How can an encounter with a good teacher motivate children to choose the teaching profession? What qualities do teachers need in order to be role models for their students? How should the classroom be transformed to engage students in the learning process? What should a modern school and a new generation teacher be like?

Sofiia Lebedeva, the winner of the St Petersburg Pedagogical Achievement Contest, graduate of the master’s programme in Philology in 2014, and her research supervisor, Associate Professor Vadim Pugach from St Petersburg University, answered these questions.

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Ms Lebedeva, you have been named the best teacher in St Petersburg and will now represent the city at the national competition. What does this award mean to you personally?

The significance of this award is that it is not entirely personal. Practically from the very beginning of my professional life, I have been involved in the competition movement, because such achievements are not about satisfying personal ambitions. It is a chance to demonstrate to my mentors, teachers, relatives and students that they have not made a mistake when they put their trust and support in me. This is a very happy and productive period in my life, including professionally. I have already had some experience, there is a return on the effort I put in, but there are still a lot of things to learn. This year, everything has come together: the wise supervision of those who noticed my potential; the genuine trust and affection of my students; and the support of my colleagues. For me, this award is an opportunity to thank each and every one of them and say that all was not in vain. It also means more responsibility, because representing St Petersburg at the national contest is a very challenging mission. It is inspiring to see other teachers from St Petersburg among the winners of professional competitions, including some of my closest colleagues. It raises the bar for everyone.

Could you please tell us why you have chosen the teaching profession?

My colleague once said to me: ’You must have become a teacher to avoid being like the adults around you’. This is partly true, because the confrontation between the world of adults and the world of children often results in tension and conflict, and I really wanted to be one of those ‘other adults’ who could step in. However, I have had a lot more positive examples in my life.

I chose the teaching profession when I was a child. I told my parents about my decision at the age of 12, and have never doubted my choice. My love for it came from my love for literature and art and my desire to share this love. It was more of an intuitive thing at the time, but gradually it became more conscious, despite the fact that many people discouraged me or thought I would change my views. I think the reason is that I myself was surrounded by very good teachers, and now, analysing this as an adult, as a teacher, I understand what an important role these people (teachers at school, university professors, and teachers in continuing education) have played in my life.

Which of your university professors have been an example to you as an educator? What skills would you like to learn from them?

This is the most provocative question! I treasure my experience at the University because each teacher was an individual — both personally and professionally. However, if we talk of my own feelings, I would say Elena Kazakova stands for an example of how flexible, dynamic and fundamentally educated a teacher should be to stay ahead of the educational system; Leonid Iliushin taught me how to combine effectiveness, constructiveness, professional sharpness and a poetic soul; Mikhail Epshtein, who revolutionised education, showed me how to go beyond conventional thinking; Tatiana Galaktionova strongly influenced my interest in methodology of working with texts (now one of the main areas of interest for me is semantic reading) and showed me that reading could be a trend in today’s world if you find the right approach. Galina Danilova is a person who illustrates for me the idea that inspiration and creativity only make sense when there is effort and a constructive attitude attached to it. The most difficult thing is to talk about my research supervisor, simply because it is this person who hears all your doubts and silly questions, and takes you through all the ups and downs. For me, Vadim Pugach is an example of a true philologist who can master a whole host of modern formats and find common ground with very different students. I think this is the main dilemma for a modern man of letters.

In your opinion, what kind of teacher is needed today? What qualities should they have? What is the most important thing you learned for your profession during your studies at St Petersburg University?

I have answered this question in part. The time I spent studying and socialising with the faculty members of the Department of Continuing Education in Philology and Education Management was a period of intense development for me. It was there that my thinking was significantly reshaped — one of the teachers’ tasks was to prepare us for the ever-changing conditions of working in a real and modern system of education. I think the main thing they taught us was to set our own goals and identify strategies to achieve them, and to find our own path in education and pedagogy.

In my opinion, a teacher today is a person in a state of development. I have already talked about the need not just to respond quickly to challenges, but to be ahead of them. That is what is important for teachers and for the education system to be modern and effective today. Although this is incredibly difficult to achieve in practice, it is what we need to strive for.

In your opinion, what should a modern school be like? What should the modern person be taught in the first place?

I could say a lot about living in the modern world, about hands-on competencies (our children sometimes lack the simplest, everyday skills), but lately I have been seeing more and more students who are seriously interested in science. Teenagers are asking about everything, from skills in accessing the sources of knowledge to strategies for implementing their own projects. While applied sciences and technology have a lot to offer (public projects, private foundations, and cooperation with universities), the humanities lack this kind of training. All the more so, when one considers that the humanities today are to a large extent a renewal of methodology and a shift towards inter- and trans-disciplinarity. These skills are not taught at school, with the system ‘one lesson — one subject’ being modified by the profiles and enthusiasm of the teachers, in the best case scenario. I think the modern school should move towards modular learning, variability, the possibility for teachers to run their own course and to attract motivated students. This is because the modern person should first of all be taught to discard the unnecessary, to set priorities and to work seriously towards the chosen goal.

