Roumyana Ivanova: What Makes Us Special Is the Students and the Hard Work that the Teachers Put In

January 10, 2020 by American College of Sofia

For the 22nd edition of the ACS Alumni Magazine I had the honor and pleasure to interview one iconic ACS teacher. A quick calculation shows that roughly a thousand of us have been in her classroom as 8th graders and some of us even met with her again as 11th graders for the SAT preparation elective. On her 25th anniversary as an ACS educator, we present this interview with ESL Department Chair Ms. Roumyana Ivanova.

Interview by Alexander Tomov ’04

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When and how did you come to work at ACS?

I applied twice. The first time I was asked to apply again a year later as there wasn’t an opening. One year later in June of 1994, I again called Dr. Whitaker who said he remembered me and that he’d love for me to meet the ESL department chair, Jill Snedden. Later in the evening I had a phone call with Jill Snedden. By the end of the conversation she asked if I were able to meet her in Sofia the next day. Remember that this is 8:00 PM on a weekday and I have to teach the next day. I had wonderful colleagues, so I called a couple of them and they helped. I went to the bus station at 5:30 AM but all of the early buses to Sofia were full. Fortunately, the driver for the 6:30 bus noticed me waiting for sometime and offered to take me in place of his ticket collector. When I arrived at the College, Roger and Jill invited me into his office for an interview. I distinctly remember the last question that Roger asked me: “If I called one of your students now, what would they say about you?” And I said: “That would depend on what grade they got from me last year. If they got a 5 or a 6, they’ll probably say “Oh, she makes you work super-hard, but then you learn a lot.” And then if they got a 3, which some of them did unfortunately, they’d say “Oh, she’s so evil, she gave me a 3 last year and I don’t know why.” They offered me the job right after the interview.

What was ACS like when you joined?

When I joined ACS there were 3 grade levels. The first class was in grade 10, the second one was in grade 9 and I had the pleasure of teaching the third class in grade 8. I remember grading a biweekly test over the weekend and returning it to my students the following Monday. Before I had said anything one of the guys raised his hand and asked “Ms. Ivanova, can we come to your room after school so you can explain the present perfect tense to us?” I was speechless. I had had some driven students, but not quite to that extent. I told them that was unnecessary and that I had practice exercises prepared. He said “we thought that you wanted to go ahead with whatever the curriculum says we should be doing, and maybe we can come after school and you could explain it to us.” Those students were extremely proud to have made it to the College, they were aware of this being the opportunity of a lifetime. I would describe an ACS student as somebody that comes from a family that values education, regardless of their means. To these families education is a value, a virtue, a goal. Back then there was no other school of this caliber and there still isn’t. What makes us special is the students and the hard work that the teachers put in. It was different because you had to pay the tuition fee, which was tiny compared to what it is now, but it corresponded with the families’ means. It was still hard to afford for many families, even though the College always, since day one, has offered financial aid to worthy students. I know that there were many students that studied for free because the families were unable to pay even the $600.

The College did not have all of our buildings during the first years. We had Ostrander, Sanders and Djerassi Hall. The Arts building, which is now gone, was in the back of the old Auditorium and was filled with classrooms. There weren’t as many students, as there were no 11th and 12th graders. There was a better chance for students and teachers to get to know each other because of the numbers and also because the kids loved talking to teachers. They’d love to talk and ask teachers all kinds of questions.

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Do you have a favorite class? 🙂 

I don’t have a favorite class, although I know you want me to say “2004.” Every class that I have taught has taught me things like planning, giving detailed instructions, and being explicit about goals. In the past 10 years, I have had to explain more about why we do certain things. If the students know my reasons then they’re going to be more willing to give the effort. A lot of my friends, who are not teachers, are amazed that I’ve been a teacher for so long. I always tell them “It’s never the same. I haven’t had 2 weeks taken out of 2 random years be the same, let alone an entire school year.” You have to adjust your expectations and your explanations as an educator so that the students are having a profitable time in the classroom. You always have to gauge their level so that they are a bit challenged, but not so that they feel as if they can’t do it. I always tell them “You have to be slightly uncomfortable in my classroom. If you start liking me too much, I’m doing something wrong.” As Vygotsky put it back in the 1920s, “the zone of proximal development is the place where you cannot function without the support of an adult. That’s where the learning happens.” You’re going to be pushed from your comfort zone to a slightly higher level where I’ll guide you. I like to interweave this theory with what I’m teaching because I very much believe in it.

