A heartwarming new year’s call

Friday, January 5, 2024

Category: Blog

By Victoria Bogdanova, DPhil student

It’s always nice to receive New Year wishes but some messages are really precious. This year I got a call from Petya (name changed), one of my former students. Today, he is a confident, handsome young man. He has a brilliant sense of humour and makes a lot of jokes. I was his maths teacher and tutor five years ago. And the story was very different back then.

For over 10 years I’ve been working for a Moscow charity called Big Change which supports care-experienced children and young people in their education. Petya was the first student for whom I was also a tutor, meaning that I not only taught him maths but I was also responsible for his individual learning plan and general life issues.

He was 17. Lived in an orphanage with his younger brother. Failed most of the exams last year. Had terrible relationships at school (he could be very naughty and revengeful when needed to defend himself). As the last hope, he was brought to our charity by his social worker.

Unfortunately, it was a typical situation. In state schools in Russia, teachers are often lacking time, resources and training to support teenagers with behavioural and educational difficulties. It’s not a secret that teenagers in care like Petya had experienced so much loss and trauma at a young age that it had led to severe gaps in learning. For example, Petya’s knowledge of maths and Russian was at the level of primary school when I first met him, even though he was supposed to pass secondary school exams in a few months. Failing these exams restricts further educational and career opportunities. Many of these young people also suffer from drug or alcohol misuse or have criminal records.

When I first met Petya, his hood covered his face, he never looked into other people’s eyes, and he said no more than a few words. What could I have talked to him about? Definitely not maths… rap was the only thing I knew he seemed to be interested in. It made me listen to rap songs at home, to have some topics in common. Surprisingly, it helped, and I celebrated a small victory when after a math class he looked around and said, “You should listen to Tupac, I think you might like it.”

Over a year of lessons with Petya, I learned a lot; how smart and quick-witted he was, how polite he tried to be (he apologised every time a swear word accidentally slipped his tongue in my presence), how deeply he loved his younger brother whom he had saved from starving when their mother had been drinking, how much he cared about his elderly grandmother who cooked her best bortsch for him every time he came to see her. Of course, I also learned a lot about teenagers’ slang and culture. Petya, in return, stopped wearing a hood, started smiling, raised his head and, hopefully, learned something about maths.

Petya passed some of his exams but not all and couldn’t continue his education. However, he now lives independently, supports his brother, has a job, and his employer appreciates him. The fact that he calls me every New Year’s eve makes me think that my work was not in vain. It’s not about maths, of course, but some trust to this world that was fostered in this once aloof young man.

In my PhD research, I’m not only trying to describe what approaches can help these young people on how they can catch up with their studies, but also find their confidence and thrive in life, and what teachers can do about it.