Some of the kindergartens in Bulgaria are attended by a significant number of children from the Roma community. Nevertheless, the number of Roma educators is extremely low. From a young age, children need someone to look up to in order to be able to recognize their own potential; someone who can serve as their role model. Kindergartens working with vulnerable communities can support this process of building confidence and inspiting children by employing teachers from Roma backgrounds.
The project Young Roma Teachers (the Project) of the Trust for Social Achievement (TSA) foundation aims to encourage the hiring of teachers from local Roma communities in kindergartens and in this way create role models for young children and provide opportunities for the professional development of young people. This is a long-term project with the vision to support participants both with their university applications and for the duration of their studies.
One of my fondest childhood memories which often comes back to me is that of my first teacher in kindergarden. Pepa Tomova is holding me in her lap and is singing to me until my grandmother arrives to pick me up. I was five years old at the time. A quarter of a century later I returned to the same kindergarten, named The 1st of June, in the village of Buthan, this time to start working as a teaching assistant. The teacher whose love and dedication shone through in my memories was still there. I took that as an explicit sign that my dream to become a certified kindergarten teacher was on its way to becoming a reality.
My name is Mariela Dimitrova, I’m 38 years old and this autumn (2019, editor’s note) I’m going to start the first year of my degree in Pre-school Teaching with a Foreign Language in the city of Vratsa. Entering higher education became possible for me thanks to the help of the Young Roma Teachers project and the support of the New Road association which works actively towards the integration and professional development of Roma people in North-West Bulgaria. When you look back, you can see how each step, no matter how difficult, has been guiding you towards your true vocation. For me, this is working with children – who are the future of our society.
My parents separated when I was very young and my sister’s childhood and mine were far from perfect. We were raised by our paternal grandparents but even so we always missed motherly care. Perhaps this is the reason that I married early – at the age of 18. I was seeking a family home, the care, love and understanding it could provide. I finished high school with very good grades and immediately after started working in the home for elderly people with mental health problems in the village. There, I learned how to work in a team, I understood the true value of compassion and respect and I developed my sense of responsibility. In the year 2000, I gave birth to my daughter Katrin and nine years later I had my son Ilyan. Soon after, the opportunity emerged to work in a kindergarten which I had awaited for so long. On my first day there Pepa Tomova reminded me about the songs and poems which I had recited and the love which we shared in my earliest years. This filled me with great excitement about my future work as a teaching assistant. The team gave me a warm welcome and I was impressed by their love and concern for the children, as well as by their team spirit. I realized that I had found my vocation.
I learned about Young Roma Teachers from our director Nina Marinova. She is the most resilient person I know. Our whole team treasures her as the captain who developed our kindergarten and turned it into a big, harmonious family. The months before my exam were truly a test of my motivation to apply, but with the help of friends, colleagues and Spaska Mihaylova from New Road I managed to face and surpass the challenges. She motivated me and mentored me in the degree application process.
On the day of my exam I understood what a first-grader feels like when stepping into school for the first time. I hadn’t slept all night from the excitement, and everything that was to follow seemed enormous and unachievable. The rest of the girls in the room seemed much younger than me and fresh from school. Regardless of the lessons in Bulgarian which I had been taking as part of my preparation for the exam, the fear of failure had a tight grip around my neck. But all of a sudden, I saw Spaska Mihaylova at the door with a big smile on her face. I felt her support and little by little my anxiety dissipated. The hours of the exam passed as if I was in a dream. I could hear the scribbling of pens and it was as if with each written line I was getting closer to the fulfilment of my treasured dream. I remember that upon walking out of the university I was humming an old tune, perhaps in an attempt to calm my nerves.
After this came the impatient checking for the results on the internet, and the inexpressible joy from having achieved something that was of great importance to me. I want to be the kind of teacher Pepa Tomova is – loving and selfless. It is in no small part thanks to her motivating presence in my life that this autumn I will be a teacher of the youngest children in my favourite kindergarten! For me there’s nothing more important in life than educating small children to be compassionate, respectful and loving. Family is what provides the foundations for personal development, but children need to be able to express themselves and affirm what they’ve learned in a wider social environment. I love children. They bring back to us a sense of spiritual clarity and show us that there’s always more space for love in our hearts. I want to be one of the people who teach them compassion, respect and independence. This will help them to be happy.
It probably won’t be easy – juggling studying, working and raising my son, but I know that my grown-up daughter and my colleagues will be an irreplaceable help. I look forward to the new school year with hope and eagerness so that I can be with the children all the time and we can learn from each other. When we do an activity together and the next day the kids want to do it again, I feel real joy and pride. I will always advise them to believe in themselves and never stop dreaming – I am the only example they need to be sure that hard work and perseverance make childhood dreams come true.