All children, regardless of where they were born, a well-developed city or a disadvantaged, socio-economically challenged village, have the right to attain an excellent education. Many of Armenia’s rural communities, however, face severe shortages of teachers for many years at a time. It is common to see one teacher teaching several subjects, where at times some subjects are left out of the curriculum entirely.
Teach For Armenia is a two-year leadership development program for graduates and top professionals who speak Armenian and are willing to change not only their lives but also the lives of children living in Armenia. After training at Summer Institute, an intensive and rigorous five-week training program for Teach For Armenia Fellows, the Fellows are being placed for two years in communities where there is a need for teachers. Fellows not only contribute to the development of children's personal growth and academic knowledge, but also to the development of the communities through extracurricular and community development projects. Currently, the 42 participants of the program teach in 35 partner schools across five regions.
Who are these young people who are not afraid of change and difficulties who leave their comfort zones for the greater good, all to inspire children to discover their talents and realize their dreams, while inspiring the future generations.
Through the support of VivaCell-MTS, Mediamax and Teach For Armenia have launched a new project to shed light on the work and life of Fellows serving students in the most underserved communities of Armenia.
You can often listen to the Beatles songs in Medovka village. The group of students are waiting until the classes ends, and for the school to get empty so Mr. Khachig can turn on the world hits…and the English club will officially start. All the attendees of the club know dozens of songs by heart: they know the meaning of the lyrics, pronunciation, and melodies. Mr. Khachig always sings along with his students.
Learning the language with the help of the songs is not the only unusual innovation that Khachig Choukhajian brought to the village of Medovka last year. The 28-year-old young man stands out with his Western Armenian dialect, lifestyle, and mentality. Last year Khachig followed his dream and moved to Lori region from the United States which is a dream country for most people. University of California Los Angles (UCLA) philosophy faculty graduate now teaches history in the village of Medovka as well as has an after school English club.
Khachig was "enticed" by teaching in 2011, when he came to Armenia within a program and was teaching in different summer camps across Armenia.
When I was a student, I always valued and criticized my teachers, thinking of what a teacher should be like, but I never imagined one day I would like to be a teacher. During the camp I had the opportunity to teach Armenian history. It was such an interesting experience that I decided to enter the field of education. When Teach For Armenia Founder and CEO Larisa Hovannisian came to USA and presented the program, a new opportunity appeared in front of me. “I truly believe that education is able to save us, save not for survival, but in terms of development. We need very dedicated teachers, a state which will value education, citizens that will understand the value of education and science, will seek for more, not only for material, but also spiritual values, mental treasures".
Khachig came to Armenia with a romantic idea of dedicating himself to children and education, far away from everything and everyone. He wasn’t able to find housing in the village he was placed to teach so he had to rent a place in Stepanavan with three other Teach For Armenia Fellows who teach in Urasar village. He not only shares a house with Teach For Armenia Fellows but he also has another Teach For Armenia Fellow Gor Hakobyan joining him in the same school as a physical education teacher.
The reality was different from what he was expecting, but he is satisfied. New contacts and new experience allowed him to learn from others and adjust. According to Khachig, the community has become a big family to him. They gladly accepted him, though that was not the case at the begging of his arrival, there were many surprises and questions.
“The kids were very quiet, only smiling: “who is he, where did he come from, what is going to say?” Perhaps a month later they started asking me questions like, why I moved to their community? what is America like? How life is in America? I did not want to be put a big emphasis of my move, I wanted to place the concentration on the classes, I'm a regular teacher, I'm here, I'm teaching history.”
Khachig quickly got adjusted to the household. He knows, there are many differences, and will take many years to get used to. The difficult thing was to understand the Lori dialect, as well as make his own Western Armenian dialect understandable.
“In the beginning, I was sitting in the teachers’ room without understanding what they were talking about, just kept smiling. Then teachers realized that I don’t understand them and asked me. I told them that I don’t understand. Now they are explaining their dialect to me”.
Teaching children is a very important mission for Khachig. With his constant hard work at home and the school he is not only getting prepared for the lessons, but also striving to be the image of the teacher of his dreams. He says that it would have been easier if he only looked at this as a job, but he is not able to forget the goals and visions that brought him to Medovka.
