“Ma’am, I want a shuvalka!” The little boy from the “Lily” kindergarten in the Hrishteni village is pulling his teacher’s sleeve as he’s looking around for the object in question with an inquiring look on his face. “What do you want, a chuval?” asks the teacher, perplexed. I go into the building of the preschool, take the shuvalka and hand it amusedly to the young worker wannabe whose mother tongue is Romani.
“Here you are, it’s called metla in Bulgarian”. Many Roma children’s first serious encounter with Bulgarian is in kindergarten. This funny incident caused by the language barrier exemplifies everyday life in some of the kindergartens in the country and highlights the sharp need for more Roma teachers, especially in the first years of children’s education.
 Bag (t/n)
 Broom (t/n)
The internship program Role Models at an Early Age of the Trust for Social Achievement is oriented towards practical solutions of this issue. It gives young people like us – we’re both in our third year of university studying “Pedagogics in Information Technology” at Trakia University – the opportunity to acquire professional experience in a kindergarten. The program is open to students of pedagogics or enrolled in programs related to children’s healthcare. This summer (2019, editor’s note) we had the pleasure of working with the team and children of the “Lily” kindergarten in Hrishteni – the three months spent there opened our eyes to our true mission as future teachers from the Roma community.
The director Milena Ganeva and the educators in the kindergarten welcomed us warmly and tirelessly encouraged us in our efforts to learn about the specificities of teaching in the first years of children’s development. Last year we had an internship in a high school where we taught Information Technology (IT) to students in the 5th, 6th and 7th grades. This was an opportunity to practice our skills by helping the children study particular aspects of the IT school curriculum, but these were children who already had experience of education. Kindergarten is different – this is where children’s values, comprehension and social skills are formed. Our internship at “Lily” was in equal parts a delight and a lesson in responsibility. Kids from vulnerable communities need the encouraging presence of educated Roma people who can kindle their interest in studying the Bulgarian lanugage at an early age and make them excited about education and realizing their potential. In many Roma families the Romani mother tongue is used predominantly. Primary school is seen as responsible for teaching kids Bulgarian, but this is also where the unfamiliarity with the basics of the language reflects badly on the confidence and ability of the children to communicate and learn with ease.
One of our tasks during the internship was to conduct a seminar which we named “Why should I study?” We talked about our journey from the small rooms of the kindergarten to the spacious lecture theatres of the university, about the invitation we’d received to work in a Bulgarian school in Spain the following summer, as part of the EU funded Erasmus+ student exchange program, as well as about our dreams related to professional growth after graduation. The kids listened with curiosity and were asking questions. This was a key moment in our function as role models for the Roma children in the preschool and the shaping of their aspirations. We held a parent-teacher conference at which we had the opportunity to set an example in front of the children’s families, as well as to show the parents all the drawings of the children’s dream professions. In addition, our extensive knowledge of pedagogics found a magical application in the fairy tales we prepared for the kids on the interactive boards.
We learned a lot about the critical junctures in the fashioning of children’s worldviews, in the formation of their communication skills and about Roma children’s attitudes towards education today. There were many lessons – from how to resolve conflict among the kids by having them exchange their chairs and apples to becoming aware of our own responsibility towards their futures. We observed Roma children’s need to preserve their ethnic identity as they were taking their first steps towards their inclusion in the wider world, and for us it was an honour to guide them in their aiming for the stars. If tomorrow the director of the “Lily” kindergarten – in whose backyard there is indeed a little pond with real lilies and turtles – invites us to work there, we would accept without a second thought. Because the kids need the embodied example of every young Roma person who can make tangible for them the infinite possibilities which studying hard opens up.