When schools feel safer than home

by Aleksandar Dimishkovski

Practical exercise for the teachers at the training course held in Peje/Peć

All children get sick from time to time and have to take time off school. But as Eldina Atić, a primary schoolteacher from Brčko, Bosnia and Herzegovina, observes, Roma pupils are absent from school much more often than their non-Roma counterparts.

Being away from school on a regular basis for long periods of time usually leads to poorer grades, and the loss in learning cam limit job opportunities later in life.

Concerned for the welfare of her pupils, Atić decided to try to find out why the Roma children were skipping school so often. She was alarmed to find that intolerance and discrimination in the classroom were among the reasons Roma children cited as keeping them away from class.

Atić resolved to confront the problem head-on, and her approach has generated: over the last year, absences by Roma pupils have fallen 60 per cent.

She says the first step she took was to secure the trust of her Roma pupils.

“It is much harder to gain the trust of children than adults, so I started working on that first, trying to make the children feel better and safer at school – even moreso than in their homes,” she explains.

By actively listening and addressing their concerns, helping the children get more involved at playtime, providing extra teaching support and taking a zero-tolerance attitude to any form of bullying, Atić helped the pupils integrate better into the classroom and built their enthusiasm for school.

“Once they started to have more trust in me, and began to recognize that I was there to help, the situation changed for the better,” she says. “That, I believe, is the key behind this success.”

Through experiential learning to greater understanding

Atić attributes her new approach to a training course she attended for primary schoolteachers, organized by the EU-funded Best Practices for Roma Integration (BPRI) project in Tirana, Albania, in August 2012.

She was one of the 26 teachers, who participated in the training, which was designed to raise awareness among primary schoolteachers on how to combat discrimination against Roma children in the classroom. The teachers were selected by ministries of education throughout the Western Balkans, and all work at schools with a large number of Roma pupils.

Chief trainer Ruth Friedman led the innovative course, which is based on learning from experience and encouraged teachers to develop skills and understanding they could deploy straight away in the classroom. The activities introduced hands-on approaches to addressing discrimination and creating a respectful learning environment in schools.

“One of the training sessions focused on how teachers can help pupils overcome feelings of isolation or exclusion,” Friedman explains. “Teachers have to be avid listeners and understand the particular emotions of children. Reassuring pupils that the teacher is there to help and reminding children that they can look to each other for support can enhance inclusion.”

Friedman says she has received really positive feedback from the teachers on how they integrated what they learnt during the training course into the classroom.

Veronika Kapelari Horvat, a primary schoolteacher from Croatia, says that the most important skill she has learned is how to show children that they are valued and that their feelings count, so that they are eager to participate in a school environment.

“Games like the ‘family wall’, where pupils bring in photos, mementos and their toys, allow children to talk about their daily lives, their likes and dislikes, and helps them learn that, while we’re all individuals, there are many things that are common to all of us,” Horvat says. “And that is key – to work with the children from their earliest age, to teach them that being different is also something to be celebrated and not to be ashamed of.”

Spreading the message

For Friedman, there are many examples of good practice from the teacher training that should be shared more widely. 

 “At a follow-up training course held a year later in Peje/Peć, the teachers reported that greater mutual respect, fewer absences and stronger academic grades among both Roma and non-Roma children were important motivators for their continued work in tackling discrimination in the classroom,” she says. “They are now willing and ready to train others, and this should be further encouraged and supported.”

The teachers also say that support from ministries of education in addressing the problem is essential, especially in organizing further training of teachers to effectively act against discrimination in schools and in developing exchange programmes so teachers can actively share their skills and experiences.

“Providing schoolteachers with effective tools and methods is an extremely important step in taking the discrimination out of classrooms,” says Judith Kiers, BPRI Project Manager. “Making schools more tolerant and safer environments will not only contribute to combating discrimination, but will increase the results and achievements of the children as well.”

Atić describes as “overwhelming” the feeling she gets when she sees her students happy and eager to look beyond the differences amongst them.

“Even in the eyes of my colleagues, I see more respect than before. So, I can really say that I too have developed as a person, and not only my pupils,” Atić says. “A lot more has to be done to address this problem, for sure. But, for me, it is a real pleasure to see the progress in combating discrimination happening on a day-to-day basis.”  

BPRI is a regional project funded by the European Union, supported by OSCE participating States and implemented by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The project supports innovative programmes to promote greater Roma participation in political and public life and decision-making, to help combat discrimination and to contribute to better living conditions.