Archive for February, 2014

Being a teacher in Romania

Azur2
Just the other day, going to a small local coffee shop, I had a nice chat with another costumer. He was sitting at the table next to mine, so he overheard me and the owner (serving in the café at the time) talking. Probably he noticed my accent. It wasn’t the first time I got asked if I was from Poland, and every time people add that they have a friend or a friend of a friend or a relative who’s Polish, as to explain they didn’t ask a provocative question.

He also asked for how long I intended to be in the UK, adding in a breath he wasn’t meaning anything like when-are-you-going-back. Apparently, it was nice to meet an actual Romanian person, first one ever to talk to face to face, opposed to all the nasty media propaganda. Well, indeed, there was a Daily Fail on one of the tables, but then I could see the weekend issue of the same named pitiful piece of media in my favourite and the best coffee and cake place around, where I had a fabulous chocolate cake slice last Saturday.

 

I don’t find it surprising that many people here, in the South, haven’t met (many) Romanians so far, or maybe they didn’t know they walked right passed them in the park, round the big shops or on the beach. Real Romanians might not fit so well with the most widespread pattern they’ve been “blessed” with. Then British people could meet Romanians in more than one way, from having a chat in a café with them to working with them or being neighbours with them. And as writing is my thing, I’m going to do as promised: write about myself, the people I love back in my home country, and life in Romania as I know it. By doing this, I can actually add up colour, shape, feeling and real life stories, of real people, some fascinating, some sad or even tragic, some sweet and fresh and vibrant in the details that make them unique, yet very recognisable and similar to other similar experience lived every day, by millions of people around the globe.
Such an experience would be that of being a teacher.

 

Back in Romania, after graduating University, prospective teachers can register for a national exam for filling in the available jobs. They are advertised through local education administration, and the graduates will be sitting in written exam competing against each other. When the papers have been marked and the results are ready, they can choose the jobs available starting with the person who scored best, then the second and so on. Fortunately, I had the third best score in my county, Timis, so I could choose from about 7 jobs available at the time only for the city of Timisoara, going for a High School position, to work with teenagers aged between 14 and 18. The school had a professional industrial profile, mainly training students for working in chemical industry (from making plastic and dyes to pharmacy work). It wasn’t one of the fancy Computing, Mathematics-Physics or Humanities big schools in the city, but not a low standard school either. And the truth is that, once I met my colleagues, I wouldn’t have traded it for the most prestigious ones in the whole country if I could.

 

Azur

The actual student dormitories, seen from a renovated sports field. I staid for one year
in those dormitories. The good part: I could take an afternoon nap, in gaps between classes,
and be woken by the bell ringing for the break. 

Not a big school, but not small either, Azur is located in the neighbouring quarter from the one I used to live in with my grandparents for 12 years. And the young team of Social Studies Department is one of the best I was ever part of. We didn’t only discuss work matters during breaks and official meetings, but always had a friendly chat and offered each other good advice. It was so great to know you can always go and have a talk to your colleagues, especially that all of us were genuinely interested in helping our students and not only doing it like any other job whatsoever.
Not to mention the department informal tea parties we used to have in our staff room at every term end, and not to forget that at proms our table was the most cheerful teachers’ table in the whole place. Our chief of department, Psychology and Sociology teacher I.J., and one of the colleagues who joined later than me, A.T., Economics teacher, were the most loved in the whole school, according to surveys. We could really see and hear who the best favourites where in our everyday experience with the students, no surveys really needed for this.

