ACS Alumni at Teach For Bulgaria: Be the Solution!

January 22, 2016 by American College of Sofia

Interview by Petia Ivanova ’97 and Natalia Manolova

team 2

Teach For Bulgaria staff members enjoying a beautiful day outdoors

The office of Teach for Bulgaria, where seven ACS alumni work alongside each other towards making high-quality education accessible to every child, is situated in an old city house in the back of a small inner court with blooming lilacs just off bustling pedestrian Vitosha St. We enter the sun-lit building and proceed to the conference room we are about to use for our interview, which instantly gets filled with laughter. Neli Koleva’98, Evgenia Peeva ’04, Ekaterina (Katya) Yankova’99, Maria Kinkina ’08, and Kalina Tsoneva ’10 are happy to be letting us in on their little but growing Teach For Bulgaria world. The other two ACSers at the organization could not join us for their own good reasons. Trayan Trayanov ’01 is home with his wife and their two-week-old son Boyan and Petar Kanchev ’06  is on a field visit at ACS on that day. But not to despair, their answers that we get a few days later, are also to be found below.

What have you been up to since you graduated from ACS?

Evgenia: I went to study at Harvard and then worked for McKinsey & Company for 2 years and came back to Bulgaria to launch Teach For Bulgaria (TFB).

Trayan: I got my BA and worked as a management consultant in NYC, London, and Prague for a few years. Then I got a Master’s in sociology before moving back and joining TFB. I picked up squash in the meantime.

Neli: I got my BA at Middlebury College and my PhD at Rice University and then I taught at the University of Rennes for two years before returning to Bulgaria.

Katya: I studied at the Sofia University and then worked for 5 years at Ericsson before coming to TFB.              

Maria: Before joining TFB I studied Sociology and International Relations at Brown University.

Kalina: I graduated from Warwick University in England last summer and almost immediately joined TFB as a teacher.

Petar: After graduating from ACS in 2006, I got my BA in Business Administration from the Hague University in The Netherlands, and then worked for a year as a financial analyst in Leiden. In 2011, I quit and returned to Bulgaria to pursue an MSc degree in Cognitive Science at New Bulgarian University (NBU). Currently, I am working on a PhD in psychology there, and I recently accepted an offer to become a teacher at TFB.

Did those of you studying or working abroad know you would be joining Teach For Bulgaria before you came back?

Neli: I returned to Bulgaria because I joined TFB.

Maria: Same for me.

Evgenia: Sort of the same for me. I wouldn’t have come back if it wasn’t for TFB.

Kalina: Me too. I was planning to stay in England and then I saw the TFB job offer at my university. The rest is history.

Katya: Mine is a different case as I was already here. But after working at a big corporation for some years I needed a change, something much more challenging, interesting, and beneficial for others rather than for me or a company. Besides, working with people from ACS is always a pleasure (laughing) and Jeni and Trayan were already here when I joined.

What are your different roles at TFB?

Kalina: I teach English.

Evgenia: I am the CEO.

Maria: I am doing Impact Assessment and Impact Strategy which is, in other words, evaluation and research at TFB.

Katia: I work with recruitment and selection.

Neli: I am the head of teacher support and professional development at TFB.

Trayan: As the program director, I am now responsible for several functions including teacher training and support, impact assessment, alumni support & leadership development, policy research and analysis.

Petar: Actually, I just accepted an offer from TFB to become one of the teachers in the class of 2014. Currently undergoing a training program, I am expected to teach for two years, starting in September 2014.  It is still unclear exactly what I will teach, but in any case my role will be to pursue high goals, high expectations, and high results for students, who have been taught to put up with much lower expectations.

What would you say ACS is to you now? What did you learn at the College that you still find useful?

Kalina: For me ACS is a place I could call mine, where I was surrounded by people that inspired me, made me feel good, and taught me a lot. Probably the only place I have felt like that since then has been TFB. I learned a lot at ACS but the first thing that comes to mind is that there were no excuses. I guess looking for (and finding) excuses is very typical for our culture but at ACS, I got to believe most of what happens to a person depends mainly on them, or as we like to refer to it here at TFB “internal locus of control”. I try to teach my students that there is always a way of meeting a deadline and if you don’t in the end, it’s most probably because you didn’t care enough.

