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Overcoming shame of poverty

One of the recurring themes in the barriers between more parent-teacher engagement among Roma is the shame of poverty. In a small segregated Roma neighborhood located in the southwest of Hungary, one local NGOs and school engages in the practice of conducting home visits to build parent relationships and better understand the circumstances each family face that could cause barriers to their children’s education. This was regarded as vital for teaching staff, who could make accommodations for their students when they were provided insights into the unique challenges their students might be facing. 

While teachers and support staff noted that, overall, most parents were open to such visits, a small number refused. The reasons cited was a shame a poverty. With the school located in a peripheral area of the city, in a segregated neighborhood, many of children attending school come from Roma families living in poverty, in run down homes. Many teachers and parents suggested that some of the harder to reach families did not welcome home visits, as they did not wish the circumstances in which they lived to be seen. Feelings of shame were also thought to emerge from past-negative experiences among Roma of their own interactions with schools in their childhood.  Other barriers cited included perceptions of such home visits as unwanted due to their association with formal state-sponsored inspections conducted by social services, where there is a perceived threat of having children removed from their care.   

Aware of these challenges, local schools in the area place a considerable emphasis on engaging with parents and families face-to-face, in the local neighborhood, in an effort to build trust. Besides being present at the educational institution at the start and end of the day when parents’ pick-up their children, both school teachers and local support staff believe it is vital that they are seen regularly in the local area, connecting with parents as the go about their day-to-day chores, whether in the street, at a bus stop, or otherwise. 

At the same time, it should be emphasized that the school operates in a wider eco-system of support services, including an after-school program, support from social workers, and a charity, which in many ways serve as a life-line for the community. By communicating with and leaning on one another, the school and its network of partners are able to provide critical support for local families in need. Beyond educating children, they extend many vital services to families, from financial aid through to donations, crisis emergency support, and more. For example, one family tragically lost their home in a fire, and by working together the partners were able to secure the family new housing and vital necessities. The collaborative approach of the local institutions working with one another means they can respond more effectively and support families when they are most-in-need. 

In this way, the school and local institutions work to build trust with the families to reduce the barriers parents might feel, including shame of poverty. It should be noted, however, that the focus on building trust with local communities in the case of the local school was encouraged by the school’s headteacher. By embodying leadership, compassion, and understanding, the local headteacher set the example for fellow teachers to follow, inspiring them and encouraging them to act empathetically toward local families. The school’s philosophy is to try and build relations with parents and families so that they have a complete picture of what challenges each child faces, information which then empowers them in their role to take the necessary approach.