I teach in Samokov, Bulgaria, a beautiful little mountain town with a population of 30,000. The community is small and the people in town are very open and welcoming. I believed that teaching interesting topics affecting every citizen—such as "What are my rights?" and “What is freedom?”—would intrigue students and motivate them to grow as responsible, democratic citizens.
I was wrong.
My students were glad to see a young teacher enter their classroom, but they were apathetic to learning. I myself needed to answer a serious question: why was I facing so much trouble in class?
The answer, I discovered, lay in a range of factors that directly influenced my students’ behaviour. The city is divided into several zones, including a Roma (or “Gypsy”) ghetto and a Bulgarian quarter. I also saw that between Bulgarians and Roma people there were many actively negative attitudes and stereotypes.
45 percent of my students are of Roma—or “Gypsy”—origin. But in classes that had a mix of Bulgarian and Roma students, there were increased behavioural problems.
I tried to talk to my fellow teachers about these issues, but noticed that their opinion of the Roma was also negative. Typical teachers described Romany students as “second class,” “people who never learn to live by regulations,” “people who will always run away from school” and “those who will steal and pollute the city.” These negative stereotypes result in a "glass ceiling"—low expectations persist regardless of the effort and qualities a student demonstrates. Indeed, high rates of absence among Roma children were due to the negative attitudes of their classmates and teachers.
I wanted to better understand the Roma tradition and culture. I wanted to plan lessons that effectively reached each student. So I began to concentrate on ways to establish an atmosphere of tolerance in class, reduce absences of students of Roma origin and change existing stereotypes. I tried everything: talking to parents by mobile phone, personally visiting families in their own neighborhood and organising team-building meetings. It wasn’t working. I felt desperate. I wondered how I could continue to teach.
Late one night I was at a rehearsal of a student band I helped to establish. A friend—a rapper of Roma origin—listened to my frustration. "You would like to help change the attitudes between Gypsies and Bulgarians, but you do not know the life of Gypsies,” he told me. “To be taken seriously, you should talk to their pastor. The church is the most influential institution there, do not underestimate it."
This friend worked as an assistant pastor at the church, and he offered to take me to the ghetto and introduce me to the most influential leaders there. They allowed me to give monthly, short lectures in the church to motivate parents and children to engage in education and reduce school absenteeism. This was an incredible opportunity, because the church is visited daily by 2,000–3,000 people.
Discussions with parents at church became an invaluable resource for motivating students and getting to know the local Roma culture. Roma people have their own language but not a formal alphabet. This makes their work with written academic texts very difficult. Also, in the Roma community, personal interaction is the most important form of knowledge. I changed my teaching methods as a result of these discoveries.For example, I have found it more effective to teach theories and academic terms through an emotionally charged role play following the model of dynamic theater.
Once I started to visit the Gypsy neighborhood, I noticed unprecedented educational outcomes. Students began waiting for my lesson each week with anticipation and passion. Their academic success greatly increased, and I noticed progress in their motivation for learning. I am continuing to work actively with the community by implementing several projects covering civil rights and including Bulgarians and Roma children.
Lived experience reinforced my belief that the teacher is not just a lecturer and a leader. To reach parents and students—to engage the whole community—it is important to be an active researcher, looking for the deep causes of student behaviour and taking advantage of every lesson to touch their hearts and dreams. Only then can education become meaningful to children and their parents.
How do I apply this?
1. Stop trying to find new strategies to solve behavioural challenges, and look deeper. What community factors have you not yet examined that might help you understand your students better? How can you address the cause of the behaviour instead?
2. Deyan stopped trying to fix things at school, and started getting out into the heart of his students’ community, their church. Where should you visit to get to the heart of your students’ world? The local playground? A shop? Someone’s home?
Deyan Petrov (Teach For Bulgaria, '11), teaches civic education at the Vocational School of Tourism.