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Notes by a Romani teacher in a majority-dominated Bulgarian school: Things a teacher can not forget

10 September 1998

Svetlana Vassileva1

When I was choosing my profession-to-be, I never dreamed of these difficulties. On the other hand, I was prepared to deal with them better than I knew. My mother never lost an opportunity to delicately remind me that, whatever the circumstances, we Gypsies were the most vulnerable creatures whom nobody trusted. "Don't rush to declare your ethnicity. Study! Work! Prove you are better than the others, then say what you are: only then would they accept you as an equal." At the time this strategy seemed unjust and pointless, but I am grateful to my mother now. Life - my life - has proved her right.

Fair enough; but to think of the choices of children who have "that" written all over them, kids who won't be able to first show quality, because they would never even get the chance to acquire it.

I imagined that working with children would enable me to combat this basic injustice; I decided to go to an ordinary local school and teach the youngest and purest souls. I had graduated from university with distinction, which gave me the right to opt for three schools of my choosing. Yet the municipal authorities pretended to have lost my application documents and insisted that I go and teach in a "Gypsy" school,2 where, apparently, I belonged. I would hear often: "You mean - you want to teach in ANOTHER school?!" The genuine incredulity made this reaction even more vicious. I fought for my right, and finally succeeded, only to be rebuked at the first staff meeting by my new headteacher for my conduct: "It was hard enough for me to give you a class, none of the colleagues here wants to work with a Gypsy ".

Officially, ethnicity was a non-existent characteristic: it was never noted in a census or identity card. Nevertheless, I as a teacher was required by the Ministry of Education to submit information on the ethnicity of my pupils. I was frankly at a loss how to go about it; but a seasoned colleague came to my class for five minutes and directly pointed out two ethnic Turks and three Roma. What her criteria were still mystifies me. (Later it transpired that she had been somewhat mistaken: the ones she deemed "Turks", apparently on account of their lighter skin color and larger eyes, turned out to be Roma, like the darker three.) At the next staff meeting I said: "If this information is really so vital, here it goes: for my class put down five Gypsy kids and one schoolteacher." Those present who didn't know about my origin were embarrassed, but the headteacher said: "We cannot change the requirements of the Ministry. If the Ministry want this information, certainly there is a reason for that." Gradually I learned that teachers automatically put kids of Romani origin in the "difficult" category and insisted that they didn't get more than their fair share.

Initially, Roma kids in my school did not number more than two or three per class. But gradually more Roma families from the neighbourhood decided they wanted to give their children a better education. The school authorities tried hard indeed to prevent the increase of Roma pupils - again through unofficial, off-the-record harassment or discouragement. There was the case of a Romani boy, whose father had gone to the trouble of securing a special letter from the Regional School Inspectorate recommending that the boy be enrolled in our school. After not finding his name on the list of any of the classes, I asked about him at the next staff meeting. The headteacher's reaction was to mutter on her way out: "Assembly dismissed. If any colleague wants this boy, they can have him! There is a letter about him from the Regional Inspectorate."

On hearing this, most of the teachers hurried out; yet a dozen primary class teachers remained in the room. One could hear: "A have enough Gypsies in my class...."; "My class is too big as it is..." I was already thinking how to break it to the father, when Maria Ivanova took the challenge: "Come on, colleagues, there are worthy kids among them too. I'll have him." A few months later she came to me herself to say that Khristo had proved to be an intelligent and eager pupil. "I want to apologize to you for the other colleagues," she added. I have forgiven long ago; but I don't expect to forget.

Khristo was doubly lucky: in his clever father and in his pre-school mastery of Bulgarian. Most bilingual children, which means most of the Roma, simply do not know enough Bulgarian to participate. For a teacher the easiest solution is simply to get rid of such problem kids. Usually parents are "strongly advised" to take their child to a "special school" for mentally retarded children. The teacher's authority plus free lunches in these establishments push many parents to comply. Each year we have thousands of Romani children educated under their level of intelligence. An education that denies opportunities rather than increase them, that's what they get.

There is a point where one becomes accustomed to the so-called negative stereotypes of Roma revealed in the behavior of most of the members of the majority; what was particularly painful to me was that the same banal prejudice was shared by my fellow-teachers. It is enough for a classmate to expose his or her domestic culture by saying to a Romani child in the appropriate tone of voice: "You are a Gypsy!" - the Romani child is stigmatized for life. Especially if there is no other authority to interfere, and as a rule there is none. At a staff meeting in the end of the year a colleague raises a point: "We already have an average of four to five Gypsies per class. Think what effect this would have on our children, on the image of the school. The School Administration should think of a way to restrict further Gypsy enrollment." The headteacher answers "Sure, we must think about this." And in the beginning of the school year, the headteacher again: "Colleagues, I apologize for having hired Gypsy cleaning women. There were just no other candidates. But I promise to amend this before the year is through."

At every staff meeting I was made to feel guilty for being Roma, and for the presence of Romani students. The school authorities even made it understood that I was the one to blame for the increase of Romani kids in the school. However, when the school was threatened with closure for general insufficiency of pupils, I was told: "Right, we will have to enroll more children from the minority, but you must help. We want bright ones. Like you, you know." I was dumbfounded.

My dream of a school that would give all its children an education of understanding, delicacy and tolerance was not getting me anywhere. Had I been wrong in not going to my "natural" school, where 90% of the children would be Roma? But I had been against the existence of such schools on principle, and still am, after years of experience. Such schools perpetuate and even enhance social and cultural inequality in a most infamous manner. It is an unspoken rule that the least qualified teachers inevitably get posted to such schools. I've been told that there is a recent positive change in this respect, and I am willing to believe this, yet so far there are no tangible results.

Looking back at the problems, I am convinced that solutions could be produced along the following lines:

  • Future teachers should complete a course in the history and culture of all major ethnic groups on Bulgarian territory. For a teacher there should be no alternative to embracing the notion that all inhabitants of this country are its citizens, plenipotentiary and equal.
  • The history and culture of ethnic groups should become a compulsory subject at school too.
  • Primary teachers should be trained to recognize and deal with the problems of bilingual children. It should be the School's declared policy to bring up all students in a spirit of tolerance and respect for ethno-cultural diversity.
  • Classes should be made as ethno-culturally diverse as possible.

Endnotes:

  1. The author is a Bulgarian Romani, a teacher of Bulgarian. Currently she is running a political radio show in Bulgaria (Mericle, 7 Days Radio) on a pro bono basis.
  2. Officially there is no ethnic segregation in Bulgarian schools. However, parents from the majority try hard to avoid sending their kids to a "Gypsy" school. On the other hand, a "Gypsy" school would have predominantly Romani students because it would be in or near a Roma ghetto. Officially there are no ghettos, but majority members as a rule would not dwell near Roma if they could help it. The result is a case of "natural segregation circle", based not on official policy, but on stereotype-motivated individual choices of majority members. Ed.

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