Larisa Hovannisian, founder of Teach for Armenia

Teach For Armenia Gives a Boost to Armenia’s Educational System

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By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

YEREVAN — In the last few decades, many new non-profit programs have been started in Armenia attempting to use as models similar programs in the United States or the West. Teach For Armenia is one such program which is strengthening Armenia’s educational system.

It is an educational foundation based in Armenia but part of the global network Teach For All. Teach For All was started in the US as a method to use teaching for leadership, and now is used in 46 countries.

Teachers recruited from young professionals both in Armenia and in the Armenian diaspora are placed for a minimum of two years in schools in rural communities. After a five-week summer training program, they experience teaching and living in a very underserved school, and afterwards are expected as alumni to contribute to Armenia’s systemic development. Essentially, this model emphasizes developing long-term leadership capability in the realm of education.

Teach for Armenia at work in an Armenian classroom
Teach for Armenia at work in an Armenian classroom

 

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Every such program has a story, and the story of Teach For Armenia begins with Larisa Hovannisian. Hovannisian was born in Yerevan of an Armenian mother and Irish-American father who met and fell in love in Moscow. She grew up largely in Moscow, speaking Russian, but her English is practically devoid of an accent, as she always spoke it with her father and after graduating high school went to Wisconsin for college. She studied international business with an emphasis on marketing and graphic design and, she said, fell in love with social entrepreneurship.

After graduating she moved to Phoenix through Teach for America (TFA) and spent two years there before packing up to go to Armenia with a new idea in her head. She wanted to combine her love for socially driven business with her business background. Hovannisian declared, “I love seeing social innovation and social good come together in one place. The main goal of the organization [she wanted to establish] will be to serve people and make our lives better.” She started Teach For Armenia in 2013 and its first cohort of teachers began training in 2015.

An interesting and not irrelevant side story is that she married Armenian opposition leader Raffi Hovannisian’s son Garin in June 2016. She says that she feels inspired that they both in their own fields are working for their country, just as her maternal grandparents did a lot for the Artsakh Movement in their own time. However, she said, “I have never been involved in Armenian politics. I keep myself apolitical. That is difficult because I have a direct connection with the opposition. Meanwhile, I am working with the government because of my work right now. I think that is what I am supposed to do based on the position I currently have with Teach For Armenia.”

Hovannisian said that the scope of the problem in Armenian public schools is vast, with about 35 to 40 percent of the schools experiencing teacher shortages, according to informal observations. The initial goal is to demonstrate that “if great people get together as teachers or principals then all kids can truly unlock their potential.”

Furthermore, she said, “the sole purpose of our fellows, through their teaching and their presence, their role modeling, afterschool activities, community development projects, and their entire existence in the school, is to set each and every child on an alternative educational trajectory. … We recruit and place not just smart people, but people who have what it takes to defy the odds these kids are set up against.”

Some schools now have seen that this program works, and are hiring many TFA fellows, and TFA uses the data it is statistically obtaining from these schools to show the benefits of its approach. She said, “I hope that when we have that in place, and I hope it is not that far off, that we can work with the government to see how we can scale that and nationalize it and superimpose it in other regions and schools.”

Providing teachers for the many unfilled positions in a short-term solution. According to Larisa, the long-term approach is simultaneously being pursued by TFA. “We want to develop a generation of people to enter government and change the root of the problem so that we don’t have teacher shortages,” she explained. TFA cannot solve all the problems, but it can identify them and help to contribute to solving them, she said, “through recruiting, training and developing great teachers.” The alumni of the program in turn will launch their own initiatives and become the principals of the future. Larisa said, “I think that they are what I am really betting on.”

Hovannisian noted that one thing different about TFA than most diasporan programs is that it engages within the present Armenian system and works with the Ministry of Education and other relevant government bodies. She said, “In the beginning it was very difficult…The Ministry of Education did not really understand why we were doing what we were doing… I think what really helped was that though we did not have a precedent in Armenia, there were precedents in 46 countries around the world and we were looking at their track records, showing the Ministry of Education why countries that are quickly developing in the right way are prioritizing this model…so with time, it went from a hard no to let us figure this out.”

When asked about the causes of the problems today in Armenia’s educational system, she responded, “The system is what it is because of a lot of things. Armenia is a post-Soviet state. We are very under-resourced. There is an aging teaching population. It is not a prestigious profession. So many factors affect education today, including apathy. The stakeholders are the stakeholders and we just have to work with them and find the goodness in their heart. It is a very long game. It will not happen overnight.” Concerning corruption, she said, “Maybe this is just the idealism in me, but even the most corrupt people ultimately want what is best for kids. If you lay it out and say when you do this this is what happens to a child…”

TFA Director of Public Affairs Narek Ghazaryan (born in San Francisco) said that the schools are important not only because of their educational roles but because they are the most important centers of communities outside of individual homes. He said that the system is decentralized, so that students in Yerevan get a different education from those in other provinces. The utilization of money in each school is not tracked, which can lead to corruption. Soviet-style memorization is still taught and the curriculum and textbooks need updating.

