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Teachers from temporary occupied Tokmak refused to switch to the Russian curriculum, and now teach online. Here’s a story of one of them

At the beginning of March 2022, Russian troops occupied Tokmak town in the Zaporizhzhia region. Now the occupiers are shelling Zaporizhzhia city from Tokmak outskirts, there are constant battles around it. Since the spring, many people have left Tokmak. As in other occupied settlements of Ukraine, the Russians introduced their programs in schools. But many teachers refuse, and keep teaching children remotely — as many of them are now scattered across the country and around the world. Some of the teachers or pupils remain in the occupation, but still study according to the Ukrainian program. 

The town of Tokmak.

We spoke with a teacher from Tokmak who spent several months under the occupation and then left for Zaporizhzhia. She tells about how Ukrainian children are currently studying, and local collaborators from the Department of Education encourage teachers to cooperate. For security reasons, we don’t disclose her name. Here is her monologue.

Russian flag had already appeared at our school

Tokmak was occupied on the third day of the full-scale Russian invasion. It all started terribly: first we heard shots from the direction of Melitopol, then there were battles for two days. People hid wherever they could, I stayed with my parents. Sometimes it seemed that the shooting happened right in the neighboring yard. Then it became quiet, our army left. It was scary to watch Ukrainian flags disappear and Russian flags appear instead. It was scary to walk the streets. The town is more or less intact, but there were still battles, broken windows, shells lying unexploded somewhere.

On February 24, we were informed that, of course, children should stay home. But we continued to communicate with parents and children to keep in touch and understand what to do next. I was afraid that the occupiers would immediately put pressure on the educators, because I read such news from Melitopol. But in Tokmak, for a couple of months the occupiers didn’t touch us. Maybe they negotiated with the educational management of the town first.

In April, we closed the academic year so that the Russians wouldn’t try to return us to the classrooms. Grades were issued according to the students’ results until February 24. And on June 1, we were sent on vacation. I was afraid to come back to work, because a Russian flag had already appeared at our school, someone put it there at night. 

The Russian flag was already hanging permanently at the local education department. It became clear that as soon as we come back to school, the pressure will begin.

In addition, my husband went to fight the occupiers, I was afraid that they [the Russians] would find out about it. He was in Zaporizhzhia when the invasion began, so he never returned to Tokmak. 

That’s why I decided to leave Tokmak in June. I traveled with a laptop and a phone, it was scary, because you never know what they [Russians] might find fault with. Drivers take money for leaving [in June it cost 2,000 hryvnias, about $55], and then take us through the Russian checkpoints. Everything went smoothly, I went with two other women, and the occupiers practically did not touch us. We traveled for two days, spending one night in Vasylivka [a town in Zaporizhzhia region occupied since March 2022].

In Tokmak, we were in an unclear state all this time. We gathered in queues for bread with other teachers, and no one knew what to do, whether to resign or not, what would happen next. And already in Zaporizhzhia, I met with other colleagues, with school principals. And they assured us that we will teach remotely, that we will work, there is no need to quit. Because in Tokmak it was better to be jobless than to work for the occupiers.

The Russians have already brought their textbooks to the schools, the Ukrainian textbooks have been taken away.

Therefore, it’s difficult to say what will remain in the schools when we return. The Russians began to intimidate the teachers: they came to their homes, threatened them with torture. I know about several such cases.

Now we teach remotely, like all Tokmak schools. Most of our teachers have left the town. Of course, there are those who cooperate with the occupiers. But in our team, this is only one quarter — 10 out of more than 40 teachers. Therefore, not many schools are working in Tokmak now. There are also teachers who stayed in the town but work with us. They don’t go to online lessons, but pass on tasks for students.

The same goes for children: most families with children have left, now they are scattered throughout the country, some went abroad. Some parents immediately said that their children will go to an occupied school and study according to the Russian curriculum. Their argument was that a child has to study face-to-face, no matter what. There are also children who are still in the town, but study with us remotely. Of course, it’s not very safe for their parents, but they deliberately made this choice. We renamed parent groups in Viber messenger to somehow protect these families.

We were ready for distance learning

Switching to distance learning was quite easy. We started to master the work in Google Classroom even before, due to the pandemic in 2020. Therefore, there were no difficulties in this regard. Both children and teachers were ready for distance learning. In addition, for the third year now, we don’t have paper class registers, we work in an electronic mode, which also works an electronic diary for children. Parents are also registered there and have access to it. All this provides great opportunities for distance learning.

Of course, there are problems with power outages, because everyone has different schedules. But we look for ways out of the situation and try to create balanced conditions for children. Sometimes, I shared the Internet from my phone to my laptop and conducted lessons until the laptop discharges. Sometimes, I postponed the lessons until the time when the Internet connection would return. 

But still, you can’t combine everything in such a way that everyone gets to the lesson. Therefore, there were times when I recorded a lesson for those who needed it. In addition, we use video lessons of the All-Ukrainian Online School project. And we are always in touch. If the kids have any questions, they can send me a message on Viber at any time, and we’ll work everything out with them.

Also, in such times it’s important to support children and parents. I start each lesson by asking how the children are doing.

I always give them a few minutes to talk, because most of them find themselves in a certain vacuum: they sit at home, don’t go to school, their communication is limited. They are always happy to see each other, they want to talk, so I give them this opportunity. They need it.

Teachers also experience stress, but they have apparently got used to it. And, to be honest, work helps to overcome hardships, because you simply forget about them.

Now I have only one wish – to return to Tokmak. When you are under occupation, everything around becomes dim and gray. When you are on the street, you are afraid to look at someone, to make a sudden movement, to take out your phone. And when I came to Zaporizhzhia, on the very first day I saw people walking calmly without looking back. I went to a supermarket, and there was a Ukrainian flag on it. It was such a great joy.