Lena Parova and Dora Rusinova, School Principals and Flying People

Lena Parova and Dora Rusinova

We partnered with Bulgarian lifestyle magazine EVA to present female leaders from the Bulgarian nonprofit and public sectors. The result was EVA’s Optimistic Issue: 15 Stories of Success. This is one of the featured stories, republished with permission.

Text: Teodora Nikolova
Photos: Kostadin Krastev-Koko and personal archive
Translation from Bulgarian: Lika Pishtalova

Both Lena Parova and Dora Rusinova have spent more than 30 years in the educational system, most of which as school principals. They call Dora “Flying Dora,” but if we consider all possible interpretations of Bulgarian writer Valeri Petrov’s metaphor, both Lena and Dora belong to the group of “flying people,” with “hearts simply purer than sound” (“About the Flying People” by Valeri Petrov). Both women are dedicated to their profession and show love and responsibility for the next generation.

Lena and Dora are true visionaries, constantly looking for new opportunities, always ready to gain new experiences, aware of the world’s constant transformation, and doing their best to keep up with it. They both would like school to be a warm and cozy place that, in addition to being up-to-date and meeting technological standards, provides opportunities for cultivating knowledge and emotions by connecting students, teachers, and parents in the most fruitful way possible.

This is the philosophy behind the two women’s decision to submit applications for the Model School for Every Child and Schools of the Future programs managed by the Teach for Bulgaria Foundation and funded by the America for Bulgaria Foundation (ABF).

In their personal lives, Lena and Dora also have a lot in common: they are both married to teachers, and they are also friends. The friends were reunited unexpectedly at the photo shoot for Eva Magazine’s 15 Stories of Success project in Sofia.

Teach For Bulgaria

The project was inspired by the US Teach for America initiative, which is part of the global Teach for All network. The purpose of these programs is to attract, train, and support motivated and talented people to become teachers in underachieving schools, thus contributing to a better quality of education across these communities. Their approach to education promotes several high-value applied elements, such as emphasizing leadership and the development of teachers and school teams, building a connection between academic performance and students’ social and emotional skills, etc. “The American experience cannot be fully applied – and it doesn’t have to be,” Lena Parova explains. “In 2014, I won the Education Leadership Academy competition of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and joined the first group of ten principals to be trained at Bank Street College in New York. This experience helped me grow professionally. The programs back then were based on the American experience but were also adapted in accordance with the specificities of Bulgarian education. Now, as part of the Teach for Bulgaria network, all programs have been fully adapted to local experience by Bulgarian education professionals. To me, the combination of Bulgarian traditions and foreign experience provides a foundation for success.”

The Two Paths

Lena Parova holds a master’s degree in chemistry and physics, “her first love,” as she refers to the subjects she never deserted. She is also a certified information technology instructor and believes that “any school principal today should be able to understand, apply, and make use of information technologies.”

A classroom in Svetlina Primary and Middle School, Topolitsa

As a primary school teacher, Dora Rusinova has completed a program aimed at involving parents in education and has been delivering training courses in this area ever since. She is also a regional coordinator of the Parents’ Action Association. Dora has spent 37 years in the educational system, 30 of which as school principal. “I’ve demonstrated leadership skills since an early age. I never shy away from taking responsibility, making bold steps, and charting directions,” Dora says. She believes the Learning and Teaching Together model, which she and her colleagues developed and started applying, is a valuable innovation. “Shared responsibility in the classroom boosts students’ motivation and contributes to their full engagement. They feel free, confident, and creative and, as a result, behave as reliable partners in the learning process.”

Lena Parova became a principal out of necessity. She had to choose between her contract being terminated due to the reduced number of teaching hours and applying for the position of principal of the school she worked for. She opted for the latter, although, in her own words, she had no idea what she was in for. “During my first years as a principal, I knew the regulations in theory, but I was struggling when it came to applying them. I wasn’t confident enough even when I had to draft an order. I had to educate myself. My planning and organizational skills helped me in this respect. I learned from my mistakes.”

Svetlina Primary and Middle School, Topolitsa

Fourteen years ago, Lena became the principal of the school she had graduated from. But she already had all the experience and confidence she needed. “For me it was an honor to work with the teachers who had taught me and who had inspired me to become a teacher. I still felt the same respect for them. Now I train both teachers and principals. I work not only with colleagues from our school, but also with teachers and principals from across the country. And I enjoy what I do, as I like helping people and being of use.”

Both Dora Rusinova and Lena Parova tend to their schools and students as they would a garden, both literally and figuratively. Apart from a library, laboratories, and a digital zone, Svetlina School [Svetlina means “light” in Bulgarian, transl.] also sports a wonderful park in its courtyard. “Having a beautiful yard is part and parcel of my overall vision for the school,” Dora explains. “I was faced with a big challenge. It was extremely important for me to be on the right track. I had to be clear as to what kind of school I wanted to manage, what principles and values should underpin the management of a successful school, how I could contribute to ensuring an atmosphere of creativity, mutual respect, and good performance, how parents could become catalysts for their children’s success. Based on my experience as a primary school teacher, I was convinced that love, understanding, support, and out-of-the-box thinking could motivate every child to achieve better results. I challenged myself to embark on big changes, and I could rely on the support of my colleagues. I have been building a partnership with the Burgas Free University for several years now. This partnership will give future teachers the chance to learn from the experience of my colleagues.”