 

All these happened in the early 2000s, going to 2005. So far you might think I’m idealising a work place which I have decided to leave for taking over the capital as a beginner journalist, with no education or experience in the field whatsoever. But I’m not. Of course I haven’t erased out of my mind the fact that my payment was laughably poor, that at a certain point I came to ask the principal of the school for a room to rent in the students dormitories (a spare room, with a small separate kitchen, and use of the students’ common showers) because of financial difficulties. That I was tutoring during weekends and still I can barely afford the clothes and cosmetics I wanted, not to say the books, concerts, cultural events I was craving for.
Also, there was little government help I could access to improve my skills and knowledge, starting with further training and continuing with educational materials. Us, religion teachers, didn’t even have school books to teach by, as all the other ones, but this I regard as a positive thing. Today’s religion school books in Romania are full of horrible accounts and examples which are apparently meant to be educational, but are just wrong, in whichever light one might look at them. What teacher can win students over with tales such of the one of George, a boy who is mean to animals, and that’s why God punishes him to fall off the ladder and end up in the ER? Mean, stupid and lacking any real sense, if you allow me.

 

Nevertheless, the teaching experience I gathered then, as well as having such great colleagues (not all of them, but at least in the department), left those years in my mind enveloped in an aura of the same kind of light that engulfs everything in the brightest morning hours. Yes, I know how it sounds, like a soapy dated comparison, but that’s how I see those years looking behind.

 

But what about the students? Well, they were from all kinds of social and family environments, young people from the countryside seeking some sort of an education and training into a profession, many from the same part of the city the school was located in, who chose to come here just because it was handy, many of them distrustful in the educational system and quite negative about their prospects, so you could probably guess the underlying rebellion that burst out regularly.
Most of them came from families with mediocre financial means at best, but then us, teachers, didn’t earn much more either. So many of them had no real parental supervision, their parents toppled under the weight of everyday worries, of poor paid jobs which tomorrow could vanish in a puff of ashes and smoke, hunched, figuratively speaking, under the heaviness of debts many times accumulated only by excessively high bills (the Romanian Governments’ gift to all) and buying house appliances. And some of them came from families with a better situation, such as a boy adopted at the age of about 8 or 9 by a mother who was a psychologist at a centre for abandoned children.

 

We did have some brats as well. The most infamous of them was this lady in her late 20s who missed doing High School (might have been too busy to party), married to a hotshot and daughter of another local businessman, who was attending evening classes and bothered so little to show up in class and always brought over what we suspected were GP certificates which weren’t covered by real health issues. Apparently, our principal had her hands tied, the local education government (inspectorate) strongly advised to help this student. Luckily, I could ease the other kids’ frustration regarding her (she was very cocky, back street style) by the fact that the woman could only get the lowest marks and, allegedly, she was working and a mother (at least this one was true), so we helped her finish school like we did with all other students who were supporting themselves while  studying at the same time.
Not a good memory at all.

 

There are plenty of memories I’m fond of though, even if some of them involved sadness and tears during a private talk to some of my students whom I was doing my best to counsel. I can’t say how much I helped them on the long run, but they were good kids and, at the time, even talking and taking it off their chests was useful.

The one talk which really impressed me was with a girl from the class I was a head teacher for. In Romania, all classes had a head teacher, responsible of counselling the students, of discussing behaviour and offering psychological and ethical guidance. When they were misbehaving, it came into this person’s responsibility to approach them, to discuss and to offer solutions, and if there were no results, to take the matters over to the principal and the school council. I never had to do any of that, fortunately the kids I was working closely with weren’t causing any big trouble at all.
As a head teacher, I did take my role seriously and arranged for a private discussion with all of the students in my class, so that we could talk about their situation in school, positive aspects and some that needed improving/attention, as well as about their concerns. And this girl I mentioned before started crying while she was talking to me. It came out that she had a very sad situation, her parents more or less abandoned her into her grandparents care, although they were living in the same neighbourhood, and the old people were quite poor, low pensions, struggling to feed, dress her and send her to school. It did tear my heart to hear her story and, although it wasn’t much I could literally do, I tried my best to comfort and support her. She had little contact with her parents, but however they weren’t willing to take responsibility for their daughter. Contacting any social services wouldn’t have changed the situation, it would’ve only acknowledged that the 15 years old girl was in the care of her grandparents.