Евгения Пеева.JPG

Teach For Bulgaria CEO Evgenia Peeva ’04

Evgenia: I think ACS set me up for success and for many things that happened later in my life. Many of them would simply not have happened had I not gone to ACS: like going to school in the States and exposure to all sorts of things throughout my high school years that helped me find out about some of my interests later in life. The one thing that stands out of all I learned at ACS is that one can always do better and there’s never a limit to improving and doing things in a better way. To be an active part of the community is another thing I learned at ACS. The fact that you are being engaged in the different opportunities provided is helpful both to you and the other members of the community.

Maria: I agree with Jeni that ACS set us up for success in our academic and professional careers. Especially after I joined TFB and was thus exposed to other high schools in Bulgaria, I realized how much ACS had given me. I am part of TFB because of ACS. As a student at the College I was part of the English Teaching for Kids Club and that’s when I realized that I really loved working with kids and helping them. I think that ACS really prepared me to take good advantage of my college education in the States. I was talking to some of my classmates at Brown who went to other Bulgarian high-schools and I could definitely see that I was much better prepared to write, and study in general,with the same intensity. Instead of being surprised I felt prepared, so I had a much smoother transition than some of my Bulgarian classmates from other high-schools.

Katya: I was at ACS when We Care Club started. I too felt that I liked working with kids. ACS taught me a lot of things I have found useful afterwards but one that stands out is expecting what will happen in any area, being prepared for anything, and not being surprised by anything as a result. Now, I don’t think I stress out all that much about things when they happen. All these years I’ve always been in touch with people from the College. And of course, I met my best friends there.

Trayan: ACS may have changed my life. It’s the reason why I chose to pursue a liberal arts education and was prepared to make the most of it. As Katya said, it’s the place where I met some of my best friends. ACS taught me effective writing, critical thinking, and surviving under pressure! The aversion to cheating is also something that ACS cultivated.

Petar: Every time I think about it, I come up with something entirely different. What I can say for certain is that the College has influenced almost every aspect of my life, mostly in a positive way. There is one thing I learned at the College that seems both universally useful and universally underused – the scientific method. In my teenage years I often thought I was wasting my time while mixing compounds in the chemistry lab or while looking for evidence to back up my claims for the history paper but I was wrong. All of the skills I developed while learning and applying the scientific method have come in handy in a variety of situations and I have constantly been baffled by the void of such skills in modern society.

Neli: I personally view getting the chance to go to ACS as the single most life-altering event in my life and I feel like everything about the way my life has been shaped since then is due to the fact that I had the tremendous opportunity to study there. At the time, this was not very obvious as I came from outside Sofia and one may even say this was revolutionary. I can relate to most of the things mentioned before me but to me the biggest advantage from ACS would be a certain type of fearlessness that I have as a result of studying at ACS, which allowed me to pursue career paths and opportunities that otherwise I would not have dared. And you know, quite frankly, I was quite underqualified for the position that I was hired to do here, being a university instructor and not a manager per se. Yet, I feel that I have a certain way of approaching things in my life which leads me to believe that “Of course I can do that.” “Of course I will figure a way to deal with it”, and I will even find a way to excel in it. This I owe to ACS where I was constantly challenged to do just that.

Coming from seven different ACS classes ranging from 1998 to 2010, it is obvious that if some may have met while students at the College, most of you did not. Tell us how you all ended up working together!

