Larisa Hovannisian: “The State should prioritize every child”

Larisa Hovannisian
Larisa Hovannisian

Photo: Teach For Armenia

Mediamax publishes a monthly series about teachers from Teach For Armenia (TFA) since March 2017. This June, the organization held an Ambassador Induction Ceremony of Teach For Armenia’s first graduates.

Mediamax talked with Teach For Armenia (TFA) Founder & CEO Larisa Hovannisian and asked her to tell about first results and plans for the future.

About the first graduates

It was a new, difficult stage of life for our Fellows. We began working on the Fellowship in 2013 and launched it two years later, in 2015. The 4th of June was an extremely emotional day for our team, because we showed the first fruit of our four-year labor.

We always tell our present and future teachers that their efforts in Teach For Armenia aren’t limited to the two years they spend in marzes (regions). It’s their life’s mission. These two years give them a deep dive into the reality of our country, into a different world that many of them have never seen.

Our Fellows come to the end of the two-year period with an understanding of how important it is to give back. For instance, if you had a chance to get a good education abroad, you have to come back and do something for your country. Our teachers experience important changes in their mentality during these two years.

On working as a teacher after TFA

It’s possible. People who came to TFA with a diploma in education can just work in schools right after the Fellowship. Other 50-60% of TFA participants take a two-year master’s course in M. Nalbandyan Shirak State University, paid for by our organization, parallel to working in regions (marzes). This means that after our Fellowship, all TFA Fellows receive a diploma and certification to teach in public schools across Armenia.

Some people think our Fellows earn an unbelievably large salary, but they actually get an average salary in schools and little funding from us to cover accommodation, transportation, and everyday necessities. Obviously, money isn’t the key factor for the young people who leave their overall comfortable lives and go to work in marzes for two years.

Larisa Hovannisian with team members Larisa Hovannisian with team members

Photo: Teach For Armenia

Moreover, we conducted a survey among our Fellows, and many of them said they were ready to work for less money. What mattered to them was to earn enough to have the necessary minimum so they could focus on their job and not look for work on the side.

Our teachers usually live in hard conditions. They all live in homes with outdoor toilets, in places with transportation problems, no internet, limited connection with the outside world and their families. Some teachers have to walk several kilometers every day just to get water.

On relationship between new and “old” teachers

I was worried in the beginning about how the relationship between our Fellows and local principals and teachers will develop. But I was very surprised and inspired by how people treated our Fellows. Of course, there were some problems, but mostly in the first few months. Gradually people began to understand that the young teachers (Fellows) didn’t have a secret agenda or a desire to stand out purposefully.

We met a lot of principals who said, “Don’t you worry. This boy (or girl) can stay at my place.” And indeed, some of our Fellows live at the principal’s houses. There are elderly women in the villages, who host our Fellows and don’t require payment, they just ask for help with housework.

We prepare our Fellows to the idea that they too need to change and adapt to local conditions. They need to remember that no matter how well they are treated, they are still guests. If the village has customs you don’t understand, it doesn’t give you the right to judge people.

We have a female Fellow working in the village of Gosh. She says, “I can’t imagine leaving this place.” She’s already thinking of a way to stay for one or two more years, although she knows she won’t have financial support from TFA.

On ensuring continuity of the process

We try to build long-term partnerships with schools, so that a new Fellow replaces the Fellow who’s leaving after the two-year period.

In any case, the final decision is up to the school principal. If they don’t want to continue cooperation for some reason, we find new school partners, as remote areas have big problems with teacher shortages. I’d like to stress that we usually send our teachers to fill vacancies that have stayed open for years because no one wanted to fill them.

On relations with the Ministry of Education

We keep in touch and work on the basis of the Memorandum of Cooperation that we signed with the Ministry in early 2015.
Larisa Hovannisian Larisa Hovannisian

Photo: Teach For Armenia

We often meet, talk and discuss different initiatives, for instance, the ongoing optimization program for public schools.

As a rule, educational initiatives in Armenia aren’t coordinated. I’m talking about private programs too, not just state ones. I really wish that one day we will sit down at the same table and try to define the key directions that will allow us to give good education to our children regardless of where they live and how much their parents earn.