 

This was not the worst social case we had in our school. Some students were left behind by parents who went to work in the Western countries, mainly Spain, and couldn’t take their kids with them, while working in agriculture, construction or house-keeping. Yes they were sending money home, but money couldn’t make up for their absence for years on a row. The parents used to leave their kids in the care of uncles and aunties, grandparents, or even neighbours, and one could only imagine how much supervision they had. And may I remind you that this used to happen in the early 2000s already, when Romania wasn’t even part of the EU. We could be tempted, Romanians and people from Western countries together, to blame these people for the choice they made, but what else could they have done? Stay at home, where they could barely provide for their kids anything else than a place to live, food and basic needs for educating them? Most of them did it actually because they were thinking: “right, I will work for 2-3 years, save money and then go back to send my kids to University or find them a good job, while being able to keep them at home after school”. This after they paid for all the debts they accumulate for buying a car, fridge/freezer, TV set, or a computer. Yes, and inflated bills.

 

Now the level of poverty and financial difficulties I’m talking about doesn’t necessarily involve starving and not being able to take the bus to school. There are very poor areas of Romania where this happens as well, but I was teaching in Timisoara, not in a bad quarter of the city, and the kids here had, generally speaking, an average situation. Not a high percentage of them had parents working abroad and leaving them more or less on their own, but there was a tragic case. One girl who always seemed the shy type, not the brightest, but a well behaved sweet teenager, died a tragic death in the 11th grade, at the age of 17, one year before graduating. Yes, she was one of the kids left in the auntie’s care. None of us really knew how bad it was until she got stabbed by a… client. Apparently, she started having sex for money and she got stabbed by one man who was paying her for sex. It was so shocking sometimes I wouldn’t believe it to this day, although these are the facts uncovered by police investigation.

 

Not to end in such a grim note, I’d say that in my first year of teaching I also had one student who really would’ve belonged in one of the best Humanities specialised High Schools. He was bright, he was reading a lot, he could hold an intelligent discussion on philosophical, history and literature matters with any well-educated grown up, and he got to the professional school with a slip of the system (I might explain in another article). With this one, I used to spend every break after hour in their class, some other students stayed with us as well, to discuss further the subjects I presented in class. Well, isn’t this any teacher’s dream, really?

 

(to be continued)

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The year of the Water Snake, Romanians and the floods

On the last day of the Chinese year recently ended, I woke up with such a good vibe. I could almost feel it flow in my veins and everything ran smoothly that day. Then, sometimes during the first day of this Chinese year, which was 1st of February, I realised it. Please let me share with you this revelation extracted from the ancient Far East pot of wisdom.
From 10th of February 2013 to the 31st of January the Water Snake dominated the year Chinese astrology. And I don’t know of you realise this, BUT… apparently, according to information from the news (heard it on the radio), it has been the wettest year in records at least for Hampshire and Dorset. Also, don’t you see how popular the word “flood” has become during this year? Mainly associated with Romanians and Bulgarians, but doesn’t this make us think what if astrology actually works? It’s almost as if the crappy side of the British media and politics, as well as many people buying into it, were hypnotised by the power of the snake and their minds have been beamed with a flow of cosmic energy making them obsessed with “floods, floods, floods, floods”.
Sorry, I’m not trying to hypnotise you myself.

Now, ancient cosmic theories aside, should I feel like a drop in an ocean of Romanians flooding Britain to the brim? I highly doubt it. And I find it quite unlikely that many of the people back in my home country would “invade” the shores of the UK from now on, as there is actually not much reason for them to do so.

(Photo: In London for the first time, March 2011)

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  For starters, I would refer to myself and my family. Apart from my two cousins who live in         Germany since 1991, as their mother was a German ethnic and as such granted the   right to        move there even when Romanians still needed a visa to cross the borders into Western Europe, I am the only one who decided to go abroad. As much as I fought the idea of one day settling in another country, it has finally happened. And to think years ago, when I was studying on a scholarship in Denmark (2000) or when an Au Pair in the US (2003-2004), it never even crossed my mind to stay there. On the contrary, I completely rejected the idea.

