Ukrainian teachers show resilience in the face of war

In mid-October, AFT President Randi Weingarten led a delegation to Ukraine in response to an invitation from the president of the Ukrainian education union, the Trade Union of Education and Science Workers of Ukraine. The AFT mission took place as part of its investigation into the grievous damage to schools and education wrought by the Russian invasion. The delegation included representatives of the Polish Teachers’ Union, the Solidarity Center, and Dr. Irwin Redlener and Karen Redlener from the Ukraine Children’s Action Project. This visit was a continuation of the AFT’s work, since the war began, to support Ukrainian teachers and children both in Ukraine and as refugees. Our humanitarian assistance has been made possible through the generosity of our AFT members.

TUESWU arranged for Weingarten to meet in Lviv, in western Ukraine, with union leaders from across the country as well as teachers who have been displaced by the war. What they heard was heartbreaking—but also inspiring.

Meeting with a group of displaced teachers who came to Lviv from eastern Ukraine, Weingarten listened as one woman described leaving her home with nothing but the clothes on her back. Another told Weingarten she only wants for the children not to have to see the war. The delegation heard individual accounts of running from bullets and hiding from occupying troops, leaving husbands and brothers behind to fight, being taken in by kind strangers or distant family who made room for them and their children in homes farther from the fighting. But they also took in the big picture: 250 schools demolished. Another 2,4000 damaged. More than 12 million Ukrainian people evacuated, creating the largest forced migration of Europeans since World War II.

Randi in Ukraine with preschool teachers

In the midst of the suffering, Ukrainian teachers are doggedly determined to provide an education to their children, wherever they are—in Ukrainian homes still threatened with bombs, in temporary homes hosted by Polish families or in refugee centers. The teachers conduct online classes from basements and bomb shelters. They teach, they say, despite the terrifying thought that Russian troops will overhear them speaking Ukrainian and drag them away to “torture chambers,” or worse—make them disappear. “Kids are our future of our country, and we cannot let Russia win,” said one.

Randi Weingarten in Ukraine

“I’m humbled and inspired by the dedication of Ukraine's educators,” says Weingarten. “It’s clear how committed they are to fighting for their democracy and fighting for their students’ future.”

Weingarten told the teachers that her mission was to share their stories so that people outside Ukraine would begin to understand what is at stake. At one point, speaking to Education Week reporters, the power in her hotel went out and she completed the interview by candlelight. Explaining the reasons behind the visit, she described the Ukrainian teachers union request for the visit: “They want to make sure that someone is bearing witness to the atrocities that the Russians are doing to them—simply because they want self-determination in their autonomy and not to be controlled by an overlord.”

This is not the AFT’s first trip to provide relief to Ukraine. In the beginning of the war in April, Weingarten, together with leaders from the AFT’s Polish sister union, the Polish Teachers’ Union (ZNP in Polish), met with Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw and teachers in Medyka, on the Poland-Ukraine border. In July, 15 AFT members spent two weeks at a summer camp on the Polish-Ukraine border providing recreational, cultural and educational support for Ukrainian refugee children. This year, the AFT has raised $150,000 for its relief fund, to help the Ukrainian and Polish unions support the victims of the war. It’s helped make sure school—in-person or remote—could continue to be an anchor in the chaos of war.

First Book has been providing books for the AFT to distribute to refugee centers in Poland and schools in Ukraine. With the Redleners, the AFT has been developing online resources to provide guidance in managing children with severe psychological and emotional trauma.

“As Putin tries to take a blowtorch to democracy, we stand in solidarity with the educators, students and families in Ukraine,” says Weingarten. “They are fighting against Russian aggression to uphold their democracy, their freedom and their self-determination—and after nearly eight months of conflict, their righteous resistance grows stronger each day.

“The war’s effect on kids and families has been brutal, and the Ukrainian teachers’ persistence, compassion and bravery in helping students continue their learning in an active war zone should be lifted up and championed.” 

For more, read Randi's post on AFT Voices - They Are Fighting for Their Freedom

[Virginia Myers]