I have just come back from Tărlungeni, a village near Brașov, which, until a couple of months ago, I had never heard about but which now has a very special place in my heart. For more than 5 weeks it has been hosting the largest camp for leadership in education ever organised in Romania – Teach for Romania’s Leadership Summer Academy – they are part of the international network Teach for All.
21 young teachers; over 50 volunteer trainers who worked with them; more than 600 hours of classroom teaching delivered to over 200 students who volunteered to come to school in the middle of summer holiday; over 12 hours of teaching, learning, mentoring, feedback and reflection every day for each teacher, over 6 weeks. The team from Teach for Romania, who worked day and night to make all of this possible, has a mere 11 members.
These 21 teachers (primary and secondary school) are getting ready to go and teach, starting September, in disadvantaged schools all over the country. The NGO Teach for Romania will offer them support (including financial) to allow them to go off on the biggest adventure of their lives – changing the destinies of children whom nobody today is giving any changes. They will teach Rroma children, children whose parents are working abroad and who are being raised by relatives, poor children whose families can barely afford keeping them in school. They will teach in circumstances that are hard to imagine. And they are doing all of this because they believe that the education in Romania can and will change and that change starts in the classroom.
I had two workshops with the teachers over the past two days. I laughed, I cried, my heart beat fast and my soul filled with joy and wonder at their unbelievable passion for “their kids”. “I dream of them at night” – one teacher was telling me, her eyes shining.
Teach for Romania rigorously selected the best and brightest for this program, both professionally and character-wise. A part of them took their final teacher’s exam right before the Leadership Camp and they all got very high marks. Education inspectors all over the country called the organisation to congratulate them, saying they rarely see such high-quality candidates for the exam. This was before the teachers had undertaken any courses – they had just been recruited. 6 intense weeks followed, which tested teachers’ limits far beyond any of them had imagined when they had enrolled in this project.
In Tărlungeni, after 3 weeks of daily classes, the children (most of them Rroma) who had no idea what it meant to sit through a class without screaming, chaos and beatings (that’s how their other teacher, the one who takes care of their education throughout the year, understands enforcing discipline and that’s the way kids themselves knew how to handle conflict) simply got stuck on their summer teachers. They learnt, drew, played, they offered their teachers the traditional colourful Rroma skirts they are so proud of. They dreamt of careers they would like to have when they grow up, they learnt a lot of new things – from what is a “waterfall” (no, many of them didn’t even know this word, although they have a waterfall right in their own village!) to what is a “passion” (this was a also a new concept for most of them). They went to the Zoo in Brașov for the first time in their lives and also for the first time they got out of their village (the city of Brașov, a mere 10 km away, was just a distant dream for most of the kids).
During this time the teachers got observed by experienced mentors in class and were given daily feedback. They had coaches who helped them see what they were doing right and what they could improve. They went through many trials – from the stress of being away from their families for 6 weeks to the fatigue of the long hours spent teaching and learning every day, to the cumbersome feeling of failure in bringing peace and harmony to a class of kids with no concept of discipline or respect, who had to gently and lovingly be taught that school can be a joy.
After only a few weeks, a handful of people transformed a whole community. Kids came to school. They became curious. They started learning. They learnt to speak in turns. They discovered that violence is not the answer to any conflict.
The idealistic teachers who had started on this journey a few weeks before grew up quickly. They laughed, cried, progressed as teachers and as human beings. They scolded themselves for not being better, more in control of their own emotions, for not giving children even more than they were already offering. They rejoiced with the little ones for every small breakthrough. They now know all the kids names and stories. They help each other in class and humbly learn from one another and their mentors.
The day before yesterday I had in front of me a group of very tired young people (they had just finished half a day of classroom teaching) who were beautiful beyond words. I told them how wonderful they were and how brave and inspiring and I saw tears in their eyes. They don’t consider themselves exceptional. They still have moments when they believe they are not good enough.
The founders of Teach for Romania left highly paid corporate jobs to start this project. For weeks, the organising team slept two hours a night to keep the Camp running. To me, they are heroes. They managed to recruit smart, kind, educated, highly professional people, who could have easily taught in the best schools in the country, but who chose to leave their home towns and to move in the countryside or to poor neighbourhoods to change children’s lives.
I want you to know these people exist. I’d like you to tell others about them. You won’t see them in the news. They won’t fit among political scandals, car accidents and the latest divorce in the VIP world. But they are worth knowing about. They deserve being recognised for their sacrifice, their insane courage, their hard work and for their incredible love for the children others consider nothing but burdens in the System. They are the heroes to whom nobody will ever build a statue or offer a star in any Hall of Fame. And they don’t care about that – every smile from a happy child is their reward. They are people like you and I. They just chose to throw away the remote-control, go out and change the world. And this we can do too.