The Unseen Face of Discrimination

The Unseen Face of Discrimination in the Romanian Educational Context

Discrimination is a widely spread phenomenon inside the Romanian educational system. We have an educational culture and context which favors maintaining and spreading this phenomenon. A great percentage of the teachers adopt a an obsolete teaching model which treats differences as attributes for stigmatization, while the pupils are evaluated in reference to a standard considered to be ”the norm.” We have an educational system more preoccupied with the quantity than the quality of the services it offers.

Discrimination inside the educational system is founded on stereotypical thinking, an inflexible and rigid pattern  of approaching the children, a way of thinking which proposes comparing children to a standard, the ideal image of the child with which any teacher would like to work: easy to influence, compliant, motivated, perseverant, attentive etc. Pedagogic practice shows that there are a finite number of children which coincide with this standard. A great part of children deviate from this ”norm”: they have difficulties focusing their attention on certain types of assignments, they are very curious and easily distracted by things unconnected to their school tasks, they need support and encouragement in order to maintain the same level of effort in their tasks, they have difficulties managing their discomfort or their relationships with their colleagues.

How can we explain the existence and maintenance of discrimination in the educational context?

There is a style of thinking associated to discrimination. It is a rigid, inflexible style of thinking which operates with stereotypes, labels and prototype images. The act of education is achieved in a relational context. In this space destined for interaction, people meet each other and see reality in different ways because each one of the relationship partners has their own lens. Each lens offers a different grid for reading reality.

Social psychology studies show that we do not see things as they are, but as our lens permits us to see. These lenses or reading grids are represented by out cognitive schemes, our beliefs, and the stereotypes we have and which bare the memory of our life experiences.

By transliterating these aspects in the educational context, scholars have shown that there are numerous situations in which teachers cannot truly see the child in front of them because their perception is considerably influenced by the lenses they wear. In other words, a teacher only sees what his mind permits him to see in a child. Beliefs and stereotypes shape his reality which only means the mind of the teacher is more sensitive to aspects of reality which coincide with what he already knows (his beliefs) and far less sensitive to non-congruent information, which makes it easy for him to perpetuate his wrong impressions about a child. People with this type of thinking often label differently children’s behaviors in regards to their statute. Thus for the same type of behavior a child from a broken home is considered a ”problem child” while a child from a medical family is just ”agitated”. Moreover judging a student’s behavior is based on the information provided by the existing stereotypes in the teacher’s mind. A stereotype represents a characteristic which is attributed to a person as a result of his affiliation to a certain group. For example a child who grew up at an orphanage is perceived as one ”with problems” as a result of his affiliation to the group of children who grew up in a ”children’s home” and of the information spread regarding the way these children function, before even meeting the child. Discrimination or the special attitude which teachers portray towards this child is based on the information that the stereotype provides, not on the process of knowing the child.

Our mind is used to operating with categories and prototype images. This approach has a role in our mental economy because it helps us accelerate information processing, but it also comes with a big shortcoming because it sometimes leads to real conclusions based on false premises. This type of information processing often implies many errors. Labels, stereotypes, and ”standard” image are elements characteristic to a style of thinking which contributes to erasing the identity of those to which they are addressed and it contributes to the emergence and maintenance of discrimination.

In the educational context the mind of the teacher is the main instrument. Through it the teacher creates social reality. Oftentimes without previously being aware the teacher operates with a welcome image congruent to his beliefs. Contact with certain children which obviously deviate from this anticipated reference image make the teacher especially see those attributes which differentiate the child from the prototype image thus the difference becomes a stigma. The stigma is that attribute which brings with it the removal of the identity of the stigmatized. It is as if from the entirety of a child’s persona, he cannot see beyond the problem he is confronted with or the disability he has. Thus the child is reduced to the difficulty or the disability he has and which represents a deviation from the norm. Under these circumstances it is difficult for teachers to perceive other aspects of the child’s persona, such as his resources. In this categories one finds children with a history of emotional and behavioral trouble, children with psychiatric diagnosis (ADHD, Conduct Disorder etc), children with disabilities or Roma children. The stigmatized child’s identity is denied. His entire persona is reduced to the attribute which differentiates him from the other, while all the other aspects of his individuality are perceived as irrelevant. Thus this deviation from the ”normal” is associated with other attempts to emphasize his differences in order to protect the others from pariah children. Discrimination consists exactly in this multiplication of differences beginning with the original deficiency (the stigma).

Is it important how the teacher thinks? How he defines his reality? How he interprets children’s behavior? Obviously so! Because the way the teacher thinks reflects upon the way he behaves with the children. Thus the teacher forms a first impression about a pupil based on the initial interaction with said pupil or based on the stereotypes he carries, then he manifests a behavior congruent with what he believes about that particular pupil. The Teacher’s behavior will influence the way the child in front of him behaves. The child will react with a behavior congruent to the teacher’s behavior. This phenomenon bears the name of self-fulfilling prophecy and it has been longtime studied.