Evgenia: Trayan and I were the first two to join TFB. One may say we met on the ACS stage as part of the musical cast, without being close friends back then. Afterwards, haphazardly, we met in college, as well – we both studied at Harvard – without being best buddies at that point either. We even pursued the same major at Harvard, Social Studies.  But while Trayan was focused on the more theoretical Sociology I was concentrating on Education. I still had no plan of us becoming colleagues but when I started recruiting the original team for TFB and sent job descriptions around to everyone in my networks, Trayan came across it. He approached me and my only other colleague at the time, and that’s how we became colleagues. And then again through another ACS alumnus, Borislav Stefanov ’97, who has supported TFB greatly even if indirectly as a member of the Advisory Board, Neli found out about the position she is now occupying. Then when we were looking for a Recruitment Head, the job description found Katya, and not through the ACS network. So, it was not as if we were intentionally looking to hire an ACS alum. With Maria it was a really interesting case. When I was a college student, I started another NGO working with underprivileged kids and I looked at ACS to find high-school volunteers. Maria, an ACS student at the time, was one of the students participating at this forum for two summers. We stayed in touch and a couple of years later, she joined our team.

Trayan, Katya, Neli, Maria

Left to right: ACS alumni Katya ’99, Trayan ’01, Maria ’08, and Neli ’98

Trayan: I always wanted to return to Bulgaria and be part of the solution. With TFB I got the opportunity to do just that, as well as work on things that I find intellectually stimulating and allow me to develop professionally –  helping to build a new organization from scratch, learning to manage a team, conducting action research, and influencing education policies. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are so many ACSers at TFB. It only goes to show how strong the alumni network is and how high the caliber of ACS graduates is.

Kalina: I don’t remember anymore how I found out about the position but when I did, I already knew of Teach For All which is actually quite famous world-wide. I found the opportunity in the offer instantly fascinating.

Petar: I came back to Bulgaria because I firmly believe it offers a lot of opportunities for a meaningful and challenging participation in social discourse. TFB is one such opportunity, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there are so many ACS graduates in the organization other than me.

Quite a few of you visit the college regularly – Evgenia being on the ACS Board of Trustees, Trayan being an Alumni Fund member and on the accreditation committee at ACS, and Evgenia, Trayan, and Neli as a part of the recruitment effort at ACS whereby they present at the Open House Days for candidate families. What are some of your impressions from ACS now compared to those from the time you were students here? And what are some of the thoughts of those of you that have had the chance to collaborate with current ACS students?

Trayan: Many things have changed, but I love the fact that many great traditions remain – the school musical, the Christmas concert, the student newspaper College Life, Student Council, Science Fair, the Daily Bulletin, etc. ACS students have interned at TFB on multiple occasions. Some of them worked for the organization while others supported our teachers directly. We send our teachers on classroom observations to ACS as part of their regular teacher training and certification process and ACS hosted our second annual Transformed Students Inquiry conference last June. I am continuously impressed by the students at ACS. They are passionate and smart. One thing that’s changed that surprised me is how few of ACS students now pursue their college degrees in the US. I think there is some misperception about liberal arts education and living in America that needs to be addressed.

Petar: Actually, I just visited the College for the first time since my graduation 8 years ago. The visit was part of my training at TFB, so I got the opportunity to experience the classrooms again from a completely different perspective. While I met mostly new teachers and new students, both the sense of community and the spirit of diversity seemed intact. And since both organizations are in the business of high quality education in Bulgaria, the existing collaboration is quite natural.

Maria: I had the opportunity to work with one ACS senior, Svet Kostov ’14. I heard of him through an ACS teacher as we were looking for examples of successful students to interview and illustrate to our teachers what a successful student is. When I interviewed him I was so impressed by the way he spoke, the way he thought which was much more similar to how I was starting to think when I was a senior in college, not in high-school. He was really so impressive and so thoughtful of what was happening around him and what he wanted to do. Afterwards, Svet approached us again and did a summer internship where he helped during our summer academy. Later on, he proactively organized his Senior Independent Honors Project to involve TFB. He was working on it together with several of our teachers and he recruited other ACS students to join. Such experiences make me think ACSers have become even more mature and impressive over the years!

Neli: I have been to ACS classrooms every year in the past couple of years and observing the level at which students are working and the level of their involvement, I agree with Maria that today’s kids are even more impressive than us, as I remember.

