Interview with Branko Aleksovski, advisor at the VETC: It is very important to see multiethnicity as an asset

In the past period, at the initiative of the City of Skopje, the Ministry of Education and Science and the key educational institutions, four secondary vocational schools from the City of Skopje were included in a pilot initiative for conducting joint classes with students who study in different languages of instruction. The conducting of the joint classes in SEPUGS “Arseni Jovkov”, ASUC “Boro Petrusevski”, SUGS “Brakja Miladinovci” and SGGUGS “Zdravko Cvetkovski” was supported by the USAID Youth Ethnic Integration Project and the MCEC, in cooperation with the OSCE Mission to Skopje.
In the second half of the school year 2018/2019, more than 700 joint classes were conducted that enabled about 450 students who study in different languages of instruction to interact, study together and advance their knowledge. Read the interview with Branko Aleksovski, an advisor at the Center for Vocational Education and Training and find out more about this initiative.

Branko Aleksovski, an advisor at the Center for Vocational Education and Training

The students who study in different languages ​​of instruction rarely have the opportunity to get in touch with each other in the schools, as a result of which there is a lack of integration among young people from different ethnic communities. In response to this challenge, the City of Skopje initiated a pilot program for holding joint classes with students who study in different languages of instruction, and the advisors from the Center for Vocational Education and Training regularly monitored the implementation of the classes. What are your insights regarding this initiative?

The most important thing for a society is to build a system in which everyone will be truly equal. Given that we live in a society comprised of citizens of different ethnic backgrounds, it is very important to see multiethnicity as an asset and to build such a system in which everyone will feel that they are equal and have equal opportunities. When we talk about building a system, I think that with these activities we are doing the right thing because they are covering the most sensitive category, and that is the young people, i.e. the adolescents who are developing as individuals.

Since the building of the system is a process that cannot be completed overnight, and the practice shows that even with the best projects it is difficult to ensure the sustainability of the achieved results for a longer period of time, I think that by choosing young people we have chosen the most effective and efficient way of ensuring sustainability. If through these activities the young people change the matrix of thinking and understand that diversity is an asset to society, I think that we will succeed in our mission.

I applaud this initiative of the City of Skopje and of all others who supported this process – the Ministry of Education and Science, the USAID Youth Ethnic Integration Project, OSCE and the other partners. A good choice has been made in relation to the schools because these are schools where classes are conducted in two languages of instructions. Something that impresses me with from what I had the opportunity to see during the school visits and the cooperation with the teachers is the awareness of the teachers that they are doing a historic and important thing for the society and that they try to do it professionally.

On the other hand, I also had the opportunity to see the atmosphere in the schools. When I was visiting the classes, I could immediately notice the positive atmosphere, the positive behavior, and the cooperation between the students and the teachers. It was a sign that the activities are realized routinely and continuously, and not only because of my presence at the classes. It is a fact that what we are doing is not enough and we need to continue our activities in the future as well, with the tendency to include new schools each year and to include a larger number of students and teachers.

Training for teachers for conducting joint classes with students who study in different languages of instruction 

The initiative includes several stakeholders – school directors, teachers, students, but also parents. How important is their cooperation for the successful implementation of the classes?

The school management should be aware that the joint classes imply some necessary modifications in the technical part – suitable classrooms because the grouping leads to an increased number of students in the classroom, preparation of technical equipment, teaching materials and the like. For example, most of the classes use two LCD projectors and two computers at the same time, so that the presentations can be understood by all students. The materials distributed to the students should also be prepared in both languages. There are many preconditions that are to be met. If the management does not understand the needs for such classes, teachers may be demotivated and it can be reflected on the quality of the teaching process.

I did not have the opportunity to meet with the parents as an “external” factor, but on several occasions, I was told that the implementation of these activities works better if prior to the start of the activities, the parents are informed about the exact implementation of the process and if they give their support. Parents sometimes receive inaccurate information. For example, they think that the children are instructed to study in another language they do not know. But, that is not the case and they should be explained that all students have the opportunity to exercise their right to fully follow the instructions in their mother tongue, with the addition that, in combined groups, they have a chance to also learn some new words in another language and to communicate with students from other ethnic communities.

In the educational process, the student is the center of attention, but in the implementation of these activities, the teacher coordinates all activities and is at the center of the events. During the visits, I saw that the teachers were well-prepared, which means that before the class, they always have a prepared complete working plan and materials prepared in two languages. Most importantly, since there are two implementers of the teaching process present at the same time, their coordination was at a very high level – there was no dominance of one of the teachers. This is important so that the teachers would be able to maintain their professional integrity, and on the other hand, for the class to be conducted with high quality.

The basic rule is for all teachers to be completely certain that they believe in this and that they really want to do it. If the teachers have any doubts or dilemmas as to whether they are doing it from their heart and in the context of social responsibility or if they are doing it just to get a salary, then it is better for them to withdraw from the process. For the time being, my impressions are that there are no such teachers, which means that the choice is well made.

This is important because the authority of the teacher is reflected on the overall atmosphere during the class. When processing the data from the student surveys we saw that one of the students had written that he accepted to participate in this only because he appreciated the professor very much. From that, we see how important the teacher is in terms of the implementation of such classes.

It is important to emphasize that the work in mixed classes must not negatively affect the achievement of the goals or the learning outcomes. This means that the skills of the teachers are reflected precisely in the fact that they should guide the students towards achieving the goals, but through activities in joint groups.

The interaction among students who study in different languages of instruction improves the interethnic cohesion among youth

Over 90% of the surveyed students say that they have acquired new friends who study in another language of instruction, and over 80% would like to have joint classes with students who study in another language in the next school year as well. As positive experiences, they point out the possibility to learn more about the culture and the tradition of the “others”, the cooperation with students from other nationalities, as well as the socializing and mutual acceptance. What is the role of the municipalities so that such initiatives can continue in the future as well?

There can be no long term sustainability if we only work with projects. The practice has shown that after the end of the projects, the activities continue for several more years, but with gradual deceleration, and eventually, they are discontinued. Therefore, the process must be institutionalized. This is not simple at all, but good practices such as this one can play a key role in this part because we always try to have practical evidence that something is working.

I think that the municipalities will be a key factor in terms of the institutionalization of the process, if they promote such values in their policies, and if it is established that children are more likely to socialize in this way and this is proven through statistical data. I believe that the Ministry of Education and Science will not be an obstacle at all because it has already established a Working Group for Interethnic Integration in Education, and the preparation of the National Strategy for Development of the Concept One Society and Interculturalism in the Republic of North Macedonia is also currently underway.

I sincerely hope that in 10 years or more, these activities will be visible, we will live and work with each other without prejudice and stereotypes. However, in order to get to that, we definitely need to make great efforts and systematic work. I congratulate the teachers who invest a lot of energy in order to carry out such activities. I think that we should find ways to motivate the teachers to continue this process and to do that with an even higher level of dedication and quality.