Armenian Innovation

Apr 3, 2017

Teach For Armenia: Inspiring the Future!

Teach For Armenia is a truly innovative program aimed at improving educational outcomes for all children in Armenia. They recruit and train exceptional individuals to teach in underserved schools for a minimum of two years. We have talked to Larisa Hovannisian, Teach For Armenia's Founder and CEO, about the creation, current progress and future plans of the program. (Larisa is also a talented singer, so you can discover more about her here and here).

How did the idea to create “Teach for Armenia” emerge?

The journey started in 2010. I was an ambitious student in Wisconsin, studying International Business with a vision to work in that sphere. But in my senior year I got a little “nervous” about spending the rest of my life in a “cubicle” and decided to look around for some short-term fellowships that would be different to what I had been studying, but useful for the country. I researched several options, including the Peace Corps and the Fulbright Fellowship, but what really caught my interest was this program called Teach For America, a nonprofit organization that enlists, develops, and places top university graduates to teach for a minimum of two years in America’s most underserved schools. Teach For America is very selective and I wasn’t too sure about my chances of getting in. But fortunately, and despite my doubts, I was accepted into the program and placed to teach special education in Glendale, Arizona.

As soon as my senior year at university had come to an end, I packed up my car and drove to Arizona from Wisconsin. This is where I spent the next two years of my life teaching children with varying needs. The two years in the classroom were challenging – you go through a lot. Any teacher will tell you, it doesn’t matter how prepared you are, your first year in the classroom is always hard! But with time, you find your rhythm. You begin to live through the hopes and the dreams of your kids, your students. So much began to change for me – I witnessed my values and priorities shifting, my outlook on life reshaping. I realized just how amazing it is to have a job that has the immense opportunity to impact an individual’s life. And it was then, that I inevitably developed a deep love and appreciation for socially impactful work. Walking into a failing classroom, believing in kids who are expected to fail, seeing them succeed… all of it changes you and makes you a more humble, yet curious person. Towards the end of my second year, inspired by these two years in the classroom, and excited about the potential of developing the leadership capacity of our Armenia youth towards the benefit of public education, I moved to Armenia with an open heart and an idea in my mind. It had always been my life’s goal to come back to Armenia, but with a purpose and a mission. And so in early 2013, I began my journey towards Armenia, and a few years later, together with my awesome team, we built the organization that we all know today as Teach For Armenia. That’s essentially how it all started.

What is your mission? What do you strive to achieve?

The organization is founded profoundly on the vision that all the children in Armenia should have equal access to an excellent education, irrespective of how much money their parents make or where they live. We believe in equity in education and that as a country, we need to relentlessly strive for our public education system to afford all of our kids with a great education. Unfortunately today, thousands of kids in Armenia are left outside of the scope of educational opportunity. The further you are from the city or the poorer your family is, the likelihood of you getting a great education decreases severely. And this phenomenon is happening in Armenia, as it also is around the world, even in developed countries like the United Kingdom and the United States. The problem in Armenia, however, is that the problem is not in specific areas of our country, but it is vast and spreads across the majority of our schools. The only way to change this is to build leadership capacity within the sphere of public education. We need talented, committed leaders working together across various sectors to ensure that one day all kids in Armenia will have access to a great education.

What’s the feedback from the fellows? How about the emotional side of things?

As a former Fellow, I can say with confidence that this experience is profoundly life-changing. You go into the classroom with a mission to transform the lives of your kids, but soon realize that it’s also your own life’s trajectory that is being transformed. I know what that feels like, and I can see this happening to our Fellows here in Armenia. We often get asked, “what’s the use of the Fellowship if it’s only for two years?” Our answer is simple, the Fellowship is the first two years of a lifelong commitment to ensuring all kids in Armenia have access to a great education. That’s why we select very unique people for this Fellowship. Some of them share the same socio-economic background of their students, others don’t. Some of them are from Yerevan, some of them are from the regions, some of them are from abroad. However, they all share key similarities between themselves, such as resilience, belief in the potential of all kids, and love for their country. We select individuals who can endure very difficult challenges, both physical and emotional. These two years in the classroom are not easy, and if people are looking for a fun time, then this Fellowship is not for them. We also require our Fellows to move to the village they are going to teach in, to live through what their kids live through. Because there is no other way to truly understand what your kids have to go through unless you live through it with them. If they don’t have water in their homes, then you shouldn’t have water in your home either. If they have to cut wood to keep warm, then you have to cut wood too. This is the only way you can truly, deeply understand and feel the underlying currents of poverty, social injustice, and educational inequity. You will no longer blame your student for being aggressive towards you as an individual, you will know that your student is aggressive because they have blisters on their feet from working the fields all day or their bellies hurt because they are hungry. It’s no longer about you or your ego, but about the inequity that our kids have to live through and overcome every single day. This experience changes you, pushes you outside of your comfort zone, makes you feel emotions you have never felt before. And ultimately, it makes you a better, stronger person. And that’s what we know this country needs. Better, stronger people.

How are the kids’ lives affected thanks to the program?

We take a double focus to the Fellowship – on academics and on mindsets. We set very ambitious yet feasible academic goals for our kids to achieve both as individuals and as part of a bigger group (classroom). This is increasingly challenging to do in classrooms that face fundamental issues of academic underachievement. Many of our schools face teacher shortages, very low literacy rates, as well as a lack of basic computational skills. Today, more than ever before, our teachers need to believe in the potential of all kids, especially the most marginalized. For it is not the child’s “fault” or destiny” but our shared responsibility to ensure they have access to a great education. That’s why we focus a lot of our energy on growing mindsets. Just imagine these kids, sitting in a desolate classroom, with aging teachers, or no teachers at all in many cases, and this young, dynamic Fellow shows up. And this Fellow is different to what they’ve known before, maybe even has a dialect that is different to theirs. And the kids look at this Fellow thinking that she or he is successful, educated and, decided to dedicate a few years of their life to serving as a teacher in their village… Words are pointless here because the transformation that happens in the minds of these kids is impossible to gauge statistically. Only time will show just how profound this impact is.   

What plans do you have for the future?

I have very big plans for Teach For Armenia. I’m very excited about where our cooperation is going with the Government, I’m pleased to see the changes that are happening. We’ve already made a lot of progress, but there are still many things that we have yet to do and accomplish. One of my biggest hopes and dreams is to merge Teach For Armenia’s vision with the development of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) within our core national curriculum. Given the direction of our economy within the sphere of technologies, and the very evident market demands for STEM professionals, I’m betting all of our energy on rethinking and reimagining public education through STEM.  

     Having great school facilities, textbooks, technology is so important, but even more important is the human capital resource we are able to provide all of our kids with. You would be surprised to see what a committed group of educators can do in a dilapidated, under-resourced school. My priority now is to scale our efforts, so that we’re achieving a critical mass of young, highly motivated Fellows who are setting the bar for what is possible for our kids to achieve, even in our most forgotten schools. I also know that it will take more than Teach For Armenia, more than any other educational initiative happening today in Armenia, to achieve true, systemic change across our schools. It will take all of us – students, parents, principals, Government, private educational institutions, businesses, philanthropists, and key stakeholders to work resiliently towards an Armenia where all kids have a great education. So, I propose for us to set aside our differences, forget about our egos, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. We don’t have time, and there’s a lot we need to do to make right by our kids.