Rosenthal is one of the specialists which have explained how the mechanism of self-fulfilling prophecies works in education. In a study done in 1991, Rosenthal and his collaborators showed that the initial expectations of the teachers in relation to the pupils significantly influence discourse expressivity and set a certain type of relationship. In order to illustrate this phenomenon they asked high school teachers to ”present a lesson” for ten minutes while imagining themselves in front of a pupil with excellent results in the discipline they were specialized (condition one) or with very low results (condition 2). Their entire presentation was video recorded, and then their discourses were cut and mixed randomly in ten second sequences without sound. These short discursive episodes were then presented to ”evaluators” either adult or children, in order for them to identify to what extent the ”evaluators” manage to correctly identify based on nonverbal language the attitude of the teacher towards the pupils – ”how good is the pupil the teacher is addressing” and ”what feelings is the teacher showing towards the child.” Although they only had a few hasty sequences, both child and adult evaluators could measure exactly that which teachers claim does not transliterate in their behavior, namely radically different expressivity depending on the audience and their initial expectations.

The phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy has aroused many discussions over time. It is still a controversial subject and psychologists specialized in social psychology and in education have yet to reach the same results. A meta-analysis which was done during the course of 35 years shows that self-fulfilling prophecy is a phenomenon that appears in the educational context and has a powerful impact on the way children adapt to and perform during school under the following conditions:

  • Those who offer educational services have a style of thinking characterized through the presence of numerous prejudice, stereotypes, inflexibility and stiffness.
  • Those who benefit from these services (the children) are in a period when they have an unclear image about their own persona. Young children are sensitive to discriminatory behavior.
  • Children who have a history of stigmatization. In their particular case, self-fulfilling prophecy is an incontestable reality and has a very powerful impact on the children’s behavior.

Is discrimination a phenomenon present in the educational context of Romania? Yes, it is widely spread! There is a disparity between what is stated in our countries’ educational policies and what is happening in this country’s schools. At the educational policy level (discourse only, obviously) we unanimously support the idea of respecting each child’s unicity, yet daily practice shows that most of us are in reality far too little prepared to accept diversity and tolerance. Yes, we like to use big words and we make great plans, but practice shows that there is no compliance between what we say and what we do. It is not fortuitous that we notice this thing happening. In order to produce real change in behavior, one must not only propose an end goal, but also to produce a series of modifications in the context which produces the behavior once wants to change, because habits are far more powerful than goals. In a way it is required that we work on the context because context is the one which facilitates certain behaviors or inhibits others.

What habits do we have?

Each one of us bears the cross of our educational background. We were socialized in an educational system which heavily tried to homogenize us. Differences were not accepted, moreover they were treated as an indicator of inadequacy or of the ”abnormal”. It is sufficient to remember how left handed children were treated. How many of these children, which are now adults, do not remember with pain the effort they were constrained to undergo against their nature in order to be ”normal”?

After many generations which lived with the stigma of being ”abnormal”. There came a time when people changed their beliefs about what ”normal” and ”abnormal” stand for, and children are now encouraged to write with their dominant hand without anyone treating this as a deviation from the norm. Although we no longer have a national problem with ”writing with your left hand”, there are multiple aspects which pertain to their development profile, to their individual particularities which are seen as deviations from the norm. There no longer is a problem with the ”left hand”, but there are other things, although natural, that bear a lack of recognition from teachers, which places the children beyond the norm.

Responsibility for this situation does not fall solely on the teachers. One cannot have quality services if one does not invest in the people which perform these services. This is where we meet the problem with the training programs which these people have received and continue to receive. We cannot have people with flexible minds if they are educated in a rigid system, if they received obsolete information which are not congruent to studies in their domain or connected domains, if the curricular content is ruptured from practice, if they do pedagogical practice with people who influence the same faulty style of educating. We cannot have people with flexible minds if we do not invest in supporting them with professional supervision and personal development services.

There is a series of particularities which pertain to child behavior which offers a favorable context to discriminating children in the classroom. The rhythm in which children work is in large part subject to temperament. There are children who have a slower rhythm and children which have a more alert one. In very small doses we can change the way a child works. Not recognizing this aspect leads to a faulty perception which influences the way the teacher refers to a child with a slower rhythm. This child often gets the label that he is slow and thus a temperamental characteristic comes to define a child’s entire persona and makes a negative mark upon him. Oftentimes the feedback we hear from teachers is ”he’s slow, he can’t keep up with the rest of the class.” But which is the rhythm of the rest of the class? Who determines the standard? Why must we all walk at the same pace when at a theoretical level we keep hearing and supporting that each one has his own rhythm, each one has his own style of learning, and that the act of learning needs to be adapted to the individual particularities of each child or at least to take notice of their particularities? In reality, teachers  end up delivering an educational program which is adequate to a finite number of children ”who represent the norm”, but lose track of the children who deviate from the norm! This attitude is discriminatory. In reality, the rhythm in which a child works is majorly influenced by his temperament. Obviously experience has its role in what pertains to rhythm, but its influence is not that great. We cannot change temperament, but we can make it more flexible. Thus referring a child’s rhythm to a standard rhythm and evaluating said child based on that standard is just as destructive to the child as it was in the earlier mentioned case of writing with one’s ”left hand.” There are situations where children have been kicked out of the class because the ”keep the class behind” and forced to move to another school.