It’s not that my brother and sister-in-law wouldn’t even consider moving abroad. It’s just that they really have what they need back in Romania. Ok, we’re not talking of a bright financial situation, jobs paid at a Western European rate, or anything like this. But they do have jobs, they have a family, they have friends and maybe even prospects of working on a small private business. They’ve got debts as well, but manageable.
 I can’t see my brother deciding to go and live thousands of kilometres away from our parents, from the place we grew up in. Not to say that he also stays with our grandmother, helping her at the same time (she’s over 80 now), and helping my parents renovate the house for when they’ll move in when my dad becomes a pensioner, in couple of years from now.

That is one particular case, of course, of me and my family back in Romania. But from my own experience I can say that it’s unlikely that much more Romanians would come to work in the UK. The evidence I have about this might be anecdotal, but it makes sense as well, it’s much more logical than the obsessive political speech of UKIP leaders “they will flood, they will scrounge, they will plunder and pillage” (yes, apparently some people’s speeches haven’t evolved much since the Middle Ages).
First, the British public is mostly uninformed. I guess it wasn’t serving the political agenda to give the whole information and not mislead them. On my surfing through comments over articles I have seen numerous time people who had no idea on the reality of Romanians rights to settle and work in the UK since 2007. When saying I myself am a Romanian working and living here, I was asked how do I do this if it was illegal for me until 2014. People clearly didn’t know and some of them still don’t. Only yesterday I’ve read the same commentator on Huffington Post stating twice that Romanians needed visas in the 2007-2014 period of time.

The reality is that Romanians who wanted to come and work in the UK had a lot more opportunities to do so than the public knows. First, they could be self-employed, and this was not so difficult to do in industries like construction. Yes, it was recommended that they came with some money upon them to buy tools and a van, but sometimes all it took was another fellow countryman who would have these available and would offer somebody else the opportunity to come and work with them. When I first came to the UK, I was hosted by some friends of my partner’s, whom he used to work with in construction back in Bucharest for years.
Then people could come here through different job agencies based in Romania. Many of the ones enrolled at the same college as me for a qualification in Health and Social Care did just that. Paying such an agency was a bit of a rip off, and sometimes they wouldn’t really do much for you. This path implied people having money to pay the agency (around £600), pay for an overpriced plane ticket offered by the same agency (around £200 one way at least), pay to enrol college (£500), have between £600-£1000 to deposit in the bank needed in order to apply for a work permit and then have money on them so they could rent a room while studying and waiting to be able to get a job. That’s quite an investment, isn’t it? I just skipped the agency part, fortunately, going straight to college, and being helped by friends to start with.

So there was also the path I took. Get the information, go join college, study every day for a month, then qualify through a work placement. It was quite easy for somebody who had the guts, had some support and was ready to go and work even in other parts of the country, other than London. Work placement was also essential for studying, that is why when joining college all of us applied for a Yellow Card, which was giving us the right to work as students, full time in the industry as an essential part of the vocational training. And in Health and Social Care it is, one needs work related experience to get the qualification.
When I finished the daily training in London, ready for distance studying now, I went to the students’ welfare person at the college and asked him to help me with work placement. My English was really good, I was a driver, I had a good CV, so I got a job in less than a month and moved to the South, where I still live today. After one year of legally working and paying taxes, I could apply for a Blue Card, which was the proof I was by law entitled to work without restrictions in the UK. I am pretty sure most of the British public don’t have a clue about these laws, as most of the employers didn’t either, unless they sometimes worked with such colleges when in desperate need to fill in some job vacancies nobody seemed keen on.

