the major takeaway is that now, after one year in UWC, he feels a citizen of the world, has friends from five continents, studies hard for his IB diploma and has brave plans for his future. But what is even more important is that he realizes that this new life is a result of hard work and that he feels obliged to support other students from his hometown and beyond so that they can have the same opportunities.