When we do not operate with stereotypes and we do not appoint children to certain categories, labeling them as personas based on what they can or cannot do, we permit ourselves to be more flexible and we approach children far more efficiently.

When we treat each child with respect because he is a human person as are we and we see the child’s value beyond what he can and cannot do in his day to day practice, we offer him the chance to discover who he really is and what his road entails.

When we offer children the possibility to see that we honor human diversity, that we accept differences between people, and that we do not want to homogenize them, we give them the possibility to feel good ”in their own skin” and to see themselves in a realist way: people who have both resources and weak points.

When we offer children an environment which allows them to feel good the way they are, we offer them an important life lesson.

How can we do that?

It is important to be curious. To find out who the child in front of us is. It is possible that your mind will take you on heavily travelled roads: ”he is Roma, he is a child from a broken home, he is a child with ADHD, he is bad, he is cheeky, he is impertinent, he is lazy, he is slow minded etc.” Become aware of what you are doing and stop! The fact that you already labeled him already has averted you from doing something for that child. Your mind might pay more attention to the aspects associated to the label and less to those which are less congruent to the label. Moreover you will have the tendency to interpret poorly defined situations through the lens which that label provides. Through a mechanism which has been described by social psychologists, once label has been put it will lead to what is called self-fulfilling prophecy.

Each child has stronger and weaker points. Try to identify which are his resources that you can count on in your educating him. What does he like to do, what doesn’t he like to do, how does he study? Because the role of educations is not to make all children mathematicians or men of letters, but to offer each child the optimal context to know himself and to identify his own road. An education set to homogenize children and to compare them starting with a standard crushes the destiny of certain children because it does not matter if you are musically talented or a good painter or a good dancer, because school and teachers value only those children which perform well in certain domains.

I do not want to generalize and I would like to confess that over time, through the work that I do, I have met people who truly carry out their activity at the teacher’s desk. I’m glad there are still role models for children, that they have surpassed the soviet model to educate, however I must admit that if they got here, they only have themselves to thank. Each one made an effort, personally developed themselves, and managed to break the communist patterns of education. But it is their personal merit. They received help because they asked for it and they received it from other sources but the educational institutions.

It is hard to make a change given that the context stays the same or we pretend to introduce a series of new support services, but which are completely inefficient. We have school counselors, but they cannot manage the large number of children they have to manage. With a ratio of 1 counselor to 800 kids, oftentimes the counseling system remains but an on paper activity with low efficacy. We have support teachers, but nobody knows what their role is. Some of them teach lessons to children with learning difficulties outside teaching hours, when it would actually be more efficient for them to partake in teaching hours and second the teacher in certain tasks which are difficult to the children. We have children with atypical profiles of development (ADHD, Pervasive Developmental Disorders) or with disabilities which study in Romanian schools. In most cases, these children have been integrated in mass education without a proper training to the teachers which would work with them. Obviously they do not respond to traditional methods and education in their case required creating optimal contexts which permit these children to stand up to school requests. Obviously the curriculum needs to be adapted in order for them to learn. All these things need good collaboration and work inside a multidisciplinary team. Teachers need to solicit help and to afford receiving it. There is a series of teacher beliefs which block their evolution and development. Thus there are teachers who have difficulties in asking for help because they are afraid to state that do not know. Admitting that one does not know is equal according to them to publicly stating that ”they are not skillful, they are not good enough at what they do.” Accordingly they do not admit needing help, they do not allow the psychologist or the support teacher to enter the classroom and offer their help, thus the end up hypothesizing that they cannot work with that child and that there is no other solution but moving the child. Didactic activity is an extremely solicitant one, which implies high stress levels and the possibility of going into a burn-out is quite big. It’s a profession in which people need constant support through supervision and continuous training services.

by Sorina Petrică

Clinical psychologist and cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist. Author and co-author of numerous training programs addressed to teachers in order to develop communication skills at class, efficiency, behavioural management, dealing with discriminatory situations that involve children. The most relevant to this end are: “Communication competencies – Performance in education”, “Development of the democratic society starts in school”, “Youth against violence – combating violence in schools”, “Student with ADHD – accept me, understand me, teach me!”.

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment