It's the beginning of the school year and the
teacher has noticed that she'll have Romani children in her class. How
will she react? Is it a normal situation? Will the teacher experience fear
or even a directly negative reaction? In Western countries, such as Spain
or Great Britain, the school might take steps to compensate for any disadvantages
the child might have as a member of a visible minority.
How then should a Czech teacher handle a Romani child in the classroom?
First of all, the teacher must pay specific attention to how the child
is accepted by the other students. Children generally don't pay too much
attention to racial differences - unless they have learned prejudices and
stereotypes at home. For a child who looks different from the majority
of his or her fellow students, going to school can be traumatic. Rather
than emphasizing differences, the teacher must strive to show the children
why it is good that we are not all the same. Such training can help prevent
interethnic conflicts in the schoolyard.
It is best to start early. It's easy to explain to first-grade children
that the Roma came to our country a long time ago from faraway India, that
we can learn many things from them, such as how to sing a song in the Romani
language. The teacher can emphasize that we are very lucky to have children
of different races, religions, or backgrounds in the classroom because
it enriches all of us, and because we can all learn from each other. Such
sensitive training at the elementary school level, when the teacher is
seen as an unquestionable authority in the classroom, can act as an effective
medicine against the xenophobic psychosis of Czech society. Furthermore,
it is crucial to strengthen the confidence of a Romani child right from
the beginning of their school life.
Romani children come from a completely different
social and cultural environment than their fellow students from the majority
Czech culture. Romani children generally have a very liberal upbringing,
they are granted more freedom, and they are rarely punished. "Maribnaha
na kereha èhavoreha òiè, èa laveha" (You
don't bring children up by beating them but rather by using words), counsels
one Romani saying. "Romani children learn by what they see others doing.
No one breaks them in; they learn more or less on their own. No one forces
them to learn anything which hasn't been granted to them by God..." according
to one Rom quoted in a book by Milena Hübschmannová.
Collective decision-making and collective responsibility are much more
important in Romani families than individual responsibility and individual
ambition. Another Romani saying highlights these priorities: "Miro than
odoj, kaj mire nipi" (My place is where my people are). Romani families
are quite different from European families. Romani parents tend to differentiate
among their children and prefer one of them over the others. Nevertheless,
these "preferred" children appear to be outwardly accepted by their peers.
The teacher should know about Romani customs. For
instance, breakfast is not a custom in Romani families. This has its roots
in the fact that in the past, Romani women used to travel around the countryside,
helping the villagers in exchange for food. It was only after the women
brought the food back to the household that the children and the rest of
the family could eat. Another Romani custom is to leave a little of their
meal on the plate since it is not considered polite for a guest to eat
everything that is given to them.
Teachers should also have at least a minimal knowledge of the Romani
language, which can be used not only as a teaching aid but also as a means
for the instructor to establish a direct emotional relationship with the
Romani child. Furthermore, a teacher with at least an elementary knowledge
of the Romani language is able to recognize when a student is making an
error in Czech, something Romani students are more prone to do since they
are not taught in their maternal tongue. Even children who have lost the
ability to speak Romani make such errors — the result of the communist
regime's assimilation projects during which parents were forced to speak
to their children in Czech. As a result of such policies, many Romani children
have trouble in both languages and speak a sort of Romani-Czech dialect.
The extent to which Romani children are successfully
educated in school depends on the school's relations with their parents.
Many Roma view schools as repressive organs that should not be trusted.
These barriers can be overcome, but this requires time, patience, and effort
to understand customs and habits that are foreign to the Czech majority.
Aside from learning the Romani language and visiting the parents of
Romani students, teachers should also hold informal parent-teacher meetings
at the school. Combining such meetings with a musical or theatrical performance
by the children would guarantee parental attendance. The Pøemysl
Pitter elementary school in Ostrava, which is renowned in the country for
its Romani education program, bases all of its activities on cooperation
with the Romani community. As one teacher at the school notes: "We are
very respectful when we deal with the parents. Sometimes you have to listen
to their experiences, offer advice in some areas. It's never a waste of
time because it helps us open doors into a very self-enclosed community."
One hopeful sign is that the state has finally
succumbed to pressure and allowed schools to employ Romani teaching assistants
under certain circumstances. It is now up to the schools to take the initiative.
We now have an opportunity to open up a new era in the education of Romani
children, an era which will hopefully ensure that those children stay where
they have always belonged - in school.