By British Council in Armenia

15 March 2020 - 19.00

Ohanna Avetisyan and the Byron school students perform the school anthem at the opening ceremony of the Learning Hub. 29 November 2019 

Ohanna Avanesyan, is a former graduate and now a teacher at the Gyumri secondary school №20 named after George Byron. Here, she talks about the school’s connection to the UK, starting with the renovation that followed a devastating earthquake all the way to establishing the British Council’s Learning Hub.

Earthquake aftermath

Less than 15 days after the devastating earthquake hit the town of Spitak in 1988, the teachers self-organized, opened makeshift schools in tents and resumed the lessons. Although each lesson lasted for only 15 minutes due to the cold and other circumstances, they nevertheless tried their best. Then, magic happened. We had British journalists visiting our tent-sheltered school. Our school was selected because of its UK-oriented reputation that it had even before the quake. Try to imagine the reporter’s astonishment when they heard singing in the midst of that homeless tent setting. To hear kids who had suffered pain and grief sing about sunshine and smiling children. 

They came in and started asking what we needed – toys, candies, clothes, shoes? One girl gave it a long thought and said, “I want my old warm school. I want a real life”. The journalists left and her words flooded the UK media, reaching the Government and giving the school construction a powerful start. The lovely, warm, safe and comfortable school that we received in 1990 was a dream come true.

A meeting with Margaret Thatcher

“I will never forget that day. You know, I hadn’t seen a smiling person ever since the earthquake, but that day I saw people standing in rows along the streets of my hometown, with flowers in their waving hands and smiles on their faces. We reached a beautiful building which stood in the endless scene of ruins, tents and cottages. We entered and were taken to the stage, where they told all ten of us to take our seats. When all the children were seated, a woman came up from the backstage. Passing by, she ran her hand over my hair. Years later I was just as astounded to know who she was and the high rank politician that she used to be.

Applause filled the hall. The colors of our lives had faded away after the earthquake and you could see that in the way we were dressed too. And so, we were overwhelmed by her smile and white attire amid that prevailing dimness. Generally speaking, the Byron school grew into a bridge between Gyumri and the UK. This is why it was able to overcome a new crisis, years after its construction, thanks to UK support which was delivered through the Embassy and the British Council.

A second breath

I have to say that our school has seen prosperous times, but it was also on the verge of closing due to the heating system breakdown. The school managed to survive thanks to the efforts of UK Ambassadors Jonathan Aves and Katherine Leach. Seeing the wonderful children and the conditions in which they were taught, they immediately launched a fundraising campaign.

The opening of the English club by the British Council also meant a second breath for the school life. The club helps students to “think in English” and develop analytical thinking. It also tries to overcome their fear of self-expression. The club is currently open only for the students of our school but will soon be accessible to student from other schools in our marz. 

The club is quite useful for the teachers too. The new methods practiced in the club contribute greatly to our professional development. You enter your usual classroom as a slightly different person after each club session and try to apply the newly learnt methods during your class.

From Learning to Teaching

It was challenging to enroll into our school, which by that time had 1400 pupils studying in three shifts. Not only was the admission difficult but studying didn’t come easy either since the educational and disciplinary benchmarks were set very high. We boasted about having a linguaphone classroom and cared for the school in which we spent so much time learning.  

In my teaching years, the best reward for my work was the success of my pupils, some of whom are students at Oxford or Cambridge. The British Council appeared as one of the most fulfilling discoveries for me. Through its trainings, conferences and workshops it helps us to develop and master new skills and find ways of applying them in our practices. 

The British Council doesn’t leave teachers alone, in the best possible way. Once you find them, you’re trapped in a continuous process! You keep receiving messages and one day find yourself in an online course, the next day you participate in a conference, you have this training and then the other. I am a Teacher activity group member, acting as a trainer assistant and working with teachers from different communities. Teachers must always work on their self-development and self-education and must never fear making mistakes and correcting them, making new discoveries with children.

Ohanna Avanesyan was born in 1980 and attended Gyumri secondary school No.20. She has graduated from Gyumri state pedagogical institute with excellence with the qualification of Teacher of English. Ohanna has been teaching English in her native school since 2002. In 2010 Ohanna and her pupils were invited to participate in the “Children’s ensemble in the world of theatre” event, which included 150 children from 28 countries and 1500 children from the UK. She was the winner of “Best Teacher of the Year” contest in 2017 and was awarded with a prize from the Ministry of Education of Armenia.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the opening ceremony of the Byron school talking to the school kids - Ohanna among them. 
Learning Hub students at Byron School in Gyumri. 

About the programme 

The Learning Hubs: Improved Skills for Stronger Societies is a three-year programme that will develop young people’s skills so that they can build confidence and have better access to educational and career pathways in the future. It will support the development of cohesive, stable and prosperous communities in Armenia by building resilience, and developing diverse skills.  

The British Council has designed and developed the programme, with funding from the UK Government.