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August 10, 2022



Romani educator at school serving infamous Czech housing estate wouldn't want to work anywhere else

24.9.2019 13:38
Adriana Kotlárová (PHOTO: Petr Zewlakk Vrabec)
Adriana Kotlárová (PHOTO: Petr Zewlakk Vrabec)

For three years she has been teaching at the primary school in the center of the Chanov housing estate in Most, Czech Republic, which is exclusively attended by Romani pupils. She wouldn't change places with anybody, though.

Adriana Kotlárová (born 1989) comes from Most, graduated from a secondary vocational school in Litvínov with a focus on tourism, and then graduated in secondary school teacher training, Czech language and literature, and the social sciences at the Faculty of Education in Ústí nad Labem. Since 2016 she has been teaching at the Chanov Primary School.

She has fallen in love with Chanov and its children, above all because of their directness. Romano vod'i magazine has interviewed her and news server is bringing you the interview in full translation.

Q: Are you observing any changes in the majority society's behavior toward Chanov or its perception of Chanov after the "Most!" series ran?

A: The boom begun by that series caused representatives of the Government to come here and promise aid, which did eventually come about. Interest in Chanov fell off about exactly three weeks after the series ended, though. Local residents mostly did not perceive the series as anything groundbreaking, they just saw it as fun, not as anything more. From time to time somebody may have said that it was fine they emphasized the character of a working Romani man in the series, or that Mr Godla is an amazing talent, as an actor, but most locals are essentially so angry as to be hateful toward the Romani residents of Chanov. I don't believe the series benefited the relationship between the majority and the minority here in the Most area. There will still be negative reporting about Chanov, half-truths will still be written about it, Chanov residents will continue to be perceived as second-class citizens, but nobody will write about the fact that we have a pupils' parliament here at the school, or that we have many brilliant musical talents here.

Q: Have you experienced during your practice that pupils or students from the majority society look at you as if you were a revelation? Have the Romani children been surprised to have a Romani woman as their teacher?

A: During my practicum as a teacher in Ústí nad Labem I had an amazing experience. The reactions were positive, the acceptance was friendly, both among the students and among my fellow teachers. I never felt that anybody had a problem with a Romani woman representing the faculty. Here at the Chanov school, the children's reactions were surprising. In the beginning they asked me what my degree meant, they asked me about school, because when I began teaching at Chanov I was completing my Master's. They lived through it all with me, it really brought us together. The support for me could be felt from their parents as well.

Q: Most college-educated Romani people move from smaller towns to the larger, nearby cities for work. You are from Most yourself, so why did you choose to work at the primary school in the center of the Chanov housing estate?

A: First I considered Ústí nad Labem, but at the time it didn't work out for me. Eventually I was able to choose from the four schools here in the Most area. However, after interviewing with the principal here, I decided to come teach at Chanov. I do not regret it. I've had a brilliant reception from the children. As a Romani woman, I've most probably sparked a feeling in them that their life on this housing estate is something that I comprehend, even though I'm not a local myself. We have the same sense of humor and we are able to laugh at the same things.In the beginning they tested me, but it was just necessary to establish the boundaries they were not allowed to cross. Colleagues have a much worse time of it who join the school and are not perceived as authority figures by the children. Usually the children spend a new teacher's first year testing what they can get away with, but then during the next year they stop fighting the teacher. When a colleague of mine mentioned to me that the children had come to tell him that they thought he was a "badass" all the same, he said it was better than getting a raise.

Q: What was your journey to your own education like? How long had you been thinking about teaching?

A: It probably sounds like a cliché, but when I applied for the eight-year college preparatory school, I already suspected I would become a teacher. However, I struggled rather a lot with mathematics there, so I transferred to a secondary vocational school focused on economics and tourism. Well, sometime around the age of 19, clutching my graduation certificate, I decided to apply to the Faculty of Education. I graduated in Czech language and social science for secondary school, but at the primary school where I currently teach, they expect a bit more of me, so I'm teaching English and family education in addition to civics and Czech. I'm beginning to teach history as well now.

Q: How do you yourself face prejudices about the fact that you teach in a school where most of the pupils are Romani?

A: The prejudices against me and my pupils will constantly appear with different intensities going forward. Those who know me are not surprised that I teach where I do. Despite that, even they ask me whether these pupils "turn the heat up" on me at school. I tell them yes, some actually do, but I also emphasize that there are pupils here who take school seriously. Their parents perceive it the same way, they care about their children getting into quality secondary schools and getting a far better start in life than they had themselves.

Q: For many Roma, education and self-actualization actually are not among their main priorities because in their difficult life situations they have the capacity to address just securing their basic living needs. What is your perspective on that after all these years?

