Teach For All spoke to 2016 Global Teacher Prize Top 50 finalist, Dana Narvaiša, an Iespējamā Misija (Mission Possible) alumna, and the principal and co-founder of the Cēsu Jaunā school in Latvia. Dana’s inspiring journey and commitment to education is paving the way to change mindsets and the educational system in her country.
You were one of 50 finalists out of 8,000 for the Global Teacher Prize—can you share a bit about the specific reasons you were nominated?
The criteria for nomination is not easy and it must be reflected in your work—as a teacher, you have to be innovative, show results, and at the same time, be able to involve the wider community in your lessons and include global values in your teaching.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
I had never actually thought about becoming a teacher, much less set up my own school. I studied Tourism Management in my undergrad and then Communications Studies in my Masters and it was during this time that I decided to apply to Mission Possible. I had always worked with children and youth and therefore Mission Possible was a natural step. For example, when I was in high school, I founded the Valmiera Youth Council. It was the first organization in my town that was created and led by youth.
What led you to set up and head a school?
During my time at Mission Possible, I wanted to set up my own business and invest in education. But then I thought that instead of investing I could actually implement the change needed in education. I saw on Twitter that a group of parents who were establishing a nonprofit school were looking for a principal. So I joined them—it’s one thing having an idea, it’s another to execute that idea and that’s what I did. The school was established three years ago with 9 students. We will start the next academic year with 90 students—this is a major achievement for us.
How is your school different from other schools in Latvia?
We are called “alternative” but that’s because we offer an alternative education to the Latvian system. We are doing quite a lot of things that are similar to the Finnish system or what I have also seen in the US and in the UK.
Our vision is to collaborate with teachers, train them and provide them with opportunities so they can gain experience outside the classroom. In Latvia, most teachers train at university straight after completing high school, and then go straight back to school to teach. They don’t have other experiences. This is what we try to provide.
The second movement that we have started to slowly build is this idea that parents also have to learn. We work with parents and really invest in them. If students come home and see that what they learned at school is not applicable at home, at some point they will think home is real life and school is not. Kids are generally not that keen on sharing what they learned, so we try to involve parents by sending them emails explaining what’s going on at school so they can engage with their children and ask them about their day and what they learned. We are constantly linking school to home life.
An important change we have started to see is that people are beginning to move to our small town because of our school. Only this semester, 10 families moved here. These families are not relocating because of new jobs but because they have started to see education as a priority and they are changing their lives because of it—this is a new paradigm.
Can you tell us a bit about your school's approach to teaching?
Our aim is to develop students to become leaders so we encourage student involvement in all aspects of school life. From an early age, students are involved in organizing events to planning lessons.
Traditional schools use the curricular program as a checklist. We question whether the students can actually use what they have learned. We don’t teach something in September, check it off the list, and then never revisit it again. We are more flexible in our approach and reflect these topics all the time in projects: we learned it, so we have to use it.
We are getting an increasing number of schools coming to us because they want to see what we are doing. But in other environments, with other teachers and other students, there may be other solutions. You can’t simply copy paste. You have to actually understand how we arrive at those solutions and why it works in this particular context. This is something I have also learned from the Teach For All network.
What attracted you to the Mission Possible program?
I applied because I saw my own personal growth through the program—I knew it was going to be a challenge and I am always looking for a challenge.
Back then, many people questioned me and thought I could do so much more “than teaching”. But I felt that teaching was really great, and that it is a leadership position. I think I have helped shape not only my friends’ and relatives’ but also other people’s attitudes toward teaching. But I am still fighting to get this idea across.
Have you seen a shift in attitudes toward addressing educational inequity in Latvia?
I think there is a movement in the country. I see Mission Possible as a huge part of it, and I see our school as being part of it as well. We have started talking more about education and it has become an issue at the top of the agenda in Latvia.
The problem in Latvia is social change. We have to change people’s thinking. One important aspect is changing the mindset about teaching itself, and I think Mission Possible has done a great deal to contribute to this by getting great young professionals into education, and many of them do stay in education. But there is still a long way to go before attaining social change.
Do you have any future plans you’d like to share, or a vision for education in Latvia that you’re working to realize?
I have started to work with other organizations to find ways to help teachers feel proud of what they do and raise the standard of teaching. I want to find ways of putting education on the “red carpet”—raising the bar.
The Global Teacher Prize nomination has actually helped me a lot—it helped me understand that I am on the right path. I started to believe in myself more because I made it to the Top 50 out of 8,000 applicants—this is huge and I am really proud. The nomination has really opened up possibilities.