Now when I got my job here and I moved in the area I was greeted by a Romanian co-worker. He came to the UK with his then girlfriend, now wife, the same way as I did. We all support people with learning disabilities either in a residential setting, or supported living, as employees of a big company working nationally, with a few homes locally open in New Forest. The Romanian who has worked for the longest in these homes has been around for about 5 years. Then there came the couple, then another Romanian lady and me. The last of our nationals came here through an agency and only for temporary work, as he needs to save money to buy a family home back in the country.
The people who have been the longest with the company are all British English. This is for me a good barometer for the fact that they don’t prefer foreign workers over local ones. Also, during the three years I’ve been here there have been more than six British locals employed, more than us, the Romanians who came here over a time span of 7 years.

Knowing all these, it’s so difficult for me to buy into the whole “foreigners steal jobs of British people” thing. The same happens with the other arguments given, that we work for illegal low payment and we live in crammed shared houses. The only ones here (out of the mentioned people) who have quite a bunch of house mates of many different nationalities are me and my partner, and we only do this as we’ve saved for studying further and starting a small business and, after all, we don’t have a family yet.
Also, us the Romanians working for the company have the same hourly payment as all the young British people who were recently hired.

I must say that, not even one year in the field, one of my colleagues went on a maternity leave and at that time, February 2012, it was a nightmare getting somebody else for a job. The manager had to struggle to find somebody, a young local, in the end. For couple of months I’ve done loads of overtime to help cover, but the money came handy as well. Ever since, it has been easier to find locals for the jobs. Only at the end of last year there were many applications for another job vacancy recently open.

The information I have from UKBA, where I had to apply for my work permits, which now are no longer required, and my own experience tell me that indeed there must have been some kind of a cosmic snake playing with people’s minds into making them believe they would be drowned in vast numbers of Romanians.
As I said before on other blogs and discussion boards, a very high percentage of people who wanted to find work in another country already did so. Many of them have moved back to Romania now from Spain and Italy, having saved enough money to buy a house, to start a business, or even live off bank interests on their deposits. Even the ones who never really imagined to do this and used to think of themselves changing our home country (like I did) have ended up in the UK and elsewhere. The ones who stayed either have a situation, family, friends that they don’t want to leave, or don’t have means to do the big leap and get better jobs in Western country.
It’s really difficult to imagine Romanians from deprived regions somehow getting the money to buy plane tickets and live in London or another British city/town until they find a job.  The most poverty stricken of them (I came to hate the phrase because of over-usage in political propaganda) live in the countryside. Still, in their humble homes and worn out clothing, they have a vegetable garden which helps feed themselves and their families, chicken in the yard, a cow in a barn. They have neighbours they can always go over for a shot of rachie or tuica, the national plum brandy, to curse the Romanian government and discuss the hottest topics in the news and in low-quality tv shows. Even the safety of your own poverty in the village you grew up in is better than going to another country where you would be seen as a filthy beggar, thief or benefit scrounger. And with no clear prospects to get a job, who’d want to burrow couple of hundred quid just to fly and risk living on the streets of London, such a big city, where nobody could understand them, nobody would give a rotten penny on them and, on the contrary, they might become subjects to crime and violence?

Now let’s hope that the Water Snake gone, so will the floods. Maybe this Chinese year of the Wooden Horse will bring more action, energy and pro-activeness, that if we believe in cosmic forces beamed over our heads. Astrology or no astrology, it all depends on us, in the end. I am this incurable believer in the capacity humanity has to evolve and control its own destiny in the end.
Wait… wooden horse… are those hordes of foreigners now preparing to take over Britain by ancient means of trickery? Might be, as we’re already here. No need for paranoia though, most of us (over 99%, according to figures offered by the Romanian Ambassador, whom I found to be the most reliable source over 2013) work, pay taxes, contribute, are in the prime of our lives, fit and healthy, skilled and ready to work. Everything which was invested in us back home through education and FREE medical care (I was save numerous times by Romanian doctors, no payment involved, from death by asthma attack or pneumonia or complication due to bronchitis, but since here never once had the flu even) now pays off in British taxes. If anybody is ready to take off their dark glasses of fear they might discover some great people to have a pint with at the local pub or to share some baking, travelling or motoring tips with. 

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