Teach For Armenia’s teachers are a window into the world

Teaching subjects is just a small part of what our Fellows do in the villages. They organize different clubs and work with children after lessons. We don’t tell them what exactly to do, as each school and village has different needs.

For instance, Zina Ghukasyan and her pupils built a park in their village. She found money for the project through crowdfunding.

Another participant Rudolf Harutyunyan has already built his success story. Everything began from a business club that he led together with his students. The club aimed at determining the business potential of Blagodarnoye village (Lori marz) by producing cheese and honey. Rudolf persuaded the villagers to produce more cheese, which he continues to distribute to shops in Yerevan every weekend. Production and distribution of honey has recently been added to current activities. Rudolf helped these children and their parents understand that their production may reach large markets if they just try.

We attach special importance to attracting young men into our Fellowship. Unfortunately, the majority of men in many villages leave their country to make money abroad. 90% of teachers at schools are women at around 55. Many teenagers find going to school so uninteresting, that they just stop attending classes.

Our male Fellows very often become role models for their students as responsible citizens. Children see these young people with quality education and the best job opportunities choosing instead to teach at rural public schools.

I am also very proud of all our young women involved in the Fellowship. Many of them had to confront parental prohibitions and deprive themselves of basic amenities.

On donors

Sam and Sylva Simonian were the first to believe in my “crazy” idea and help me realize it. Later AGBU (Armenian General Benevolent Union), as well as Ruben Vardanyan and Veronika Zonabend started supporting us. Currently we closely cooperate with UWC Dilijan College and Scholae Mundi Armenia Foundation, while Veronika Zonabend chairs TFA’s Board of Trustees.
Larisa Hovannisian  Larisa Hovannisian

Photo: Teach For Armenia

One more important donor is helping us scale our impact, though they prefer to remain anonymous.

In addition to the mentioned key donors, TFA has other partners financing scholarships for one or several teachers. They involve Rosgosstrakh Armenia, Ameriabank, AMAA (Armenian Missionary Association of America).

Some people donate from 5 or 10 dollars. Every dollar counts! Moreover, there was a time when we struggled financially, and these small private donations helped us get through tough times.

On mentors

Among other components, our Leadership Development Program includes mentorship. Our mentors are professional teachers with vast experience at state schools, they are “real stars”. The majority of our teachers come from Vanadzor, most probably because, pedagogy was always highly developed there.

Currently we are developing and involving more and more mentors, including graduates of our Fellowship. Some of our mentors are specialized in special education education, yet another key topic for us.

Mentors help young teachers solve various issues, for example, how do you negotiate with principals in case of problems? How do you create engaging and effective lessons which would interest children and help them unlock their potential? Our participants realize that 2 years from the moment they first enter the classroom will pass very quickly, so they do everything possible to change children’s perception of education, laying the foundation for further successes.

On future plans

Our Proof Point Communities special strategic approach is developed for communities with poor education quality, teacher shortage and tough financial situation.

We intend to send several teachers at the same time to places where it is necessary. It would be preferable if principals of these schools were graduates of our Fellowship as well.  We aim to show what children are capable of achieving in the toughest schools.

All children have the potential and right for quality education. If every child becomes a priority for the state and the Armenian Ministry of Education and Science, everything else will sooner or later fall into place.

Not all problems in our education system are conditioned by the unwillingness of responsible people to do something good. Sometimes they are just far from the reality at schools, especially in regions. It’s like that they have never taught at a school that has faced education challenges for years. You can’t implement education reforms without the opportunity to communicate with students, who see their fathers at best several weeks a year. These kids come to school half-starved, without normal shoes and any idea on how to help their mothers feed their brothers and sisters. One should experience that first-hand before putting anything down on paper.

We have smart youth, but quite often they need leadership skills, which Armenian schools and universities do not usually aim to develop. We are committed to discovering the leadership potential within our Fellows. Of course, they are free to choose their further careers, but I am convinced that they will find it hard to leave work that helps to improve the lives of others. I have already experienced this myself. I come from a business and marketing background, and I thought I would be working for global corporations in different countries. But when you realize that life is given only once and you have the opportunity to improve the life of even one person, you just can’t live otherwise. You become “addicted” to this lifestyle and everything else becomes secondary.

Ara Tadevosyan talked to Larisa Hovannisian


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