What do you most value in your work at ACS?

Probably the most valuable thing about being a teacher at the College is that it’s a constant learning experience. I remember when I first came to work at the College I didn’t know which side of the computer you sit on. I never had any reason to try to work on a computer. I remember going to the library and seeing a lot of the international teachers sitting there and happily typing away on the keyboards. I felt like a complete loser. So I went up to Matt Brown, one of the international teacher colleagues, and asked him for help. He took me to the computer lab and showed me how to start a document, and I even typed one exercise for my students. That was one big achievement for me. I was 32 when I first used a computer and I can say that I’ve come a long way. I went to every class that any IT teacher ever offered for improving your computer skills. Sometimes it was a repetition of what I already knew, but it was reassuring that I knew the right stuff. Then other times it was learning how to do formulas in Excel and then, of course, in Google Sheets. It was so empowering to be able to do that and to be able to show my students how to do that.

Seven years ago, in 2012, I heard about Formative Assessment for the first time. A large group of us went to a professional development conference in Vienna, Austria. We were there to hear from Dylan Wiliam, a Welsh guy who did an awful lot of research on formative assessment, including field research for 14 years. This radically changed the way I teach for the better.

Another book that we read for professional development was Teach like a Champion by Doug Lemov. I recommend this book to anybody who teaches at any level because he has a number of different techniques to make sure you are involving your students. Lemov’s “bellringers” are great activities that get students to start thinking about what is going to happen in the classroom that day.

This year we’re focusing on developing caring relationships in and out of the classroom and that’s valuable because the kids need to know that you care. You can be tough, you can be strict, but when they know you care they will trust you.

What is the life of the ESL Teacher & Department Chair like?

Teaching in the ESL department is such a blessing. I love the new students, because they are so wide-eyed and exited, and happy to be here. You do not want to misuse or abuse their enthusiasm. You want to harness it and use it for positive experiences for them. It is also not very easy at times, because the kids come in with different backgrounds, from all kinds of different schools in and out of Sofia. They have formed their attitudes and behaviors to some extent already. Many of those attitudes and behaviors are not necessarily right. Whenever someone makes a mistake and another person giggles, I stop teaching and I step right in the middle and say: “We are not in the business of laughing at each other’s mistakes. We are in the business of making sure no one makes mistakes. If I start laughing at your mistakes, I’m going to die of laughter in the course of one day.”

Last year was my 20th anniversary as department head and my department organized a lunch party for me. We normally have a lunch party at the end of the school year, so I didn’t realize it was anything different from what we had done the previous year. When we got to the restaurant, they had bought flowers and these beautiful earrings that I’ve been wearing since then. Every morning when I put these earrings on, I get this warm fuzzy feeling again. And I tell them, “I love these earrings because they remind me of the fact that I’m appreciated.” That’s what we’re here for, to get appreciation from the people around us, for a job well done, especially when they are very honest about it.

Being the department chair has taught me a lot about managing people. At first I had to read a couple of books on the subject but then I realized this is like interacting with your students. I’m proud to say, in the ESL department operates by consensus. If there is one person who is not sure, we keep talking about it, we keep tweaking it until we agree. It may sound like it takes a lot of time for us to come to an agreement, but it doesn’t. We trust each other.

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If you could change one thing about ACS, what would it be?

One thing I’d like to see happening differently is having more continuity from one grade level to the next, anda stronger sense of responsibility the older you get. Something is not happening that should be happening. In my high school we looked up to the senior class and the senior class looked out for us 8th graders. In the cafeteria there would be a line, and the 9th graders would all be jumping the line. There would be one senior who would keep watch to prevent this from happening and give us right of way because otherwise we’d never get our lunch. When our 8th graders during Prep Week are doing their shoe game, our seniors are lined up around that field and laughing at them. Now we are forced to do this game inside the bubble, so that it’s only us there and no one can come and make fun of us. I understand that this is a disease of Bulgarian society as a whole, but I also think that the College can counter this. I want my students to be better human beings for having interacted with me and my colleagues at the College. If I manage to instill one good quality in every kid that I teach, I feel as if my job is done.

What would you say to the alumni?

Don’t forget about the College, even if you did not have the best experience. Those were necessary sacrifices on the road to success. Let me hear more of “This class, on their 5th Graduation anniversary, collected 500,000 leva for the College.” It should be possible with the level of success I know many of you have met. And yes, find me on Facebook, let me know what is going on in your lives. You know what is going on in mine, I’m just teaching students.

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