TFA started with 14 fellows selected out of 200 applicants and contacted school principals to see if they would participate in the program. Today it has 52 participating principals and partner schools in 6 regions in Armenia (not including Artsakh) with 5,700 students, and no longer has to solicit open positions. The requests from the schools, according to Larisa, are backorders, which is an indication of TFA’s success. This year’s annual budget is just under one million dollars, and will increase next year to over one million, as almost 100 fellows will be placed. The application process remains selective. Last year, according to Ghazaryan, of 550 people who applied only 41, less than ten percent, were accepted as teachers.

Regions in which Teach for Armenia operates

One of the biggest drivers of the budget is supporting the fellows financially. The schools at which they teach guarantee at least one-half a work week pay from their own school budgets, but TFA chips in with a stipend since the fellows have to move to new homes. In all, the fellows make 400 dollars a month, which covers all their expenses. TFA also pays for the online master’s degree in education the fellows work on while teaching in their schools if they do not already have a pedagogical degree.

There are about 18 program and operational staff members working for TFA, and a second office has been opened in Artsakh. Each “Leadership Development Manager” coaches 15-20 fellows during the duration of their two-year fellowships. A few are from outside of Armenia, and many are from different regions of Armenia.

TFA partners with many organizations who, Larisa said, “like to work with us because our fellows serve as a transparent liaison through which things can get done in an effective way. So we bring an army of organizations with us when we send a fellow to a school. Some may want to renovate a school, and can know that someone is there to help. Some send food and clothes, basic things to cover people’s needs. This is of course a short-term solution, partnering with relief and aid organizations while hopefully developing the mindset and skills that our students need to take things into their own hands for their own communities and lives.”

Though all the regions TFA has targeted are socioeconomically deprived, there are regions additionally with geographical barriers, poor roads and infrastructure, and issues from being located at the Armenian border. For such regions, including Tavush, Lori, Gegharkunik, Armavir, Aragatsotn, Shirak and Artsakh, a pilot program was launched last September which officially will be started this coming September. Larisa pointed out that when people ask why TFA does not place 500 people now, they do not realize that it takes a lot of time-consuming work and decisions to ensure the quality of the result.

Larisa is optimistic about relations with the government. TFA’s chief program officer now part of the main educational council, and, Larisa said, “a main speaker in the conversations that shape Armenia’s educational policy. Furthermore, she said, “I think there is a real desire in the prime minister’s office to make things happen, and the team he has surrounded himself with are young progressive entrepreneurial people, thinking of ways to make public education better in Armenia.”

The TFA teaching fellows are carefully chosen, based on data. Fifty percent are from urban cities in Armenia and 30-40 percent from regions where they share similar socioeconomic backgrounds with the students they are to teach. The latter group, according to data, is more effective in the classroom and able to build a better rapport with the children.

While the intent is to build leadership in Armenian society, there is also a small number of diasporan Armenian teaching fellows at present, perhaps ten percent of the total. Larisa said, “There is a growing desire for our young diasporans to engage in Armenia’s development. We just want to create the platform for people to come and have a real way for contributing. If they desire to have a real way to stay and work in Armenia [afterwards], then why not? Or if they return, and go back to the US, there is a lot to do there too.”

TFA has been doing more outreach in the diaspora recently. Its recruitment team annually visits Lebanon, where there is a big recruitment pool, Moscow, and the US (to California and the East Coast). There is online recruiting and campaigning and social media work. TFA partners with organizations like Birthright Armenia to get more recruits, since many of its volunteers want to stay in Armenia longer.

Financially, TFA has benefited from diasporan support, starting with Sam and Sylva Simonian, who provided seed funding. Ruben Vardanian and his wife Veronika Zonabend are important supporters, and Zonabend is the chair of Teach For Armenia’s board. The Armenian General Benevolent Union has provided support in the past few years, and the Armenian Educational Foundation of Los Angeles supports the cost of the online educational program of the fellows.

Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, had founded Teach For All, its international version, and she and her team helped TFA get through a financial crisis by arranging a grant from an anonymous donor to scale the organization and grow at the proper level. Hovannisian expressed great thanks for this support, and stressed that this is the spirit of the international network. TFA is not a franchise but part of the network, and different parts of that network work together toward their common goals on this globalized issue.

Armenia can contribute as a laboratory to this world movement, Larisa surmised. She said, “There are only 1,400 schools. We can fail and succeed and fail and succeed again very quickly, and see the impact. We can teach the rest of the world how things function.”

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