“I want children to be leaders, be initiative takers, be brave, courageous, and honest. My vision of a leader is an individual who is dedicated to his community and is willing to serve the people of the community. I really want my students not only to love the school or the university, but also see the value of self-education. They should not limit themselves with school hours: from 9 am to 3 pm, but realize that they are in the process of perfection, I want them to see their future, dreams, set goals, and believe that they can achieve even the most impossible dream and start working now to archive those goals and dreams”.
The students have already adjusted to Mr. Khachig’s "strange" methods. Mr, Khachig is known for encouraging his students to think outside the box and outside of the walls of the classroom. Khachig says that Aristotle had an open-air school, they were learning by walking, discussing philosophy. “We are not walking yet because they can deviate a bit, but I feel that their ideas are widening beyond the four walls into the open air”.
Not all the students are lucky to have open-air classes. Others have heard about it and are waiting for their turn. Khachig says that films that he shows to his students, songs he teaches, topics they talk about, he chooses everything taking into account the problems that children are facing now. "I always emphasize that the difficulty will pass, the important thing is how you deal with the difficulties and what experiences you gain during the hardship. Things come and go, what’s important is how you face the challenges of life and the kind of a person you become after, you either come out stronger or slightly broken. I encourage my students to be strong, dedicated and honest.”
Khachig creates occasions for students to express themselves during their classes and after school club meetings, he wants to show them that they can do something on their own and not be afraid to be themselves. Khachig wants to encourage his students to learn how to get good education and use it to develop their own community. He says he is trying to be very careful so that he does not show the village in gloomy colors, and display the city and the diaspora more lively .
The house, where Khachig and his friends live, turns into a little teachers lounge in the evening. 4 teachers gather, discuss the day's progress, school and things they are going to do. Homework is distributed among the friends and they are set on different household duties. The days that Khachig is responsible for dinner, his friends attempt to figure out what he is cooking before getting to dinner. Khachig says they are afraid to eat his meals, Khachig cooks dishes that he learned from his Syrian Armenian family, the food is spicy and unusual. However, they never refuse steaks, they say he cooks it very well. Though Khachig complains that butchers in Armenia do not choose the right pieces for steak.
“No butcher understands what steak means. I want to work at a butcher shop during my free time, so that I can understand how to cut the meat, what pieces are needed, and then look through the internet, and cook”.
Friends intervene with a noise and laughter and continue to tell about Khachig's hobbies and intentions. During the summer break, he goes to vocal classes, he develops his voice to be able to sing during his English clubs. Khachig also has two pigs, he gave them to one of the residents of Medovka so he can take care of them while he is away. He wants to start making homemade bacon.
In reality, Khachig’s intentions go beyond his classroom and Medovka. He is not going to leave Armenia after the end of the Fellowship. "Teach For Armenia" is just the beginning of his greater goal of contributing to development of Armenia. He says that he wants to see and be part of the positive changes in Armenia.
“We need to have a great, unique dream and aspire to it. Together we will create a bright future for Armenia. It may sound crazy, impossible, but I believe we can create an Armenia that provides everyone with their needs.”
I try to "tackle" the evaluation of his own work through different questions, to talk about the changes that has undoubtedly occurred in the lives of children. "Gor, what kind of change do you see in the lives of the students?" - he says to his friend.
Gor shares the positive changes with a big excitement, he says, that when Mr. Khachig and him are coming to school, children run towards the windows to greet them. Khachig listens to him in silence and then says: “You know, I try to ignore and not think so much about that question. If I think of comments like the ones Gor is making I will concentrate on the fact that I am loved and happy and I will get overwhelmed. Instead I want to feel that I have a lot of things to give to my students and is limitless. I am trying to set that bar so high, so they will always have room to rise up. "Elevate and elevate others with you” - this is my motto which guides me. One of my strongest goals is to embed this motto into my students”.
Photos and video by Vaghinak Ghazaryan (for Mediamax)
VivaCell-MTS is the general partner of the project