Live to Teach: 4 stories about dedication and resilience of Ukrainian teachers during wartime
In 17 months of the full-scale war Russia has unleashed on Ukraine, more than 3500 educational institutions were damaged, and 341 were fully destroyed. Millions of people, both teachers and students, had to leave their homes, stay in shelters under constant shelling, or continue their studies under the occupation despite the risks.
In the face of such extreme circumstances, Ukrainian education carried on thanks to the unwavering commitment of Ukrainian teachers. Here are their stories.
“23 August” Subway Station
From March to May, I participated in the international project “Together. Meeting points”, organized by the “Professional Development of Kharkiv” fund and supported by UNICEF in Ukraine. My responsibility was to provide psychological and emotional support to children and teenagers who were sheltering from shelling in the Kharkiv subway. I worked alongside a volunteer named Larysa, and we regularly held informal events at the “23 August” subway station.
Teacher at the Kharkiv National Academy of Urban Economy
Working with primary school children who have experienced the trauma of war was different from working with university students. It took me some time to adjust to the new and sometimes extreme circumstances. Despite the obstacles, we managed to connect with both children and parents. The weekly training sessions for volunteers organized by the “Professional Development of Kharkiv” fund helped us better understand children’s psychology and behavior in wartime.
Larysa and I often had to deviate from the lesson plan and even radically change it to cater to the interests, sentiments, and wishes of the children. Every gathering was a complete improvisation.
The children who sheltered in the subway were deprived of attention and affection since the adults themselves were afraid of the war. So, whenever we met, we hugged each other. It was crucial to communicate with the children, particularly those in their formative years, and explain complex concepts in simple language. I once used the word “victory,” and a boy asked me what it meant. Initially, I was taken aback since the answer was obvious to adults. However, it was different for children who had never witnessed the war, making it strange for them that the adult world could be so cruel. So, I took a map of Ukraine and explained that the borders represented our country, and victory was when the Armed Forces of Ukraine recaptured the territories, temporarily occupied by Russia.
We held such gatherings almost every day, and every visit I made to them at the “23 August” railway station was a small celebration for me. The children, who became a part of our family, would run up to Larysa and me from every corner of the subway. Initially, we held classes on the stairs, but it was too crowded and noisy, so the station staff provided us with a section of the hall. We didn’t follow any school curriculum, but we tried our best to distract the children from the grim reality of life. We played, sang, danced, and even made toys out of modeling clay and salt dough.
A month into the project, our smallest “subway residents” had no time to get bored, because teachers from the Fine arts school named after Repin, sports school coaches, and entertainment staff started coming. We even had to agree on a common work schedule so as not to overlap.
I have been volunteering in the subway for three months. As a result, I gained as much experience as I haven’t had in almost 30 years of work in the field of education. The unpredictability of every day required the ability to act in a quick and decisive manner under pressure. It differed considerably from the “well-prepared” lessons we had at school. Easter was truly memorable. We decided to make a real Easter Sunday celebration. While paska (Easter bread) was baking, Larysa came up with entertainment ideas to make children’s party the best. We had an enjoyable time: children and their parents were singing, solving puzzles, dancing, and playing games. Just for a few hours, they were able to divert their attention away from the war and just have fun. In the end, the moms’ eyes glistened with tears of joy. For Larysa and I, to see this was a greater reward than thousand words of gratitude.
The majority of my friends say that being a volunteer in the subway is a feat. I always reply: “Our heroes at the frontline are performing a real feat. I just do what I can.” Conversely, some friends wonder and ask me: “Why do you do this? Will anyone appreciate it?”, “Is it easy for you to juggle work at the university and volunteer activities?” What springs to my mind is my daughter’s comment below my Facebook post saying “Mom, I am so proud of you”. The fact that the closest person appreciates and respects my work is a reason enough to continue helping everyone in need.
The story was written on August 14, 2022.
