Vicken Cheterian

Teaching as an act of social justice

Teach for Armenia represents a dissenting set of values, and marks a departure from the generation of capitalist grab: the movement away from the capital to serve in impoverished towns and villages, and to volunteer – that is to give your time not for profit but for a social cause.

Vahan Rshduni school is located in Vagharshabad, few hundred meters from Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the holiest Church for Armenian Apostolic believers. Here, time seems to have stood still. The school, which has 354 students this year, was founded in 1972, in Soviet times. Since, the school has not seen much change: its building and infrastructure are worn-out, it lacks modern pedagogical means. Even its name has remained the same since the times of really existing socialism, Rshduni being both a Soviet-Armenian historian, and a son of Vagharshabad. 

The school director, with few of the teaching staff, receives us around a cup of coffee. The conversation turns around famous people who graduated from the school, and the name of Artur Asatryan is pronounced in the room. When I express my ignorance towards the famous personality, I am told that he is “Don Pipo”, a benefactor of the school, but also known publically as a leading figure of Armenia’s underworld. But I was visiting the school to meet another Asatryan, Anna, the young French-language teacher who came to Vagharshabad as part of a volunteer movement to teach children in provincial towns and villages. The name of that organization is Teach For Armenia. 

Anna Asatryan was with her students in the upper hall, exercising a theatre piece in French. They were to perform it soon, and that Saturday morning had come to school to exercise it one more time. Anna is originally from Gatnakhpuyr village, studied philology in Yerevan, and after graduation she worked as French teacher in the capital.  “I grew up in a village and know what it means when you do not have good teachers,” she said. She volunteered for two years with Teach For Armenia because “I thought I should give my students what I lacked myself” she added. “My friends told me: why are you choosing this? What will you do after two years?” What she enjoyed the most is that she “is working in the domain that I love, in the field of my choice, in the village, and with children.”

The movement from the capital to the peripheries of Armenia is a new idea. Only few years back, it was impossible to see young people who had arrived from the villages to the capital to think about returning to the land, and even less to do voluntary work. The only destination possible was migration, further away to centres of power, capital, and work opportunities. Soviet republican capitals already had a tendency to concentrate power and resources in their capital cities, very much reflecting a centralist and pyramidal political system. Capitalism transformation concentrated power even further. Three decades after capitalism, Yerevan has evolved to become a city living the rhythm of overconsumption, while towns and villages in the countryside live in Soviet-type economy of shortages. Both the state and the market system concentrated all resources of the country in Yerevan, leaving the population in the countryside lacking opportunities, even the one of giving their children a fair education. 

Teach for Armenia represents a dissenting set of values, and marks a departure from the generation of capitalist grab: the movement away from the capital to serve in impoverished towns and villages, and to volunteer – that is to give your time not for profit but for a social cause. It was founded in 2013 by Larisa Hovanisian, after she returned with a university degree from the US. Larisa had met with “Teach for All” in America, a global organization where teachers volunteer a few years of their lives to work in underprivileged areas. It is meant to supplement the public education system, not to create a parallel one. 

I learned about Teach for Armenia the first time last February, when Larisa Hovanisian and her colleagues explained their work at Hay Dun in Brussels. They were looking for new volunteers, from Diaspora communities, to come to Armenia and teach in remote town or village for a period of two years. They were especially looking for teachers of math or sciences, as well as foreign languages. The organization already had volunteers from Russia and Lebanon, and now wants to enlarge the experience. How nice it would have been in case the movement was pan-Armenian, I thought. Armenian schools in the Diaspora are in dire situation as well, lacking teachers and funding. Just cross the border from Armenia to the north and visit Armenian community schools in Georgia to witness their conditions. What is worse is that there are entire communities that are left without Armenian schools, especially those communities formed as a result of migration in the last thirty years. 

“I teach not only French language, but most of all I teach the children how to learn,” said Anna Asatryan. Next to teaching, the volunteers of Teach For Armenia become social workers trying to solve some of the many problems of the children – and their parents have, or become cultural activists initiating many projects. But for Anna, there was more. When I asked her what was her major achievement, she said: “The most astonishing achievement was meeting David and creating our family.” David Varjabedyan is also volunteering with Teach for Armenia, in a village 80 kms away from Vagharshabad. In his tiny village school has only 26 students. 

After they finish their volunteering Anna and David think to move to Yerevan. They would both like to live elsewhere, for example in Gyumri which is David’s hometown, but they are establishing a new family, expect a new-born soon, and need to take care of the baby. They need to find jobs, and they hope they’ll find it in the capital. “I do not know what I will exactly do. Teaching? May be. Or may be I’ll open a restaurant.”

(Anna Asatryan-David Varjabedyan)