If someone had told teenaged Eric Budd that he would grow up to become a high school teacher, he would have laughed them off.
In high school, Eric lived to play sports and never really cared about academics. He got a “nice D” at least once. He got in trouble all the time and heeded no warnings, no matter how friendly. “I believed I had the world in my hand, I didn’t need anybody else’s advice,” says Eric, who is now 24 years old.
“It’s actually quite shocking that I am a teacher right now,” he adds, laughing.
But it is at least partially because of his poor high school record that Eric is such an excellent teacher now. He can relate better than most to what teenagers go through. Having struggled and overcome difficulties himself, he has acquired effective coping tools, which he happily shares with his students at Petar Bogdan Foreign Language High School in Montana, a small town in northwestern Bulgaria, where he teaches English through the Fulbright/America for Bulgaria Foundation’s English Teaching Assistants program.
Last but not least, he knows just how important it is for an adolescent to have someone be there for them, regardless of how challenging their teenage antics get. For Eric, that someone was his family, particularly his mom, who “always stuck with me, and she always was there for me, supporting me, no matter how much I disappointed her,” he recalls.
He takes that lesson into the classroom, too. “Kids are going to disappoint you; they are going to aggravate you. But never give up on them—they need that figure in their life,” Eric says.
The Budds’ unfaltering support eventually paid off. Not only did Eric complete a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and social studies from Aquinas College with flying colors, but he also went on to do a master’s degree in education at one of the United States’ top-ranked universities, the University of Notre Dame. Before coming to Bulgaria, Eric distinguished himself teaching at an all-boys high school in New Orleans, Louisiana, for two years.
He signed up for the Fulbright/America for Bulgaria ETA program “so that I can become a better educator.” Since September, he has fully applied himself to the task.
It is difficult to imagine a more involved approach to teaching than Eric’s: he spends nearly every waking hour preparing lessons, meeting with students, or learning about Bulgarian life and culture so he could offer more culturally competent teaching. He brings an incredible energy and a positive attitude to the classroom, but he also meets his students where they want to be—online and outside school. Eric holds regular coffee hours for students, which enjoy enthusiastic attendance. Mr. Budd’s Class Website is a great resource he created specifically for his Bulgarian students; he constantly updates it with detailed lesson plans, fun resources, weekly polls, and interesting facts about American culture and his own family. Cell phones are not banned in Mr. Budd’s classes: students use them to do research and work on class projects.
“It takes a little bit of creativity to find ways to engage students,” Eric sums up. One of the creative approaches he uses in grades 8 through 12 is the Shark Tank exercise, which, like the eponymous US TV show, challenges students to pitch ideas for a chance to win a reward—in this case, a class trip at the end of the school year.
“If you are going to challenge a kid, you also have to be with them every step of the way,” Eric says. This is especially true for the students who struggle the most.
He admits to being nervous about several students not completing the Shark Tank exercise. To make sure they did, he set small benchmarks and closely monitored their progress, providing generous praise when they did meet them. “Once they see that you are invested in them, they are going to be invested in what you want to do,” Eric says. The result? Students turned in projects that were above and beyond what was expected of them.
What Eric tells all his students is that high school is a time to learn about themselves. “This is an opportunity to find out what you are passionate about. Take advantage of this time, learn the skills you are learning in your classes,” he says.
“You may not be able to use all the math that you are learning, all the English that you are learning, all the Bulgarian, or any of your other subjects. These classes are teaching you how to think. They are teaching you how to be prepared later on in life. We need to take advantage of that.”
For his part, Eric is taking full advantage of the ETA opportunity in Bulgaria. He loves teaching here because he has more time to concentrate on the actual teaching (rather than on paperwork) and to develop relationships with his students. Eric lives in a Soviet-style apartment building in town, which he loves “because it’s how my students live.” He cherishes the small-town atmosphere and the opportunity to get to know the Montana community.
“People in Montana are super tough, but they are kind and compassionate when they get to know you. And they really look after you,” he says. Within a couple weeks of arriving in Montana, Eric already had a fishing license and a gym membership—both thanks to local friends.
In some ways, Montana reminds Eric of home. Just like the greater Detroit area, where he was born and raised, Montana and the Bulgarian Northwest have experienced profound economic and social upheaval in recent decades—which is one of the reasons he was drawn to teaching there in the first place. Eric thinks there are lessons to be learned from Detroit’s successful transformation from a former industrial powerhouse mired in poverty, corruption, and violence 20 years ago into a place prioritizing people and social life through sustainable redevelopment.
“There are people in Detroit who never gave up on Detroit. They gave themselves and their talents to inspire others,” Eric says. “I hope to give myself and my talents, and I hope to inspire my students. It’s an honor… to be a small cog in the machine of these students’ future success.”
What does he hope his Bulgarian students would take away from his classes?
“I hope that they don’t necessarily remember the things that I teach them. I hope they remember how I treated them. I treated them with love and compassion and kindness. And I hope that they utilize [this] in their life, too. I’ll know that I’ll be successful when students reciprocate the love and compassion to others around them. I hope that this inclusive atmosphere and mindset [I build in our classes] spread to their future endeavors and the community of Montana, too.”
US college graduates spend a year teaching English at Bulgarian high schools through the Fulbright/America for Bulgaria ETA program. This opportunity is extended through the financial support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation. Since 2006, more than 200 ETAs have been placed in Bulgarian schools nationwide.