Oana Moraru – Manager and Owner of Helikon School
1. Can you tell us about what your role is just now and what you have been busy with this last few months and what you are likely to be busy with this next few months?
I am managing the Helikon School in Calarasi and, at weekends, I am on tour around the country with my seminars for parents and teachers. I have just completed a set of 12 such meetings that engage all participants in a very dynamic dialogue about the present and the future of education in Romania. My goal is to motivate parents to become real partners to teachers and schools as these last two need to open up to feedback from families and finally manage to have the students’ best interests at heart. Most of the educational system in my country is held back by bureaucracy, by an obsolete teaching style and mentalities stuck in a pyramidal administration that does not allow creativity, critical thinking and collaboration to develop inside classrooms and, therefore, does not have a vision for the unpredictable future of our kids.
I am also running workshops for teachers around the country and have a permanent involvement in other such transformational projects on national education – Teach for Romania, Aspire for teachers, SuperTeach.
Starting this September, I am ready to offer a full and coherent programme for teachers that is based on the invitation I’ve already made to private companies to start adopting schools all over the country and offer scholarships for teams of teachers interested to develop their techniques in class, their relationships with students and parents. It is a two years online programme, mingled with conferences in Bucharest, Cluj and Iasi and based on continuous mentoring of young teachers and head teachers.
2. Can you tell us about your education, what were its strong points and what do you think it lacked?
My vocation as a teacher and a mentor was triggered during my Pedagogical High school years. Back then, we had the opportunity to teach a lot and be assisted by a few dedicated specialists from whom I learnt a lot about children, psychology, didactic steps in teaching every subject at young ages up to grade 5. I think this new generation of students who are aiming to become teachers do not get enough chances during their training years to practice in class next to the really inspiring teachers that our system still has. A lot of their training comes by chance and they are sent out into schools without a strong or deep enough understanding of each age’s needs and must haves when it comes to learning and mind development. Each and every year, our schools that train the future teachers have become less and less committed to doing a good and responsible job. So, there is great need for other organisations and professionals to step in and mentor these young teachers in their present schools.
After my very productive and intense high school years, I continued as a student and graduated from the University of Bucharest, with majors in Romanian and English language and literature. What helped me more was the experience after my student years, when I worked, for instance, in the US as a camp counselor and I got the chance to understand more about other education systems and how important the authenticity of the student-teacher relationship is and how damaging the formal authoritative model is. My education continued with many other partnerships with schools abroad and my 20 year permanent research on a large number of school communities all over the world.
3. What were the main factors that took you into a career in education (favourite teacher)?
My mom was a very passionate preschool teacher and then, during my high school years, I learnt a lot of the same passion from at least two of my teachers in Pedagogy. They were also very strict and showed me that there is a science behind the show we prepare for class, the science of making minds and hearts grow.
4. How would you describe your educational philosophy? What do you think are the most important elements of education?
I think there should be a very deep understanding – on the teachers’ side – of how the mind works and grows. Traditionally, we have been teaching in classes without questioning the very basis of learning. Most of those we consider great teachers in class are just being tough on students, pushing them to work hard, practice through repetition. My teaching style does not ignore the importance of hard work, the efficiency of memory processes or the repetitive drills. However, I believe that these are the starting points and not the purpose of education. We need to make children think, wonder, feel the taste of their own right and wrong decisions in exploring, we must grow lateral thinking and the ability to connect data across subjects and topics. We need to make them collaborate, speak with their own voice, take leadership positions when studying. This new generation of students works well in class only if they are given a role within their community, only if they feel they have a mission in class, they need to receive feedback fast and know what is behind the material that is to be studied. They need to be anchored in reality and the pragmatic side of learning.
5. What are the best things about the Romanian education system and what do you think needs to be reformed the most urgently? Are there things that the rest of Europe can learn from the Romanian education system? (English language teaching is clearly very successful.)
There is still great dedication from parents and families to learning and still a lot of respect and support that families feel towards schools. We still have a few inspired teachers in each school. Studies show we have a huge number – as compared to the rest of Europe – of young students who show great creativity and adaptability.
What we lack is genuine school management. For instance, those great teachers in each school have almost no power to influence, to inspire or to train their colleagues. The way everyone is subordinated to their so-called superiors is still traditionally determined by political decisions that have no interest in promoting good professionals. What needs to be urgently reformed is how we train teachers, what we train them to do and how we can “contaminate” others with what their most inspired peers know. We also need to change mentalities about how kids grow and flourish, how being harsh and critical of our own kids is not going to help them. That was one of my goals for the meetings I had with parents and teachers all around the country: opening minds about how we can be inspired leaders for our children, without having to use discipline, control, punishment, competitions that trigger anxiety or fear of not being good enough at a very young age.
6. What is your vision for education in Romania in the future? Is the classroom and teacher-led-learning soon to be a thing of the past?
What might save Romania from the destiny of a small and yet corrupt country would be a great education system able to burn some developmental stages and project itself straight into the future of learning – where each individual has his or her own path to learning.
That would need strong political support and commitment to great and visionary change.
Since we do not have that yet, I would be more than happy to know that at least the new generation of teachers coming out of school are well-equipped with strong information and skills to design good classes and the ability to measure the impact they have on each student. As long as we do not measure our impact in class and have no personal responsibility in class, apart from the papers we produce within this huge bureaucratic machinery, we will be totally unable to create a vision for the Romanian school. As long as we only measure in national exams what our kids can regurgitate after class, we stand no chance of becoming better than our parents’ generation and the struggle they still have today –both economically and politically.
7. What are your thoughts on the cultural importance placed upon subjects such as maths and science to the detriment of others such as the arts, music and PE and how does your school, Helikon, address the teaching of the whole child?
In a world so unable to predict its future and create algorithms that can guarantee professional safety for each individual that does great in school – such as in the old days of our school years – I find it pretty normal that most of us, parents and children , insist on the heavy subjects and ignore the arts and sports. However, what the cognitive sciences show us today is incredibly logical and full of common-sense. And that is that the only purpose of education is to create that integrated brain, that mind able to sustain tough mathematical thinking just because its creative networks have been trained in Arts and Music.
At Helikon, we do the academics in the morning and we make sure the students have all afternoon for arts, music, drama, sports, cooking, gardening etc. They do their work in a very well balanced environment because we make sure they have something to look forward to each day.
8. What are the key qualities that you seek in your teachers?
I look for people that have not altered their mentalities in schools that practice labelling students, comparing them and classifying them as good or bad. We hire teachers that do not leave their work after they leave school every day, that like to look for ideas even when they are not asked to, people that like to learn, listen and experience along with their students.
9. What piece of advice do you wish that you’d received during your schooling / what piece of advice would you give to your younger self?
I would have loved to have been told a lot more about how important is to be myself, listen to my inner guidance and find my own bliss. I was educated to make others happy, to listen to my teachers, to feel afraid that I was not enough until I had proved myself through hard work.
10. What worries you most about the school children that you meet these days and what excites you the most?
I feel that there is a huge gap between life and school environments. Schools have become very artificial while the students are more and more aware that what really counts for their future is not addressed consistently enough in classrooms.
What really excites me is that this younger generation is so tough to keep in class using the old methods, that we no longer have a choice and will be forced to change our mentalities and techniques. This is probably the first time when kids have more to teach their parents. If they choose to listen and, thus, evolve spiritually.