Dora Rusinova decided to participate with Svetlina School in the Schools of the Future project of the America for Bulgaria Foundation because she always wanted her school to be unique, to have its own spirit that resembles no other, to create an atmosphere of passion and enthusiasm, and to be a place where parents and teachers support one another. Dora never tires of looking for opportunities to further develop and modernize her school, and this motivates her to keep an eye on global trends in education. “The change we pulled off through the Schools of the Future project was not only about the physical environment,” Dora argues. “We changed the paradigm by investing in both the environment and the teachers. Students began to learn and teach alongside their teachers. Parents grew into allies who stood behind the changes. We can measure the impact of the project through students’ achievements. Finishing our modern school, our graduates get a head start for the next stages of their education.”

The Saints Cyril and Methodius School, managed by Lena Parova, was one of the first schools to join the Model School for Every Child program of the Teach for Bulgaria Foundation. Their cooperation goes back to 2011. “We didn’t have an English teacher,” Lena recalls. “Teach for Bulgaria assured me they could provide one. I trusted them and applied for the program. The moment this first teacher joined our team, we realized that he taught in a very different way. It was so fascinating for us. Other teachers started attending his classes. Nobody had attended colleagues’ classes before except as part of the so-called open lessons. The teachers of Teach for Bulgaria helped us realize that if we wanted to reach the new generation of students, we had to use up-to-date teaching methods.”

At this point, Lena makes reference to Pareto’s Law (“The 80–20 Rule”), pointing out that 20% of teachers in every school are carriers of innovation. The role of the principal is to find them, motivate them, inspire them, and give them the support they need to initiate change.

“This program helped me discover some strengths I didn’t even suspect my colleagues had. As a result, I started delegating rights and responsibilities to them. They came to believe in their own talent and further developed their leadership skills. We managed to create a school culture. I see our school as a success story. It is true that the academic performance of our students is not stunning, but it is getting better — albeit slightly — every year. Our teachers and students are competitive. They show leadership, initiative, and responsibility.”

Saints Cyril and Methodius School, Vetren

What makes this success even more impressive is the fact that two ethnic groups, Bulgarian and Roma, are almost equally represented in the school. No students have dropped out of school for social reasons, and all students regularly attend school. Education appears to be of high value for both children and parents, with very few exceptions. The parents of children from vulnerable groups have been integrated into school life a long time ago. Creative workshops involving parents, teachers, and students have been held for years. Moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, along with their children and grandchildren, craft souvenirs that they sell at a charity sale organized by the Student Council. Last year, this initiative was aimed at helping poor, lonely, and ailing senior citizens in Vetren. “It’s exactly these initiatives that help us bring everyone on board,” Lena sums up.

For both principals, their job is not only a mission but also a source of inspiration, joy, and satisfaction. Are they optimistic? You bet! “I know where I belong,” Lena Parova replies with confidence. “I am happy because I can see what difference my team and I can make. Our school has significantly changed its learning environment. I can see the smiles on children’s faces. I can see how dedicated my colleagues are to their work, how relaxed and inspired they feel. I know that every day I can support one child, one teacher, or one parent. And that inspires me. I was born an optimist. Oh yes, I have my tough moments, too. And when I do, I can rely on my family’s support and the support of my colleagues.”

“As Apostle Paul said: ‘Love is long-suffering: love is kind,’” Dora adds. “This is where my optimism lies – in the love I give and receive, in the love I put into everything I do.”

Outside school, Lena is happy with her family and her little grandson. “This little guy gave me hope, eased me out of the pain of losing my father, helped me find meaning in life.” She likes caring for her vegetable garden, knitting, reading, or hiking in the mountains with her loved ones. Dora has a wonderful pet who waits for her to come back from work and who charges her with positive energy, just like a child’s hug in the morning. When she can spare a few moments, she reads and watches movies. Her great passion is traveling around the world.

Saints Cyril and Methodius School, Vetren

What are you thankful for in 2023, and what are your wishes and expectations for 2024?

Lena Parova: I thank 2023 for keeping my family and friends alive and healthy. I associate it with tough moments, achievements, joys, and worries. But this is what life is about. What I wish for in 2024 is, again, good health for myself, my loved ones, and my friends and colleagues. I want to have the opportunity to transmit my knowledge and love to my students, to support and encourage them.

Dora Rusinova: 2023 was a good year, without turbulences, but with a sufficient number of lessons to learn from. In 2024, above all, I wish for health and strength for myself, so that I can continue making my dreams come true.

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