Reflections on the 2016 Global Conference

The past year has been a big one at Teach For Bulgaria. We doubled in size, we launched a joint international policy project in alternative pathways to teaching together with four other Teach For All network partners and our respective education ministries, and our first alumni became school principals. The Teach For All Global Conference, which we were honored to host, was the "tip of the iceberg" and the crowning event of a year of learning, growing, and expanding our view of system level change and our role in addressing the core causes of educational inequity in our country.

In the months leading up to the Global Conference and in the weeks that have followed it, having quiet space to reflect on the key lessons learned has been both a necessity and a luxury. My reflections, therefore, are not yet fully distilled and polished, but they do come with the intensity of the moment. They also come with a huge sense of gratitude to the Teach For All team and global community for granting us the trust and support necessary to pull off such a summit in our country. The close collaboration with colleagues at Teach For All during the process of conceiving and planning the Global Conference, with its many aspects, core themes, messages, and stakeholders, has taught us at least as much as the conference sessions themselves. It has helped us see our work from a new perspective and to appreciate so much more the strengths and impact of our partnerships with government, unions, donors, schools and other non-profit organizations and like-minded supporters. Thank you, global Teach For All community and partners, for helping us find more value and pride in our work and achievements, while also showing us how much farther we can go!

During the "Welcome to Bulgaria" session of the conference, I highlighted the role that Teach For All has played in pushing Teach For Bulgaria to formulate our long-term vision for the students we’d like to see graduate from Bulgarian schools, and the schools we’d like to help create in order to have such students. I asked all Global Conference participants to help us figure out how to get closer to achieving this vision faster. I shared the key pillars defining a system that provides equitable quality education, but couldn't necessarily describe the content of its curriculum, or the pedagogical methods, or the mechanisms required for such a system to constantly self-evaluate, learn, and update itself. Thanks to the incredible group of speakers, experts, innovators, thought-leaders, and thought-provokers during the three intensive days of the global conference, I can now describe in real terms the kinds of educational experiences and practices at various levels of the education system that characterize this reimagined education. As our COO put it, "I learned that people have figured out what reimagined education looks like. The tough part is to find the path to providing that kind of education for all of our kids."

Indeed, as we discussed with peer CEOs, the daily challenges and struggles of our work—at their core related to ingrained mindsets about children's abilities, fear of change, lack of experience, and the unwillingness to let go of established ways of operating our schools and education systems—make it extremely hard for us to see the small steps forward we're making on a daily basis in pursuit of a reimagined education. Yet, what gave me hope and evidence that we're on the right track was the example of our students engaging in and leading this effort alongside us. My other source of inspiration from the Global Conference came from the support and thought partnership we received from innovators and stakeholders beyond the Teach For All network.

My most memorable experiences from the conference take me back to the words of our students. We all heard Priyanka's powerful message about the voice and silence of leadership. I want to share with you a statement by Vasko, one of the Bulgarian student leaders who also attended the conference. As we were working through our creative collage exercise, he explained to the adult participants the reason why he was with us at that moment: "You know, for many years my teachers have been telling me that it's up to me. It's not something I ever heard my parents saying. Somehow I didn't get it until very recently. Suddenly, I realized that I am your future. So, it's really up to me. I can define what this future will be and work to make it happen." Having seen the incredible examples of student leaders from all across our network—and there are thousands more of these—I know that our work is contributing not only to a reimagined education, but also to a reimagined world.