A: Chanov is an excluded locality, a Romani ghetto that nobody in this society will stand up for. People here wake up, live, and go to sleep with social problems that don't need to be addressed at all in other places. For me, too, it was a difficult encounter with this reality, because one simply cannot prepare oneself for it. Once you realize this, then naturally it's possible to comprehend that school is not priority number one for these people. However, children need to have a positive role model in their parents above all. Each child needs that. It doesn't matter if they are Romani or not. Actually, what I encounter is that some parents never ask their children whether they are meant to do homework for the next day, or to study something. This is also because the parents themselves have no education and do not get the subject matter. Unfortunately, that's reality. Compared to that, in town the situation is a bit better.

Q: How are you managing to communicate with the parents?

A: I began with this homeroom class when they were sixth-graders, and this September they are in ninth grade. Chanov is a smaller housing estate, which means it's not a problem to encounter the parents on a daily basis. We have created relationships and some common rules. However, those are the cases of parents who are 100 % functional, who take an interest in their children's education, who attend class meetings in big numbers, and whom I customarily meet around the housing estate. With the handful of parents who are not demonstrating such interest in their children's academic success, I address school matters outside of the school building. It's much more effective and faster for me to visit them at home than to wait for them to show up at school.

Q: Whenever there is a news item in the media about parents trampling all over a teacher because their child has failed a grade and is being held back, remarks immediately appear in the online discussions that they must be Romani. Do you have any experience with Romani parents being somehow significantly more aggressive than ethnic Czech parents?

A: I don't have experience with that on which to base a comparison, at our school there are just Romani children. However, it does happen that parents come to ask, in a more temperamental way, what actually happened during instruction. Usually I let them speak and gradually we ascertain that their child has not told the entire truth to them at home. At our school this decidedly is not about aggression. We don't even have a problem with bullying because the families here know each other, they quickly find everything out, and since the children are growing up here together it's not unusual to see an 18-year-old boy playing football with an 11-year-old. Chanov sets an example for other housing estates and schools in that regard. However, I'm not surprised to hear that something negative is being associated with Romani people, that tells us a great deal about the relationship the majority has with the Roma.

Q: You're the homeroom teacher for future ninth-graders, how serious is this for you? The ninth grade influences a child's future.

A: Naturally I want to get as many of my students as possible into secondary school, and mainly, for them to stay in school. Indeed, the idea of ​​their future profession is increasingly relevant to us. I have four pupils in my class who are sure to get into a high school that offers a school leaving exam, and the rest, if they don't work out in ninth grade, will go to one of the apprenticeships. Recently I was pleasantly surprised that two of my students showed interest in studying at a secondary school of education. However, it is clear that they are worried about whether they have the prospect of getting into high school, and they have no idea what they can expect from studying if they have to commute into Most proper every day. They are also concerned about how financially demanding it will be for their families. One can tell this is their fear of the unknown, but at the same time they're aware that they can do something different with their lives and for the lives of their own families.

Q: What experiences do these Romani children come home with from secondary school, where they suddenly find themselves in the minority?

A: A problem arises because the Romani students themselves begin to realize that their vocabulary is smaller than the majority-society students'. They actually do not know how to express themselves as they would like to, and they are ashamed to communicate with their fellow pupils. That makes it difficult for them to establish relationships in that new environment. The Chanov residents in high school naturally perceive this to be a handicap. Recently I had a conversation with a boy who is learning to be an auto mechanic in Most, and he admitted that when he used his usual colloquialisms in front of the class, about half of them turned around to stare at him and it was unpleasant. Ever since then he has done his best to communicate with his fellow pupils in such a way as to get along with them as much as possible. However, it has already happened a couple of times that more than one of our children dropped out of school because of bad relationships with their schoolmates.

Q: Do the children living at Chanov have a feeling of stigma about where they come from?

A: Decidedly yes. If they have to introduce themselves, they say they are from Most, and they admit to living at Chanov only after some time. I see this most often exactly in association with their entry into secondary school, when they have to commute beyond the borders of Chanov and go to the nearest town, where it is unpleasant for them to be categorized by people just on the basis of their address. They say, for example, "Teacher, do you think I'll be friends with anybody?" The concern over having been born Romani, and living at Chanov on top of that, a place that continues to be perceived rather negatively by the public, is simply there. Some of them actually feel like second-class citizens. You know, according to the Czech Framework Education Program, children are meant to acquire communication skills, to develop empathy and tolerance. To have segregated schools in the 21st century is actually regressive and tells us rather a lot about this society.

Q: What is it like to be a Romani woman teaching at a school where most of the children are Romani but the textbooks feature almost no information about Romani people?