Home Is 1318 Kilometers Away
Liudmyla Bondarenko (Volnovaha, Donetsk region) Primary school teacher, acting headmistress at Volnovakha school No. 4
In 2014, the war was near Volnovakha. During the first year, everyone was scared, and understandably so. Missiles flew overhead, and machine-gun shots could be heard in the distance. However, the city eventually became accustomed to the nearby hostilities and developed a new sense of “normalcy.”
Primary school teacher, acting headmistress at Volnovakha school No. 4
(Volnovaha, Donetsk region)
In 2022, things were completely different. As early as February 25, it was apparent that the situation in Volnovakha was going to escalate. I remember hearing a series of explosions during the first few days, which scared me to death. On March 4, my daughter and elderly mother decided to evacuate. At first, they considered waiting in the village of Zlatoustivka, but the bombardment started there too, and they eventually decided to flee immediately from the front line.
After arranging with our neighbor to give us a ride, we packed our things and embarked on a journey that covered over 1,300 kilometers. Our first stop was Pokrovske, a town in the Dnipropetrovsk region, where we stayed overnight in a kindergarten. Then we went to Piatykhatky, where we stayed with an elderly English teacher. Finally, we ended up at the railway station in Kryvyi Rih, where we bid farewell to our neighbor’s son-in-law, who gave us a ride and boarded an evacuation train to Lviv. We had to leave almost all our belongings at the station because the carriage was congested with people.
The journey to the west of Ukraine was arduous. We witnessed explosions in Kyiv city and at the airport in Vinnytsia, so the train made frequent stops. In Lviv, we initially struggled to find a place to live, so we decided to go to Poland straight away, even though we didn’t have foreign passports. Eventually, we arrived in the town of Sendzishuv, where local volunteers warmly welcomed us. For several months, they took care of us and made sure we had everything we needed. However, my mother still found it difficult to adjust to life abroad. She believed she was too old to start over and learn a new language. As a result, we returned to Lviv in July, where we stayed with a local man who had seen my housing-wanted ad in a teachers’ group on social media.
More than 60% of my students still live in occupied Volnovakha. Most of them left at the start of the war but eventually returned. Unfortunately, I find it challenging to keep in touch with them and their parents due to communication issues, but I don’t give up.
These days, I continue to teach remotely and serve as the acting headmistress of Volnovakha school No. 4, which has merged with school No. 6. Roughly 20% of the teachers with whom I worked in Volnovakha before the full-scale invasion remained in the occupied territories for various reasons. Some had to care for elderly parents, while others simply didn’t want to leave their homes. I understand their decision and try to keep the mood up while working for victory. Children aren’t responsible for the current state of the world. They deserve safety and a decent education, even during wartime.
The story was written on December 20, 2022.
What Was Sun Tzu Contemplating?
“Deceive the heavens to cross the ocean” is one of the key principles of warfare described by the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu. I muse about it every single day. What did he mean by that remark? On the third day of the full-scale war, when I cried my eyes out, I took up arms and joined the ranks of the Territorial Defense Forces. The very next day, I stood on one of the many roads of the Kyiv region, peering into the steppe and listening to the sounds brought by the biting winter wind.
Teacher of math, logic, and critical thinking, founder of the “Mathematical Hockey” project
Pereyaslav, Chernihiv region
In between shifts, I continued to hold remote classes for my students. The children joined the online classes from corridors, bathrooms, basements, garages, and cars. Most of them were dressed in outerwear and wore hats. Whenever we met, we exchanged stories about the explosions that rang out nearby and the rockets that could be seen flying past the window. These stories are unbearably sad to hear, but it is impossible not to listen to. After all, when we poured out our painful memories to each other, it made us less frightened. When the classes were over, I would fall on the floor and fall asleep immediately because I was so worn out after work. In a few hours, I would wake up again to the explosions, kiss my wife and four children, take the assault rifle, and head towards the checkpoint.
When every day is equally gloomy, you have to force the mind to process complex information to subdue the mind’s whine. Every day, while being at the checkpoint, I prepared materials for classes and read books by Daniel Kahneman, Lena Rachel, and Sun Tzu. It felt like the time went by a little faster, and it was less cold. Deceive the heavens to cross the ocean… Does Sun Tzu make fun of me?