The modern school should also remain a ’territory of childhood’ and a ’space dedicated to youth’, so to speak. What I mean is that it is at school that we spend a significant and important part of our lives. It is important that students feel free and protected. It creates the conditions for self-realisation, for finding their identity and, at the same time, teaches them responsibility. It is a task for adults to create these conditions.

In your master’s research, you focused on the impact of school design on the effectiveness of learning. Today we often hear about the need to organise the space of medical or public institutions intelligently, but why is this especially important for schools? Can you give some examples of how space design can increase students’ motivation and inspire teachers? Have you been able to implement any solutions from your research project in school and put them into practice?

Our perception of space and of ourselves in space is one of the key aspects of the world view. We can talk about it in a variety of contexts: culturally, socially, and economically. We can talk about how the correct organisation of space for commerce enables people to earn more, or how the organisation of space in our ’designed’ city translates values and generates myths.

School often forgets that a person is more than just a ’talking head’. For any of us, and especially for children and teenagers, it is important to discover the world around in different ways, rather than just read about it from a sheet of paper or a monitor.

By designed school space I primarily understand the provision of a comfortable environment, where students can concentrate on the educational process without being disturbed by stifling air, cold, distracting noises, and so on. Once this is achieved, we can talk about integrating educational functions into the space itself. The school building should establish a dialogue with students in a way that provokes their cognitive needs, regulates their activity, and creates comfortable niches for different kinds of work. Finnish and Scandinavian designers are, certainly, a step ahead of the rest in this field. My favourite example is the playground (another example of educational space, because games are an important stage of learning), built according to the principle of lacunarity. Instead of building a playground in the form of a ship, a rocket or a house, they create streamlined forms with no concrete content. The objects can be a ship, a rocket, or a house. This is a way to develop creativity.

I really like the school’s practice of arranging: specialised laboratories (a classroom designed specifically for the needs of a set of disciplines); modern school spaces (with co-working and open space facilities); and various forms of convertible zones (which is especially relevant when schools have a large number of pupils).

Unfortunately, changing something radically in public schools on their own is practically an impossible task. What I managed to do with my pupils was a local transformation of the classroom. We increased the space and introduced thematic design — we pained walls in our classroom which was conditionally called a museum of literature and divided into zones. It was important because of the formats of the lessons we were delivering. We also tried to create ’communication zones’ — places where pupils could leave messages or engage in dialogue. Additionally, we filled the class not with decorative elements, but with symbolic artefacts. The teacher, thus, has to understand what he or she is doing and why, and what educational task he or she is going to solve with a particular solution. This is because design should serve a particular purpose, rather than being decorative.

Still, it is encouraging to see a much more modern approach to the organisation of educational spaces in new schools and schools that are under construction today. It takes into consideration the purpose of schools and the new needs and opportunities for education.

Vadim Pugach, Associate Professor in the Department of Pedagogy, St Petersburg University

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Professor Pugach, your graduate has been named the best teacher of 2021. Do you think you also deserve a credit for this?

To speak of my merit in her work today would not be correct. If we go back to her master’s thesis and its brilliant defence at St Petersburg University, perhaps it can be said that both my colleagues and I had a hand in this work. Sofiia was an excellent student and it was clear that she would also make an excellent teacher.

Her abilities and hard work explain everything.

In your opinion, how might a school whose teacher has been recognised as the best in the city change? Will this give an impetus to its development?

I wish it did. If the school has sensible administrators, they will employ teachers like Sofiia Lebedeva not for publicity or merely to report to the district or city committee, but to change the educational environment. Sometimes it is just a matter of rearranging the desks in the classroom. If the head master sees discipline as the ideal and the guiding principle is ‘whatever happens’, then a bright young educator can be hounded, as many examples have shown.

Do you think that having a good teacher can motivate pupils to choose the teaching profession in the future?

It certainly can. Just as an encounter with a bad teacher can discourage anyone from being a teacher. I think everyone who consciously goes to school has once met a good teacher and wants to be like him or her: children are often focused not on the subject, but on a person. However, the opposite can also be true: a child meets a bad teacher and dreams of going back to school as a teacher to change everything about it.

The modern school is not only about new design, but also about a different approach to teaching. In your opinion, what should the teacher of the new generation be like?

I have never been particularly interested in school interior design in my work, so for me working with Sofiia has been a good educational experience. In my pedagogical practice, I have only once seen the interiors similar to those described by Sofiia at the Sirius Educational Centre. A new approach to teaching is another story. I could probably devote a course or two to this topic. In short, a teacher of the new generation is a non-authoritarian type of person with an active interest in culture, who treats his or her students as colleagues. It is the kind of teacher who knows tradition but chooses innovation, that is, who knows what has been before but looks ahead. This is the kind of teacher who always puts the interests of the child above those of the administration. This is the attitude we want our master’s students to adopt.