“Peer education is one of the best methods for teenage students”

Elena Eigel_aces_teacher_Iasi

Born in a village in Botosani County, Romania, Elena Eigel came to Iasi with her parents when she was a child, and years later she became a teacher. In the beginning of her career, she worked as a primary school teacher for twenty years, then she was a speech therapist for six years, and since 2006 she has been working as a support teacher at the Constantin Paunescu Special Middle School (for children with mental disabilities). Elena is the type of teacher that students like to have around, she tells jokes in her classes, but yet is very strict when needed. She always looked for additional projects besides her regular teaching as these keeps her energetic and positive.

ERSTE Foundation (EF): You already participated in aces – Academy of Central European Schools three times, so we can say you are a “veteran” in the initiative. What can you tell us about your experiences with aces?
Elena Eigel (EE):
I discovered aces in 2011, when I participated together with the students from Alecu Russo School in Iasi. I was responsible for the school’s volunteering programmes, so I was very happy to be part of aces, since the topic of that edition was “volunteering”. We had a great time and especially for the students it was an amazing experience. That’s why, in 2012, I decided to apply also on behalf of Constantin Paunescu Special School. The main challenge was to find a partner school, because those who have never had any experience with special schools hesitate to enter such collaboration. They don’t know how they could work together with children with intellectual disabilities. Luckily, in that year, we found another special school for children with hearing deficiencies from Serbia. It was only five days before the deadline, but we applied together and were selected. Even more, the collaboration went great and our project received the Special Achievement Award for Innovative Learning. We were extremely happy.

In 2013 we started all over again, this time I wanted to find a regular school and my wish came true because I found a partner in the Veterinary College from Dobrich, Bulgaria. Due to the language barrier and to the distance, we mostly communicated online. We brought student volunteers to our special school to help our children communicate in English and post on social media platforms.

While working with the volunteers, our children from the special school developed real models for themselves. As they are the whole day in the school, and at home some parents keep them mostly inside, isolated. Some of them had minor problems at birth, but the families often hesitate to help them socialize with peers or to get professional help, and sometimes this is even slowing down their development. So this was a great opportunity for them. After this experience, few of the children even enrolled in a regular school!

EF: How do parents react to the involvement of their children in such an initiative?
All the parents were very supportive. The parents of the volunteers understand how important it is for their children to have contact with students from a special school because it makes them more aware of the fact that they have all the chances in the world to study and succeed in life. The volunteers also feel that they are useful, so they like to be involved and in contact with children from a special school.

The parents have a certain picture about what should happen in school and in the relationship student-teacher. And when teachers don’t respect this image, then they wonder what kind of school is that one. That’s why, when we intend to bring something new which they are not familiar with, it’s always good to gather the parents and to explain the purpose. Teachers cannot decide alone, without involving the parents, we need to have them onboard.

EF: Within the aces events you had the chance to experience different non-formal education methods and you tested some of them with students from Iasi. What was their response, were they surprised?
I tested few methods on topics like volunteering and community activities with a group of about twenty students. Most of them had never had any experiences with non-formal methods, while six of them had been trained by me beforehand and became facilitators in the workshop. All students paid much more attention than in the regular classes, even though they knew there will be no grades at the end. So that was not the reason, but the fact that they were encountering something new.

What they liked a lot was to learn from their colleagues, from the six students that knew already the methods. This encourages me to promote peer education, as they communicate and interact more freely, and they can show their personality.

After two years of aces, after having worked with volunteers who helped children from the special school, and after testing these non-formal methods, I came to the conclusion that peer education is maybe one of the best strategies for teenage students in making them more attentive, more active, more involved.

EF: What do you think that teachers should do in order to make studying more interesting to students?
EE: When I was studying in the university, we were being told that the educational system is among the ones that are the most difficult to change. However, when change is needed, instead of thinking about avoiding or delaying it, we should all focus on what we could do to make it happen – if it’s a good change. We should ask ourselves if the change is beneficial to students. Different teachers have different teaching styles – I usually make jokes, others are more serious. But we should all be open to change.

EF: If you could change anything in the Romanian educational system, what would that be?
EE: Probably this would be people’s mentality, as we need everybody to take over more responsibility: decision makers, teachers, parents, students.
Of course I would also increase teachers’ salaries and I would give more money to schools. But these needs are the same all over the world, not only in Romania. Teachers from everywhere complain about resources, about salaries, about the fact that the old or even the new teaching methods do not work on children anymore, about the children’s low interest in school.
So in the end, the difference is made by the right mentality and attitude.

A new call for applications for aces is currently running until 15 April on the topic “Solidarity”. If you are a teacher in one of the 15 eligible countries, hurry up and register for a partner school!