A: I perceive that to be a problem, the curriculum for history is generally inflated with ancient history, predominantly, and modern history is not covered as much, or the teachers don't even get to it. We are doing our best to change that at our school. For that reason, in our school education program, we have adapted it to cover subjects exactly to do with Romani culture and history. The pupils encounter, for example, the history of the Roma, of the Holocaust of the Roma, and Romani culture and customs. Some may believe there is no point in teaching about the history of the Roma at an ordinary primary school, but the opposite is true. If it were up to me, I would recommend all the schools, across the board, require their pupils make a field trip to the Auschwitz Memorial. That may give them more than reading about the Holocaust in a textbook, where the only thing they will recall is when the Second World War began and ended. Our school visited the permanent exhibition dedicated to the Second World War at the Museum of Romani Culutre in Brno, for example. For the children it was an experience that gave them another dimension, they won't easily forget it.

Q: Changes to education keep being discussed, we're coming up on the second anniversary of the introduction of inclusion, the aim of which is for each child in every class to learn as much as possible, to the maximum of his or her ability. Is that at all realistic in the conditions of the Czech schools? What do you believe the main barrier to successful inclusion is?

A: The minute inclusion began to be discussed I was opposed to it, and I still am. I believe inclusion in the Czech education system does not function the way it should, or better said, it does not even remotely approximate the ideals that continue to be expected of it. That  has been confirmed to me by my former fellow students who are working in Kladno or in Prague. It takes a while for a headroom teacher to align the way he or she works with the way a teaching assistant works, and that is exactly one of the keys to successful inclusion. At some school somewhere here inclusion may be functioning better, but I don't believe it's exactly what the Education Ministry intended. Rather, it's a kind of attempt at inclusion in the Czech education system. In any event, it takes time, and we can't compare our education system to those abroad where inclusion has already been functioning for several years successfully. Unfortunately, I believe inclusion models from abroad cannot be applied to our education system because it is actually very specific.

Q: Nevertheless, if we compare the Czech education system, for example, to the Finnish one, it's apparent that Czech schools continue to place great demands on the families of the pupils. That's not all. In Finland, they manage to cover and to practice everything during the school day, and they even spend less time on instruction than we do, while at the same enjoying great success in all the international comparative tests. Why, in your opinion, are the Czech schools still so rigid? Is it because politicians react just to the public's resistance to change?

A: It's difficult to compare the Czech system with any other, to say nothing of the Finnish one, which is perceived as a world-class model. I'm of the opinion that this is about the approach to education per se and the financial motivation of the teachers, which doubtless plays a role. The representatives of the political parties just respond to the burning issues of the moment. The Czech schools are not much supported by politicians, they should be better valued financially so we could at least achieve half the quality of the Finnish education system.

Q: Your thesis was about Romani culture and traditions. Why, in your view, is it important for Romani people to be proud of their culture and ethnicity instead of denying it when they achieve a position in mainstream society? Has it ever happened to you, as a college-educated Romani woman, that you've been in a situation where you had to deny your origin?

A: So thank God I've never had such an experience, and I hope nobody will ever wrong me in that way. On the contrary, I'm proud to espouse my identity. Nobody ever found my Romani origin to be a problem at primary school, or secondary school, or college, for example. I was friends with children who were all ethnic Czech.

Q: You are an emancipated woman. How, in your view, can a modern woman today build a career while also getting by as a Romani mother and wife in a traditional Romani environment?

A: Those two things are not mutually exclusive. You perceive yourself to be both a traditional Romani woman and an educated, emancipated woman. Personally, I put greater emphasis on education, because it opens a person's horizons and also provides some financial independence. My parents realized that and exactly raised me to be emancipated and self-sufficient from an early age. So if somebody says that because I have children and a husband I am unable to realize my own aims, I just don't accept that. Even a woman with a family, who lives and wants to live in a traditional Romani family and in a Romani environment, can change something and become a free, independent woman.

Q: What is your opinion of the current situation at Chanov, where the governing coalition of Most is proposing to build container housing? Is this in your view, a well-conceived solution for the housing situation of the "inadaptables", as politicians there call problematic residents?

A: At Chanov there are three prefabricated apartment buildings in a bad state of repair that are meant to be demolished and replaced with the container housing. Panic broke out at Chanov after the Romani people from Vsetín made a video about their experiences with container housing there. Ever since then, nobody wants to move into the containers, because they know from the experience of the Romani people from Vsetín, who have been living in such housing for several years, that over time mold develops in those cells. So now we have families here who are planning to move into Most. Now, currently, the idea came up of having locals contribute to repairing the prefabricated buildings that are so destroyed. I comprehend the Roma who don't want to live in containers - they aren't garbage, after all. However, I also grasp that the city leadership sees these prefabricated apartment buildings in a bad state of repair as absolutely substandard housing for families with children. I'm curious to see how the situation eventually develops.

First published in Romano voďi magazine.

Rena Horvátová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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