How one teacher inspires his students

The fifth graders of Athens’s 54th Elementary School in the troubled central neighborhood of Vathis Square captivated audiences with their end-of-the-year play, «Dream Travelers,» a performance that reflected the fruition of theirs and their teacher’s hard work. «These kids have really grown in the past year,» said Fotis Psycharis, bursting with pride as his students prepared for the summer holidays. Educators are well aware of the challenges they face in schools, with large numbers of foreign students for whom Greek is not their mother tongue. «It’s a volatile situation that can lead to cases of extreme bullying. Teachers need to be methodical in their approach and make sure things don’t get out of hand,» said the 50-year-old teacher, who has been working at the same school for almost 20 years. Psycharis’s lessons go far beyond the official curriculum. «I am convinced that the best way for kids to learn is by fostering a rapport that permits them to express themselves and gain new experiences in the classroom.» Based on a lot of discussion and the exchange of ideas, his methods focus on making the connection between abstract notions and daily life. During tests, he also likes to play classical music in the background. «It stimulates creative thought as well as mathematical cognition, not to mention the positive affect it has on their frame of mind,» explained the forward-thinking teacher. Making time Psycharis also makes good use of the so-called «flexible zone» between teaching periods, where, under the supervision of a drama therapist, the children playact and prepare projects. The script for «Dream Travelers» is the result of this activity. «When you are teaching,» said Psycharis, «you need to try new things that inspire you, otherwise you run out of ideas and enthusiasm for your work.» The 50-year-old teacher also has extensive experience with integrating foreign students into his classroom. «Carlos arrived from Poland just before Christmas and spoke hardly any Greek. I gave him a few extra lessons during the breaks every other day and put one of the other children ‘in charge’ of his education: One day, during lunch break, he learned how to count to a hundred, which made him very happy. In this way, he was not only integrated into the class but also made new friends in the process,» commented Psycharis. Hassan survived the bombing of Beirut by the Israeli military in 2006. But he lost loved ones, an experience that exposed him to the violence of war. «When he first arrived, he was very aggressive; he could not make it from the classroom to the toilets without getting into a fight – because he felt threatened. I asked him if he wanted to take part in the play the students were preparing for the celebration of the October 28 national holiday,» siad Psycharis. «At first he just watched silently; later on, however, he took part. «In the end, Hassan told us, with what little Greek he knew, about what he had gone through during the bombings. He felt relieved to share his traumatic experience and we associated it with the events of October 28, 1940. He participated with no outbursts of violence, and when a problem with his attitude did come up, we discussed it as a group.» Fun is key to learning What is this gifted teacher’s dream? «To bring joy and fun to schools; these are the right conditions for learning and are more important then the Internet or any evaluation tests.» The performance of «Dream Travelers» was part of the Ministry of Education’s cultural program – there was dance, music and symbolism, with the plot centered on school life and current events. The play begins when someone with no dreams of his own steals a suitcase full of the world’s dreams. «Dreams are the building blocks of life. What happens when they are lost?» is the question students contemplate on stage as they present their dreams to the audience. A harsh critique of prevailing social values by the 10-year-olds follows. «Do you know who I am? I’m looking out for number one,» they say, posing as self-serving yuppies in sunglasses. Wearing cardboard boxes over their heads, they re-enact the evening news bulletin covering a spectrum of subjects from the International Monetary Fund economic rescue plan to the lives of supermodels, complete with satires of politicians and economic scandals. When the thief returns his loot, the kids remind him that «your dreams are hidden deep inside you and you can see them only with your heart.»