Photo: Andrei Pungovschi
“Everything I do, I do for them”, Ada Barbu told me while directing me through the winding streets between Calea Dudești and Șoseaua Pieptănari at 07:30 in the morning on the last school day before winter vacation. “They are like a new lover on the first days of our relationship, I need to be perfectly waxed all the time” she continues, with the frank view of the world given by 5 hours of sleep, the cold of a winter morning and the lucidity of knowing exactly what you need to do on that day in class and what results you want to get.
”They” are the twenty-seven 6 year olds of kindergarten group B in school no. 134 of Ferentari, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Bucharest; 11 girls with dimpled cheeks and 16 boys wearing perpetual frowns, who know all the lines of their favorite cartoon, The Amazing World of Gumball. “She” is Ada, 24, a teacher in her first year on the job, NGO worker to the bone, with a passion for education and learning models, quantum physics and cosmology, self-proclaimed midget revolutionary, singer, dancer, successful composer. Ada is one of the 18 teachers of many subjects who are the first generation of Teach for Romania (TfR) teachers. This is an international program that is only piloted in Romania, and whose aim is to select outstanding graduates, place them as teachers in schools from vulnerable communities and prepare them to become future leaders able to act as agents of change in education.
On that late January morning, before assigning tasks to the children, Ada asked them what a leader should be like. “A leader should be brave, responsible and respectful of those he or she works for”, they answered. “A leader should have a heart.” “Be a sport with the other team members.” Their answers, so mature, were a surprise for the teacher and she wrote them on the blackboard for the parents who were scheduled for a PTA meeting that afternoon. She then divided them into groups and told them they had to build a mall: each team had to choose a leader, cut paper money (1, 5, 10 and 50 lei notes), and choose a type of store (clothing, sporting goods, pet shop), decorate it with paper, drawings and classroom toys, and then advertise for the products and “buy” them from one another. This game is called PBL, ”project based learning”, and is one of Ada’s passions. The teacher sets the context, gives some directions in the beginning, then facilitates the process and, in the end, conducts debriefing: how things went, what kind of issues appeared, what they would do differently next time.
In traditional schools, such experiences of learning and team work are rare, because teachers focus on the national evaluations and individual exams (starting in 2014, evaluations were introduced for the 2nd, 4th and 6th grades as well). “I believe that, if the curriculum were based on PBL, these children would be completely independent after 9 years of school”, says Ada. Fortunately, the headmaster is on her side, he is open to any new ideas she comes up with and allowed her to involve her children in the dissertation paper: an analysis of their behavior and level of self-esteem while they are building a modular wooden stage together with the IKEDOO organization, which promotes experiential learning by playing.
One of the characteristics of TfR is that they connect all notions in the school curriculum to the real world and try to help children understand how the school can assist them in becoming whatever they want in life. Every time they introduce new concepts, be they English words, relief forms or physics laws, the TfR teachers challenge students to think how they would use the concepts, developing their critical thinking. This is not an alternative school curriculum, but a different, interactive way of teaching, based on skill and competence development, while the traditional system still relies on memorization.
Ada had the idea for building a “mall” the day before; she knew this exercise from the time she had been on an internship with a training company. Then, participants were asked to build castles, with the purpose of understanding how all departments worked together, but they were more focused on the competition and sent spies to the other teams. “They never got what the exercise was all about”, Ada recollects.
A petite brunette with a bob haircut, wearing black jeans and boots and a grey shirt with large, white dots, Ada has short, unpainted fingernails and looks like one of her students’ older sister. She walks around the classroom, encouraging the children or asking for information and then takes all the problems children bring up seriously: the fight between Marius and George, Dana’s stomachache or the triangle between Ariana, Alexandra and Dragoș, two cousins in love with the same boy.
“I don’t have a problem with where I go to work every morning, and I need to wake up at 6. When I used to work for Accenture and BRD I started work at 9-10 and woke up at 8, but I didn’t want to go to work there, so I could sleep for ten hours straight,” Ada told me at the end of the class. She stayed back to tidy up the classroom, gathering the paper and “money” spread all over the floor after the mall exercise. The PTA meeting was scheduled at 5 pm, so she decided there was no point in going home (sometimes she gets home for a nap, to be able to reenergize for the evening). She was happy that her students had managed to work in teams and that they had all finished the exercise, but she also realized that some had made more paper money than they were told to, just to make sure they had “profit”. That was not a competition, but children already knew, from real life, what matters. Until the end of her two years with this grade, Ada wants her students to no longer focus on competing with each other: the only true competition is with yourself.