Then April arrived, and I decided to organize a meeting with the children I teach martial arts, such as karate and hand-to-hand combat. The club where we used to meet was closed since the outbreak of the full-scale war, but everyone was tired of staying in basements and bomb shelters, so they wanted to chat and move a bit. During the training, we couldn’t stop talking. I could only imagine the amount of anxiety and stress the students had to deal with during the invasion. It was heartbreaking to see how their childhoods were shattered, and by the end of the training, I wondered how long it would take for them to recover.
At the end of the month, I was summoned to the military commissariat and appointed as a teacher of hand-to-hand and special physical training in one of the military units. The other day, I went there as a volunteer to teach the basics to the guys and help them become proficient in these techniques and skills. Meanwhile, I thought about how I could boost their morale. I came up with the idea of asking students to draw pictures for the military. I also managed to gather several dozen “gifts” from various countries. It might seem strange, but brave men were touched by the children’s drawings. Now that they are far away, I hope the pictures give them comfort and that they are doing well.
It is already August. The new semester is due to start. For the time being, my students can be found in various European countries, Canada, and the USA, but their hearts are with Ukraine, and they all long to return home and have great faith in Ukraine’s victory.
One day, when I was drinking a cup of tea in the morning, I muttered Sun Tzu’s strategy under my breath again. My older daughter asked me to repeat what I said again, only a bit louder. I said: “Deceive the heavens to cross the ocean,” and she replied: “Perhaps it’s about doing something impossible to reach the hardest goal.” Isn’t this what we are all doing now in Ukraine?
The story was written on December 21, 2022.
A Code Word “Peach”
Kherson has been under temporary occupation for over five months [the story was written in July 2022]. And it seems that it lasts for eternity. I remember the first day of the full-scale invasion. All the teachers of the Kherson Gymnasium No. 1 received a message that we had to stay at home that day, as thundering explosions were heard. I communicated with all the pupils in Viber groups, so I immediately asked how they were doing. So that the children would not be so afraid of shelling and hide quickly, I came up with the password “Peach”. We agreed that if I sent it to the chat, it would mean: “Quickly hide, explosions are heard.
An English teacher at Kherson Gymnasium No. 1
By March 3, the enemy had already entered the city, but despite the occupation, we continued with our studies. Unfortunately, not all children were able to join the lessons. Every day, I would encourage my pupils to turn on their cameras, and even though it was difficult, I would smile and remain positive, hoping to instill in them the confidence that this situation would soon pass. I made sure to enrich our lessons with presentations, games, and utilized all available online resources.
There were days when the occupiers cut off both the internet and mobile communication entirely. I started to give homework partially: I realized that the children needed my support more. We had many conversations about how to protect ourselves and our families during the war, as well as how to maintain our mental health. I even sent my pupils fairy tales, which we later translated into English. To ensure that the children didn’t feel isolated, I organized a meeting with pupils from Warsaw, where we discussed our common interests, hobbies, and passions.
By the end of April, we were under so much pressure from the occupiers that we had to wrap up the school year. However, I knew that my pupils needed communication, so I continued our classroom learning on the Zoom platform in the form of a conversation club. We held meetings with pupils from Slovakia, Poland, and a teacher from Greece, and together we overcame language barriers, talked about ourselves, and discussed various topics such as art, food, computer games, and music. Even though many of my pupils were still in Kherson, for those 40 minutes, we were able to forget about the war and the horrors that surrounded us. It was just our time. Twice a week, at ten o’clock in the morning, the children saw my constant smile and smiled back. I thought about how Freddie was right when he said, “The show must go on.
This story was written in July 2022, before Kherson was liberated from occupation on November 11, 2022.
This unique collection of teacher stories about the war was compiled by the NGO Osvitoria as part of its project implemented under the USAID/ENGAGE program, which is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by Pact. The contents of this unique collection of teacher stories about the war are the sole responsibility of Pact and its implementing partners and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.