The lessons a trainer learns 5: how can we manage biases towards the Roma in teacher training?

Bias is present everywhere towards the Roma, from the earliest years on. If it is hard to cooperate with the family, if the parents don’t attend teacher-parent meetings, if the child displays challenging behaviour, kindergarten staff might say: „It’s because they are Roma.”

It’s so much easier to say then to say that it is hard to cooperate or communicate with them because it takes longer to build trust. But when someone has been living in deprivation for so long with the stigma that it is their fault, then shame builds up. And shame stops us from asking for help, from trusting the other person.

Methods for conflict resolution and building bridges with Roma parents in creches, kindergartens and schools are not part of teacher training curriculum. There are great university initiatives and programs but they are not supported by the state education system in Hungary. This is why it was so important when Laura, a mentee in REYN 4 asked for help when she encountered teacher bias towards the Roma during her training to become a kindergarten assistant. 

She called me and told me that she got in a conflict with one of her teachers at her training the previous week. The teacher was telling a story about a family where the parents did not notice that their child got hold of his dad’s phone where a porn video was open and after that he started to make sexual moves towards the children in his kindergarten group. The teacher said that it is a ”cultural thing with Roma”, this kind of neglect. Laura was deeply shocked and angered by this statement and had the courage to stand up and tell the teacher that this generalisation is shameful. The teacher said she didn’t mean to offend her, this is just her experience but didn’t apologise. Laura got even angrier, raised her voice and started to cry. They argued in front of the class. The lesson ended without the conflict being resolved.

Laura was ashamed that she raised her voice but also outraged by the teacher’s attitude. She wanted to apologise but also wanted the teacher to apologise. Now what? I was afraid to get involved in a conflict between an educational institution and an individual but I felt I had no choice. This was the time to make a difference. I called the principal of the educational institution, told her what happened and asked for an extra hour where I could facilitate a discussion about what happened. Our association, Partners Hungary Foundation has been working with alternative conflict resolution methods for many years. As a trainer and facilitator of Restorative Practices, I realised that this is an important occasion where participants can talk about what happened, how they were affected by the situation and what can be done to make things right. I explained the method of a facilitated Restorative circle, the questions that could be discussed and that everything said by the participants will be kept confidential. To my suprise, the principal said that it sounds great and that he will arrage that extra hour for me. We agreed that he would let the teacer and the whole class know about that discussion ahead. Kudos to his open-mindedness, flexibility and sensitivity.

When I entered the classroom that Saturday, I was very nervous and felt like I was considered as an enemy by many of the people in the room. I asked Laura, who was also present, why some of the people were looking at me like that. She told me that the principal only told about the discussion to the teacher who interpreted that this would be a scolding from a stranger and this is what she passed on to the group. Great start – I thought. I introduced myself to the teacher and explained what is going to happen. That I am not here to judge who is a good or bad person, that we will only discuss how the people in the room were affected by last week’s open conflict and what can be done to make things better in this learning community . I told her that the content of this discussion will be kept confidential. I talked about my role as a mentor for Laura. The teacher’s face started to change – she didn’t look angry any more but rather curious and said she was up for it and we can start. I explained the same things to the students in the room and I also said that participation is voluntary. Some of the students in the room stood up to leave because they said they were still not convinced that this was going to serve their community and that it won’t have a negative effect on their teacher – whom they like a lot for her experience and kindness. It was hard for me to let them leave but could not force them. I told them how sorry I was about it but that I understood their decision.

I sighed. I smiled at the other participants, thanked them for their open-mindedness and asked them to arrange the chairs into a circle. I looked around and searched for eye contact. What I saw was twelve faces, some of them smiling, some of them looking curious and excited. What happened in those 60 minutes that followed exceeded my expectations. Simply sharing how situations affect us emotionally – in a safe space brings such a sense of community and cohesion. Let me share the details with you in the next post, keeping the participants’ anonymity.