Evgenia: I know there are those that find today’s kids different than us some years ago and not in the good way Maria referred to. Certainly, kids are changing which is great because otherwise they would just be inadequate. So, really it is us and our understanding and mindsets that are growing a bit inadequate and we would profit by trying to open ourselves more to them, even learning from them. Yes, sometimes it is hard to give up your old ways of doing things but sometimes it’s refreshing and you can actually enjoy working with the students much more afterwards.

What would be some future collaborative projects between ACS and TFB involving ACS students that you know of?

Neli:  We do often have ACS students as summer interns, so we have engaged them and they have been great. You know, with ACS students you don’t have to say twice what they need to do to be sure they will show up daily and do a good job for the complete three-week period of the internship. So, we’re keeping up with that for sure! And if the students can be proactive about it, we’d love that, too because sometimes our teachers don’t know how much they can benefit from outside help, being stressed out and all.

Evgenia: Another way we are already involving current ACS students is by asking them to help individual teachers with their work in school or help them prepare for some of their classes or check homework assignments. We’ve also had individual students approach us and we’ve been more than happy to take in more volunteers as for us it’s a great resource. We love working with ACS students!

Any exciting current TFB or personal projects for that matter you would like to tell us about?

Trayan: My wife Olga and I got married last summer and our son Boyan was born in March 2014. Being a parent represents a whole new world to me and I am excited by this new challenge!  🙂

Katya: At the beginning of June we have the Heads of Recruitment and Selection Teach For All network coming to a conference, the Global Conference for Recruitment and Selection, so they will spend a week with TFB. We’ll be sharing best practices with each other, we will showcase a little, and hopefully get them really excited.

Evgenia: We’ll have colleagues from Great Britain visiting for that conference and they are known for all their hard work in the past couple of years and for successfully recruiting great people like Kalina here. That’s another reason why we are so excited about this.

Maria: For the second year in a row, we’ll hold our conference Transformed Students Enquiry at ACS. This forum is basically a day when we reflect on the best practices of our teachers and showcase stories of our most transformed classrooms. We are very excited about having a large part of the ACS community join and are also open to doing more together. The theme of the conference is “How does a transformed classroom look?” And just as an idea, a transformed classroom is a classroom that didn’t necessarily start very well but over the course of a year or two experienced great progress and great results, so we’re trying to find out how that happens. There will be a lot of students present and the TFB community, business leaders, and principals will be discussing together how to make that happen. It’s taking place on June 14 at ACS.

Kalina: Something else exciting is that some of my students and I are thinking of starting something like the ACS We Care Club at the school where I teach and we are starting to co-operate with some of our colleagues who work in Oreshene. This is a small village near Yablanitza, a poor and disadvantaged region, where people have very limited access to work. So, I want my kids to establish a connection with the kids there and do a series of projects together whereby we can help the kids in whatever way we can. And I think this is done better by teaching them things than by bringing them food and clothes.

Petar: Since I just joined TFB, I am still not active in the organization, but my PhD research project in psychology is actually closely related to education. Its goal is to investigate both the external (environmental) and the internal (cognitive) factors that facilitate motivated learning. As for the near future, I am fairly certain that it will be related to the Bulgarian educational system one way or another.

Evgenia: Something exciting that may be interesting for other ACS alumni is that we will have more openings on our teams as our organization is growing. We’ll be looking to hire highly talented staff members within the next couple of months, so watch out for job announcements on our website.

Neli (laughing): And those can, but don’t have to, be from classes that are already represented here at TFB.

ACS and TFB are both part of the educational system in Bulgaria and work hard to promote the access of all Bulgarian students to excellent education. If you had the power to change one thing in the current local education system what would it be?

Katya: I would change the teachers or better yet their expectations. I think it was the high expectations of our teachers towards us at ACS that made us what we are now, that helped us believe in ourselves and succeed. I think all kids deserve that.

Evgenia: I would change the school principals. Just make sure every single one of them is a great leader, because I think they can do a great job and work on mindsets and building a culture. I would ensure that they are well prepared and know how to manage the organization, as well as how to develop their teams, so they can deliver high quality education.

