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From the backyard or the battlefield: teachers do their best for education in Ukraine

In 22 months of the full-scale war, 3793 educational institutions in Ukraine were bombed and shelled: 3428 were damaged and 365 were destroyed.

Despite this, Ukrainian teachers continue to teach, contribute to the development of Ukrainian education, and even defend the country. Ukrainian teacher Svitlana Popova provided lessons despite the destruction of her school and her home. The head of a kindergarten, Olena Osypova, joined the Armed Forces and began to defend the country. Here are their stories.

The stories were prepared by Osvitoria NGO within the annual national award for teachers Global Teacher Prize Ukraine 2023.

A blackboard in the open air

Just a few days after the full-scale invasion began, the Russian tank shot at my house in Borodianka and destroyed it to the ground. When my husband and I were collecting personal belongings out of the ruins of the house, the tank fired again in front of our son. My child, a fourth-year student, thought he was left without parents and cried…

Photo: the Global Teacher Prize Ukraine

Svitlana Popova

Teacher of mathematics
Borodianka, the Kyiv region

After occupying Borodianka, the Russians unleashed terror, killing civilians and destroying infrastructure. Fortunately, our family could leave and temporarily evacuate to the Rivne region. But as soon as Ukrainian troops liberated the Kyiv region, in early April 2022, my husband and I returned to our hometown.

Our house was gone, we didn’t have our usual living conditions, we lost everything. So we settled in the utility room, with chickens behind the wall. Soon, I went to my school, naively hoping that some teaching materials and a hidden laptop had survived, but the terrible state of the school shocked me.

Photo: the Global Teacher Prize Ukraine

Before the full-scale invasion, our school had two computer labs and a STEM lab; almost every classroom was equipped with modern technology. However, in a month of “management”, the Russian occupiers destroyed everything. They propped up the window with a board, probably to protect themself from shelling, and tried to tear the projector off the wall. My math classroom was turned into a laundry room: there were hundred-gallon tanks, buckets filled with water, and large detergent packages. Everything around was looted and stolen.

In August, it became known that the Lithuanian government would help restore the school, but it was immediately clear that the repairs would take a long time, and the new school year was approaching. I wanted to work, so I asked volunteers to bring me a blackboard and chalk. When everything was delivered, my husband hung the board on the garage… and the lessons began. I put the laptop on the chair, and the chair on the table, stood in front of it, and taught online lessons right from my backyard.

Photo: the Global Teacher Prize Ukraine

I don’t see anything special about this. We had to start with the circumstances that existed. I am sure that many teachers today work in much worse conditions. Borodianka may be damaged, but at least it’s quiet here now. Think, for example, of Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, and Kherson, where teachers still have to teach classes under fire almost every day. What I do is not heroism, it’s just normal teaching. Not in the classroom, but in the open air.

I am sincerely convinced that if you love your profession, you will find a way to do it. Even if there are two million reasons not to.

Of course, moral fortitude is also important. Perhaps not everyone would agree to such an adventure. However, I try to support the students I teach by doing this. Eight of them had their homes destroyed, two children lost their parents in the war, and two more were under occupation. I understand their pain and try to show them by my example that there is a way out of any situation. The main thing is that we are on our native land. It already gives us energy and inspiration.

Photo: the Global Teacher Prize Ukraine

Now I live in a modular house provided by volunteer sponsors, teach online from home, and also give lessons at another school in Borodianka in the second shift. I look forward to Ukraine’s victory and do my best to educate students who will become the pride of our country in the future.

From a kindergarten teacher to a combat medic

I have devoted 25 years of my life to preschool education, and for the last 10 years, I have been the head of kindergarten No.20 in Mykolaiv. I love my profession, it has a lot of diverse activities and no limits to imagination. It allows me to communicate with children of different ages, with different personalities and interests every day.

Photo: Olena’s personal archive

Olena Osypova 

Head of the kindergarten №20

With the outbreak of full-scale hostilities, the educational process in the city’s educational institutions was suspended. Mykolaiv was constantly under fire from the Russian aggressor, and about 70% of families with children were forced to leave the city. Personally, the most difficult thing for me at first was to survive the uncertainty and expectations, accompanied by fear, anxiety, despondency, and disappointment. I could not be in such a state because I wanted to take decisive action. And I am sure that freedom is the ability to say yes to your dreams, and dignity is the ability to say no to your fears. Inaction breeds fear, while action, on the contrary, gives confidence and courage.

On February 25, 2022, I volunteered for the fourth rifle company of the 188th battalion of the 123rd brigade and started working as a paramedic at a medical center: in addition to my pedagogical degree, I have a second medical degree. I chose the call sign Lon (lіnеn – ed.) for myself. As a recruit, I was promoted to the position of senior combat medic in the brigade, and in May took the military oath of allegiance to the Ukrainian people in the ranks of the Territorial Defense Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

During this time, my life has changed a lot: I have been living in other circumstances, with other problems. Last fall, an enemy missile “tore apart” my apartment, the place of my family comfort… But I am happy because my son, who was at home with our old dog Dana at the time, is alive.

I miss my family and friends, and the opportunity to spend time together. I miss the kindergarten and the children who filled my life with their noise. I want to plan something, but it’s hard to do it while the war is on.

An important emotional support for me was the participation of the teachers of our preschool in the “Ensuring the Continuity of Education and Development of Preschool Children in the Context of the Crisis in Ukraine” project, implemented by the Association of Preschool Education Workers within a UNICEF program with the information support of the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Institute of Educational Development.

Photo: Olena’s personal archive
Photo: Olena’s personal archive

The participation of our team in such educational projects gives us confidence that preschool education should develop under any circumstances. Children are the highest value of the present and a peaceful future. They need to grow up free, independent, and proactive, and a preschool is an educational space for active children’s lives. I appreciate the fact that I have the opportunity to be “on the same wave” with the team, even remotely.