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Reflections on Romanian education

The beginning of this academic year was quite challenging for me. I witnessed conflicts between students and an attitude I was not used to. The level of dissatisfaction and aggression increased noticeably. It’s a sad confirmation to see that what you’ve known for years wasn’t just your fear. For years I have been talking to colleagues who teach at university and pre-university level about the debauchery that reigns in schools, about school and college administrations that do not once fraternize with aggressive pupils or students, about the fact that teachers are alone and always considered guilty. 

Recent events prompted this article. On April 5 a student in a very good high school in Bucharest stabbed his teacher after she said they have to take a test. 

On April 7 a video of students sexually harrasing an English teacher appeared online

I wrote this article to draw attention to this situation where teachers find it increasingly difficult to do their jobs in Romania.

That was my shock when I entered teaching. A headmistress said to me: teacher, there is no way we can win against the student. The pupil always wins, we can’t do anything! We are funded per pupil and we need them.

How come? Well, I think the problem has old roots. Of course I won’t demonize socialist education. In terms of investment, infrastructure, complexity and organization it was far from what we see now. Yes, it was a school with enormous problems. But it was a school. It was a benchmark, a reference point. Now we have something that looks like a school, but is moving further away from that name every day, despite the efforts of many serious teachers and students. 

One of the sources of the problem is false inclusion. There is a lot of talk about wanting to include all pupils in the education process – something wonderful, noble and to be commended. But inclusion, done only formally, does enormous harm, because it only covers up problems and even magnifies them.

Let’s start at the beginning. The first problem with false inclusion began under Ceausescu. The imperative to pass all students, the imperative to have 100% pass rate in the baccalaureate exam, the blaming of teachers for students’ failures, all this created a climate of: he who can escape, escapes! Of course, nothing that happened then in terms of seriousness, commitment and engagement compares to what we have now. But part of the problem was then: pretending we had peasant children in universities. Well, how do we do that? Simple: we make party-line lecturers out of peasants and we’ll do it over night so that we do well in the end.

A parallel lesson was given by our Polish socialist friends. I read and reviewed a book on the organization of sociological education in Eastern Europe. There I read about a Polish university that aimed to bring in sociology graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds. Positive discrimination, we would call it today. 

Yes, it was positive discrimination, but it was not the hypocrisy and lying we often see today. Which is? Well, they set out to encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but before they started university, they entered a year-long preparatory programme in which, eight hours a day, they trained with the university teachers to catch up with the other students! Well that’s what inclusion is, when you get involved, when you help, when you invest. Not when you pick them up and put them in college with tweezers, without caring for a second, genuinely and honestly, about them. What we have now is a false inclusion, an inclusion where you use minorities, for example, especially the Roma, to look good in the photo finish.

It’s a problem pall that extends to all areas, this form of inclusion. I am invited to a conference. But I’m told that I, as a woman, must attend the conference as a representative of Baricada the journalistic cooperative – that’s what I like to call it – where I work, lest it be a round table of men only! Such hypocrisy is rare. Well, I’m there as a tool to help the organizers to look good at the final photo, I’m not there to be helped honestly and sincerely! I mean let’s create the image of inclusion, not somehow make a round table about the problems female journalists face. Instead of wondering why there are no women at the table and how to encourage them, we put them there. I call this “soup feminism” – we add women and stir! We plant women, Roma, LGBT people at events and we have solved the problem.

That’s what happens with education. We want to include students, we want to give them opportunities. But we do it only on paper without questioning that regulations always have effects there are no regulations without effects and that if we don’t do serious and real inclusion, we will by default include students with problems but we risk excluding sensitive students and gentle teachers from the equation. 

Because we don’t ask: who pays the price of inclusion? On whose nerves and whose health is inclusion being done? Do we want inclusion or do we just want to flatter ourselves that we are doing inclusion? Do we want to help honestly or do we just want the image of inclusion?

Because if we want to exclude the possibility of the student being kicked out of class, expelled or sanctioned, we have to ask ourselves how we are helping them to be included in a fair and serious way. What do we do for him? How do we make sure that his integration is real and not a lie? 

Integration without investment, without support teachers, without counsellors, without alternative methods of discipline – for example spending a few hours in the library or getting involved in school cleaning activities – such integration is done at the expense of the nerves and health of teachers. Now teachers must also be psychologists and counsellors and, if possible, police officers. It’s all breaking down in their heads.

And to make things even more groovy, we have per-pupil funding. That makes the board sing to the increasingly recalcitrant students and their parents, not once, so they don’t lose funding.

Form inclusion is a recipe for disaster. Real inclusion means money, care, involvement, support, advice. Yet we, just like in the Idiot’s time, do only lip service to inclusion, pretending to solve problems. 

This lie only drives dedicated teachers out of the classroom, invites parents with money to gang up and “dump” the troubled child into another classroom where parents don’t have as much money. Whenever made aware of a problem child, parents gang up to get rid of them. Those with money and connections get away, those without don’t. So what “inclusion” are we talking about?

As a teacher you are left on your own to deal with problems that shouldn’t concern you. Integrated counseling and welfare services are  badly needed. But these require investment. Legislative changes towards inclusion, unsupported by financial investment, only amplify the problem of exclusion. I listened to an interview with a famous Roma activist. She recalled how difficult it was for her to get the Roma places because her level of knowledge was different from her peers. Any positive discrimination measure must be accompanied by real investment and support so that the beneficiaries can enjoy it. 

The punitive paradigm solves nothing. Let’s say abusive students are expelled. That’s no solution either. Where would they go? How to ensure integration? 

It’s time to understand that we can’t just put the problem of recovery and inclusion of  students with difficulties on the shoulders of teachers. It’s time to triple the funding for a problem pupil and rely on integrated services – counseling, family medicine, social work – in such cases. For classes with discipline problems, we need support teachers and non-violent discipline measures: for example, compulsory after-school library hours and compulsory counseling sessions for parents with their child. 

Otherwise, we end up relying solely on the police to deal with violence in schools. The NGO based solution, which involves some courses, some money spun by some privileged people, is also bankrupt. Primarily because the NGO will want the problem to perpetuate itself so that it has a reason to access funds. Secondly, a problem of such gravity can only be solved by systematic, constant and long-term investment by the state. 

Until then, we will have increasing waves of frustration generated by hypocritical inclusion done strictly formally and on the nerves and health of the people in the department.

I’m tired of hearing advice like: shut up, give everyone grades and be as superficial as you can. Maybe I’m shocking you, but let’s blow the whistle on something very serious here:  we witness a glorification of cynicism and demoralization when it comes to fulfilling your professional tasks.. We have people saying: look at that poor, poor sucker, she’s doing her classes and she actually cares about her duty. Now look at me! I’m detached, I don’t even really know who my pupils/students are and I live to be a hundred! You go to your class, read the paper, talk about shallow stuff with the students, then give them all top marks and come out looking prosperous and serene in retirement. 

And in a way, isn’t that normal? People tend to preserve themselves and in the jungle we’ve built, whoever can and however they can, escapes!

This article was originally published in Romanian here.

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