The Enthuiast as Educator
Article by Angelina Saule,
photos by Sakura Flower
Elena is running off her feet, as a principal of one of St. Petersburg's finest, reputable, private schools. Elena's active, bustling role in changing the face of education represents the shifting role of women in Russia, who dissatisfied with an aspect of their society, decide to take things into their own hands and change them.
A graduate of the Herzen Pedagogical University (Education), Elena entered the USSR school system immediately upon graduating. At that time, one specialised within a specific age group (Elena specialized in 6-10 year olds), and despite the satisfaction in developing children's knowledge and seeing a number of results, working within the stagnation of the education system (of Soviet or post-Soviet Russia) wasn't fulfilling for her.
"I wasn't satisfied, I wanted to do things differently……. and utilise different approaches that contrast the rigidity of the system in place. Someone once said to me that if you want things to be done differently, do it yourself. So I did".
Elena's first school began with five other teachers in 1994. Her second school is inspired by creativity and different forms of communication, and it's interesting to note that the school is warm and inviting in tone: creativity is especially revered by Elena, hence the schools vibrant use of colour and light with the assistance of her teenager pupils. There is a keen eye for detail that is instantly recognisable in the school, as the walls are plastered with drawings and paintings, many classrooms have a feature wall and plants are nurtured by the students to bring a sense of growth to the atmosphere. The attentiveness to harmonising these features is especially effective in personlising the environment and making one feel like being part of a community rather than another number.
The interest and adoption of alternative education theories still seem to be a rarity within the state system. The focus on close, interpersonal communication with an involved teacher seems to be a dream in a system which still practices a ROTE method of learning (basically, listen and repeat). Classes of 30 are not unusual, and consequently, most government teachers aren't the easiest to stimulate (the pay of 10,000 rubles a month also doesn't relieve the situation either). In such an environment, close individual attention is a novelty.
If something is institutionalized, it is usually practiced without questions. However, Elena is the type of person who not only questions this form of parroting, but sets out to reconfigure educational approaches- and she has. Her school currently has 50 students enrolled and 20 teachers employed. Unlike Russian schools, her school operates five days a week. Also, foreign language and foreign cultures are stressed - her pupils are always communicating with English speakers, be it online or by post.
Unfortunately, only the burgeoning middle class are those who have the means to enroll their children. Given that the state system is free, there are financial obstacles for parents who want to send their children to private schools, but can't afford to do so. The fees for private schooling are usually 10,000 rubles or more a month - a lot of money when the common wage is 15,000 rubles a month (approx. $300). Although paid education is not a new concept in Russia (in fact it has a long history of lyceums, gymnasiums, etc), the free education provided in Soviet times changed public perceptions about forking out so much money for education.
Despite these hardships, Elena has made it possible for several orphans to study for free at her school. With the help of international organizations, she has helped to give a disadvantaged few the privilege of private education. A couple have already graduated from her school, familiar with first-class technology and exploring themselves in a way that may not have been possible in a state school.
Charity, school and creative mecca! Elena encompasses all the things education should stand for, and more importantly, embodies the visionary, pioneering woman of Russia who confronts all sorts of obstacles head on in order to make her dreams come true. However, the dreaming isn't over. She is, perhaps like a real entrepreneur, dreaming of expanding the school's space and developing further inter-community based projects for her pupils.
"The building is rented….it used to be a kindergarten, and as you can see, I've tried to make it as homely as possible to encourage a friendly and inspiring atmosphere which is so vital for students. However, there is so much more I'd like to do: for example, to purchase the yard next door, or change certain details….all in good time".
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