Neli s tetradki

Neli ’98 at work

Neli: I would change the system towards more values-based instruction as opposed to basing everything on subjects, grades, and passing from one degree to another. What we, as a society, need are values and we need to align everything about education with that, too. And since this is something we learned at ACS, I’ll mention being honest about your work, being hard-working, and having an internal locus of control. To me, changing the way we look at values within the educational system would be the first thing to do. And I would go for the principals just like Jeni.

Kalina: I tend to agree with Katya. I would concentrate on changing the perception of what a teacher is. Unfortunately, teachers’ reputations are not very good at the moment. Many people think teachers become such because they can’t do anything else which is very unfortunate. If we manage to attract the most talented people to enter the educational system, then I think all those things would change. I think a lot of people would want to teach, many of them want now, too but don’t just because it’s not prestigious or doesn’t look like a good career prospect.

Trayan: I would change society’s and policy-makers’ inclination toward top-down, central-planning-type approaches. We need to promote bottom-up innovation in education. We need to “let a thousand flowers bloom.” This means we need to have a strong system of evaluating teaching and learning outcomes but we should not be prescriptive of things such as curriculum, qualification or previous experience of teachers, classroom instruction, school administration and management, even school-year calendar. We should let the schools figure out what works best for their students and for their teams. We should support them in their experimentation, then capture and spread their best ideas. Bulgaria should make it possible for state-funded “free” schools or “charter” schools to co-exist with public and private schools as a way to promote innovation.

Petar: I would empower the students. We shouldn’t expect to observe motivated learning, if students don’t have a sense of agency and self-determination. Companies across industries achieve this for their employees by engaging them in the business strategies and involving them in the decision-making processes. The same could be done in educational contexts if students are given opportunities to actively participate in the continuous improvement of their classrooms, schools, and communities. Giving students at least some control over their environment would help them believe that they are shaping their own destinies, rather than complying with someone else’s idea of how their destinies should be shaped.

Do you have any message for our readers, ACS alumni?

Neli: Two years ago, I discovered the stone marking the location where the American College of Sofia used to be in Samokov. I like to go back there whenever I get a chance, you know, we have teachers there. I find this to be a very inspiring journey, so I highly recommend it to any ACS alumni. It’s a very old and modest monument and gets you thinking about all sorts of things. It’s the only thing standing from the original school but it seems to me as if it symbolizes very effectively a spirit which even though physically non-existent has survived so many years.

Maria: My message to younger alumni would have to do with realizing or taking advantage of the ACS network and the bigger ACS community. For example, in our class we just started meeting a year ago. Usually people have their small circle of friends they talk with, but the ACS network is so much bigger, and I have enjoyed greatly meeting alumni from other classes and working with them here at TFB. So, yes, reach out beyond your class, also to people you knew but weren’t necessarily friends with in high school that usually end up being really awesome people.

Trayan: Do find a way to stay engaged with ACS students, and share your knowledge, network, and experience with them. You can really make a difference as a mentor in a young person’s life.

Neli: This may be the place for me to add that we should unite our efforts in making this place available and accessible to as many people as we can because it is a great privilege.

Kalina: Going to ACS is a great privilege but I also think it brings a huge responsibility and if anyone, we are the people who need to take care of the problems we see around ourselves. And that’s exactly what we are trying to do and as we do it, I’m sure, others will join in.

Petar: Whenever you make important academic/career choices, try to isolate yourself from peer and parent pressure, and ask yourself what you want to do and why. It is still a good idea to take advice from friends and family, but I have found that increasing one’s self-knowledge often leads to unexpected and surprisingly fulfilling career paths.

Evgenia: I think it would be great if people shared more. I think the community would greatly benefit from that but I think we just forget about it, because everyone is just so busy with their everyday lives. How about whenever you want to meet some other ACS alumni, you stop by the TFB office, where we could have a regular happy hour or a get-together because we’d love to connect. Anyone excited about it, just do it, I think it’s a great way to stay in touch and keep appreciating the benefits from our ACS experience.

Neli: And our classrooms always need inspiring people to visit and share with the students, so feel invited!

Evgenia: Keep challenging yourselves, everyone!

The interview was first published in June 2014 as part of the ACS Alumni Magazine.

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