In order to be in school by 08:00, she leaves the house at 06:50 and takes the tram for more than an hour. She uses her time to read Einstein or Stephen Hawking, a theoretician of the origins of the Universe and one of the greatest cosmologists of all times. She has a passion for quantum physics and has an atom tattoo on her left wrist.
Her parents are roadwork engineers and now live in Giurgiu where they bought a house. Besides their jobs, they have a small antique shop, where they sell objects they have gathered from country fairs for 30 years. Ada is proud to be a graduate of the Gheorghe Lazăr National College, one of the best high schools in Bucharest. She was never tutored, but tutored other kids in English and French. She was accepted at four departments: Communication and PR, at the National School for Political and Administrative Studies, then Pedagogy, Sociology and Biology at the Bucharest University. She followed two in the end: Communication, because she expected to become a copywriter, and Pedagogy, following her mother’s advice. After a year, she decided to focus on pedagogy. Now she attends a master’s program in Training of Trainers and she studies theory and improvisation courses at the Alternative University, where one can choose from various courses (management, human resources, education, sales, new media) and the way you want to learn. So, every week day, she herself goes to classes and is a student.
She is so much different now from her first day as a teacher in the fall. “Then I had long, messy, hair, you know how it happens. I had no dresses, I was the only teacher wearing pants, like I was parachuted from another planet. I had no clue where I was going, nobody told me anything.” Only two days before she had learned she was going to teach this kindergarten grade and she had cleaned the classroom for the entire weekend. “I must have thrown away a ton of stuff from the walls, layer after layers of paper, leaves, Christmas trees, colored paper, the room looked like a cave”. The parents were cautious on their first meeting, when she talked to them about complicated things – the theory of multiple intelligences, differentiated learning, and Teach for Romania.
“During the first weeks, I used to come home in tears. The children came to school to play, that was what they knew, and had no idea about learning.” Fortunately, the four weeks of teaching practice she had in Tărlungeni in August had prepared her for something like this: she knew things could get even worse, students less interested, more violent, parents who couldn’t care less, but she also knew she would prevail, in the end. “The first two weeks in Tărlungeni, I used to cry my eyes out every night, I was so affected by what they were telling me.”
“I want to be like you, to come back and do good for my community,” one 4th grader told her. And Faby, the most violent boy in her class who no one could reach (but Ada managed, through drawing) called her at some point in November: “You know what, I’m gonna change starting tomorrow. I will let everybody else beat me, this is the only way out. Teach, I’ve changed so much since I met you, I wish you could be here with me, only for a couple of minutes.”
She, who had trained so hard to train adults, who went to weekend retreats in the mountains with multinational companies, she could not have imagined being so shaken by some schoolkids.
She joined TfR because she wanted to create impact. “Working in an NGO, you really want to have some social impact in your profession. My dream is to be able to see at least one child I teach grow into a complete person, in a free society, where creativity and critical thinking rule.” She is convinced that it’s doable and keeps on dreaming: to have some social impact in areas where people don’t have access to information: “I would like to go to Africa, to have enough money to live in a country that can’t give me anything. To be a volunteer, like those people who build schools under a bridge in India.” There is something holding her back, at least for now. “My dad and I have shouting matches when I talk about going to Uzbekistan, let alone Africa. (…) I’m sure that if I told my dad I would go to Mali or wherever, he would burst into “I’m not talking to you anymore”. They are quite open-minded, up to what I value most, what I really want to do. I would leave, in the end, but I don’t want to hurt them.”
UPDATE (July 2015): Ada finished the first year of teaching being happy with the kids and disappointed with the adults. Satisfied by the degree of knowledge and autonomy the kids have reached, but sad that their parents don’t work at all to support them.
“It’s like you have a dissertation paper to write and you’re procrastinating, and this paper is your child”, Ada says. In the second semester she organized workshops for children and parents to work together: they painted eggs and foam boards, did origami, 3D puzzles, paper boats and miniature villages, anything to get them together and make them better acquainted. But she won’t give up and decided to pay more attention to the reasons behind the parents’ behavior – she’s heard some horror stories about the abuse in some of the families.
She is happy to have deived deeper into music, lately; she is getting better at the ukulele and works on two songs together with her boyfriend, Andrei. She is going to write the lyrics and sing, and he is going to play.
She hopes to stay in the Ferentari school come fall. She could only lose her job if someone with a higher grade on the exam applies for her position. Until then, she works on the trainings she is to deliver to the future generation of teachers. “I missed doing grown-up stuff.”