Her work is far from easy and every day brings a new challenge. Yet Nadia Georgiova, a Bulgarian teacher, would not give up her job at School No. 7 in Sliven for anything in the world.
School No. 7 in Sliven, some 270 km east of the capital, Sofia, has 1,250 students, the vast majority of whom are Roma. The 700,000 Roma living in Bulgaria account for 8.9% of the population and, as in other countries of the region, their school performance is below the national average. After 15 years of transition to democracy and the market economy, illiteracy among the adult Roma population has doubled: the average rate is 20%. Keeping in touch In order to counter these trends, the teachers of School No. 7 decided to visit the Roma district as often as possible. Once a week, Nadia Georgiova meets Roma parents to encourage them to send their children to school or ensure those who have dropped out resume their studies, or simply to keep in touch and gain a better understanding of their problems. "Links of trust are built. One of the mothers I now meet was one of my first pupils. She has promised me to send her children to school", explains Nadia, with the same warm smile she showed a short while ago during her meetings with the Roma families. Nadia has been working for some 20 years in this school and would not trade her job for anything in the world. She recognises that many young teachers “crack up” after a few weeks, and she understands their feelings. "True, sometimes you have the impression that you’re building on quicksand. You work hard with a group of students and just when you think they are beginning to make some progress, half of them disappear for several weeks. Many Roma work as seasonal labourers and take their children along with them. The cherry harvest is now starting. So we try to negotiate with the parents. For example, we do revision and perform the tests before the children leave. The girls pose a special challenge. Often, their parents withdraw them from school at the age of 12 or 13 because they want to exert full social control over them, including arranged marriages.” But Nadia also highlights the positive sides of her job: "I feel in touch with real life. I feel I must meet their expectations. This requires a great deal of personal commitment and adaptability. Often I have the impression that I’m fulfilling several roles at once: teacher, psychologist, carer, etc. In the classroom, there is the problem of language. For the time being, we have no Roma teachers, and this is a shame. One of our colleagues speaks Turkish – it’s a start, I suppose! The youngest pupils can’t speak Bulgarian. Initially, we need the help of older students to make ourselves understood. We also have to cope with rivalries between various groups and local areas. The parents of opposing groups do not wish their children to be in the same class. It is tough, but I love challenges. At the end of the process, it is very rewarding to see them complete their primary education with a good stock of skills." The teachers function as a highly cohesive team and this helps them in their job. Dialogue among teachers is constant; experiences are shared and teaching methods fine-tuned by working together. The team welcomes the creation of an intermediate class between kindergarten and primary school. Gap between words and the realities The teachers’ federations organise the vast majority of teachers and education workers. As highly representative organisations, they can legitimately initiate important discussions at national level. Teachers’ unions conduct vigorous lobbying activities on a range of issues and were instrumental in pushing the adoption a Law on protection against discrimination in 2003. The unions also work on a day-to-day basis with some 40 Roma organisations and encourage the kind of initiatives taken by teachers in school No. 7. However, Mitto Mitev is critical of the gap between words and the realities on the ground, i.e. the worsening living conditions among the Roma population and the proliferation of prejudice and xenophobia in all layers of society. Mitto is all too aware that his school is under threat because it is regarded as being segregationist. "I’m the head of a local school that is attended almost exclusively by Roma children. I believe the problem should be seen the other way around: we should aim to raise the level of this school as much as possible so that we can also attract non-Roma children. In the integration programmes, Roma parents are 'encouraged' to enrol their children in the integration classes. A great deal of emphasis is put on the benefits of this, including a school bus shuttle service, free clothes and so on. The truth is that they are not given a real choice. And the 7- or 8-year old Roma children who attend the integration classes live in anguish. They can barely speak any Bulgarian and they sit in the back rows. The result is, at best, that they eventually find their way to a school like ours. At worst, their schooling ends before it has barely started."