Borko Petrović, Educator, Gymnasium Paracin

Borko Petrović graduated from the Faculty of Philology in Niš in 2004. For the past 16 years, he has been teaching English to primary, secondary and high school students. One of the many things he is famous for in the Balkans is his ‘teaching philosophy of 5 elements’ or cornerstones upon which every educational system should rest, but his greatest contribution is his role as a forerunner in the application of ICT in education – he successfully coordinated the most important project in the country and opened the first digital classroom in Serbia in 2014. For his extraordinary and visionary work, he has been awarded numerous times on a local, national and international level as some of his titles are: The Best Teacher in the municipality of Paraćin, The Best Teacher of Serbia, The Best Teacher of former Yugoslavia, The National Teacher Prize Winner and Serbian candidate for Global Teacher Prize 2020. He is married, father of three.

Why teaching?
Going through the whole educational system, from childhood I faced all its advantages and disadvantages and I got well acquainted with all its weaknesses, having felt the consequences myself. I was a victim of peer violence many times, changed schools, was separated and singled out by teachers, ill-treated, offended and neglected. Now, from this point of view, I think that my subconsciousness and wish to change something have played a key role in my career choice. My hard way through our education certainly predestined me for this occupation because, if someone understood well the need for changes, it was I. For this reason, I am grateful to the good people who helped me on this path and to others who made that path harder for me – I learnt from their mistakes the most.

Did you felt the need to give something back?
As a teacher enthusiast determined to start profound changes with this first symbolic step, I try to give back, first and foremost, in my municipality and then in the whole country. The journey was not easy at all. Since the first day, I encountered the resistance toward novelties which I had planned to introduce, and these were modern skills and competences which would give my students the advantage on the labour market and make them citizens of the world. At the end of my first school year, an opportunity arose for the students from my municipality to represent Serbia at an international UNESCO camp in Greece. I chose 12 best students in the municipality with pleasure, prepared them for two months, found the means for the trip and took them to that camp where we worthily represented Serbia and opened up new possibilities for the cooperation with other nations and cultures.

Having realized the importance of this intercultural story and owing to the contacts made at that camp, I succeeded in cooperation with an organization from the US and with schools and faculties not only in my town, but also across Serbia, provided an opportunity for the autumn professional development of my colleagues through seminars and the summer professional orientation of students through workshops and camps for children, and all of that every year starting from 2006 up to now, completely free of charge. After the success in Serbia, we took similar actions in all ex-Yu countries and Bulgaria and we have already held three summer camps with student delegations from all ex-Yu states in Negotino, North Macedonia. Concurrently with these activities, we held training for workers and guardians in social welfare centres and workshops for children with special needs and without parents in orphanages in the Balkans where we donated necessary equipment.

Using the observations of renowned linguists, I succeeded in creating an authentic environment for acquiring the basics of the English language through music memory games and associations.

What are some of your greatest achievements?
I could say that my greatest achievement is the digitalization of teaching in the first digital classroom in Serbia and the change of direction in the philosophy of education of the whole staff by which the school additionally approached its future autonomy. Namely, in 2014, I was the coordinator of the project by which my school received the first digital classroom in Serbia and I was given a great honour and responsibility for managing its work and raising the teaching to a higher level, training my colleagues for the work in the digital classroom and modern teaching of students. In all our activities the key training was mental blueprint – to change the approach to teaching and learning, strengthen the participants in the teaching process, ‘flip’ the classroom and turn to the projects which would bring new competencies and 21st-century skills to everyone.

Such an approach placed my school among the best schools in Serbia and brought me the acknowledgements ‘The Best Educator of Serbia’ and ‘The Best Teacher of Former Yugoslavia’, as well as the participation at AFS Global Conference in Budapest and the symposium named ‘The Spectrum of Education’ in Istanbul where I was the representative of Serbia twice and talked in panel discussions about my way of working, intercultural and global competences which I, not only in the classroom, started to improve through the programs of the mobility of colleagues and students, so we had students from Russia, Turkey, Italy, Thailand and Mexico in the classroom on the exchange last year.

Have you have always stressed the importance of contributing to the local community?
The crown of my work and contribution to the local community is my project ‘Knowledge without Borders’ where I gathered 14 of the best teachers in Serbia and one foreign lecturer, aiming at visiting all schools in the municipality within one month and showing what high-quality education is through demonstration classes, workshops, presentations and platforms for students, parents and colleagues. The project is still on and I have welcomed more than 30 exceptional educators both from Serbia and abroad.

What are some of the challenges of working with children who have special needs?
My philosophy is that every child that enrols at our school is a child with special needs; it is only important to discover on time what their special needs are. As a class teacher, I could see that only a third of the students had a stable family, peace, time and place for studying. At that time, I used a method ‘Parental involvement’ where I first held training for parents about optimal conditions and methods of learning, time management and strategic planning. With the help of online applications, all parents were in contact with me 24/7 and we could correct students’ mistakes on time and form their online portfolio with the set outcomes for the first and second semester.

Our school is one of the few schools which still has special classes in a separate building for children with special needs and I have been the class teacher of a combined class of Years 5 and 6. We are talking about children with various developmental disorders and needs but it’s been a pleasure teaching them, within free activities called ‘English through music’, and be happy about their every success.

We are talking about a completely new approach which I have designed to bring the English language closer to students through play and song. Namely, as a graduate student, I explored the connection of music and language and their universality, in other words, what is the limit of the use of music as a universal language because music also has its grammar and meaning – semantics. Since I was into music (I was the First Voice of Serbia while I was in high school), I wrote a research paper on that topic under the title of: ‘The grammar of music in cognitive science’. Using the observations of renowned linguists, I succeeded in creating an authentic environment for acquiring the basics of the English language through music memory games and associations.

Finally, can you tell us your secret combination to successful teaching?
Every responsible and experienced teaching specialist will tell you that there is no method—universal, successful, easy—which you will use in approaching each class or child. If I had to choose my favourite ones and those which have proven the best over the past years, they would be ‘flipped classroom’, ‘blended learning’ and ‘project-based learning’ which give brilliant results with the use of new technologies and seem motivating for students and teachers as they save time and make space for new possibilities and activities in my classes because traditional teaching is being moved out of the classroom. I have noticed that my students are more motivated, creative, more venturous, they do not learn by rote but they contemplate and think critically, combining knowledge from other school subjects through thematic and project-based teaching, so their overall success at school is better. However, this does not prevent me from singing, acting and using the most incredible methods if they will give results. The most important thing is that I have command of them all and know how to get the winning combination.

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