Posted by: Crystal Bock Thiessen, English Language Specialist at U.S. Department of State
“…we went to work, did our routine and pretended that everything was normal as we could do nothing in front of guns.”
“It will never be the same again.”
The words from the shared journals of internally displaced English teachers in Ukraine help tell the story of our experiences this summer in Kharkiv. For six days, my colleague, Eve Smith, and I held back-to-back teacher-training sessions geared towards immersing novice teachers of English in current methodologies and creative approaches to the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classroom.
In terms of education, the fighting has tragically resulted in the death of teachers, staff, and students. For survivors in the educational system, the conflict has brought about new challenges in dealing with the resulting effects of stress and trauma while trying to create a safe environment where learning can continue to take place. Many schools and universities have had to relocate to other towns and regions, and now somehow must strive to maintain their academic integrity despite new surroundings, disconnected buildings, makeshift classrooms and a reduction in staff and students.
“I left my job, my family, my hometown—everything.”
“I work and pretend that everything is ok. But it’s not true.”
“…I feel a bit lost and confused about my future, especially taking into consideration [the] situation in our country.”
Starting with a pre-training questionnaire for the participants, we poured ourselves into ideas and information that we could use to make this training the most beneficial for those who would be coming to us. Many of these young instructors had concerns about how to be sensitive to the effects of trauma while promoting the relevance and importance of learning English to students whose lives have been greatly affected by the fighting. A lot of them were also dealing with great sadness, loss, anxiety, physical displacement and high levels of stress as a result of their own experiences.
“It’s been a year of challenges, sad losses, and getting new perspectives on life…”
“I had fears…I was not sure that my thoughts about my emotional state are worth sharing and actually worth having…”
Another goal that we had for these training sessions was to help the participants get their stories out to their English teacher colleagues in the United States and beyond. The conflict in eastern Ukraine, while continuing well over a year now, has been reduced in many Western media outlets to an occasional photo or short blurb—many of the teachers were surprised to learn that something of such magnitude in their lives and country on a daily basis is barely mentioned anymore in American news. Personal stories like those from our teacher trainees are rarely shared in the headlines, making it hard to fully grasp what has really been going on and what they have been through.
“Maybe my story will change someone’s life, maybe not.”
“A lot of difficulties and grief were on our paths, but the spirit of light and faith were leading us.”
“Last year, I saw a lot of strength in a lot of people I know.”
In addition to resiliency sessions on teaching compassion and creating action plans, we led our teachers through sessions on modern and creative methodologies in the EFL classroom, including teaching English through art, photography, and music. We also gave sessions on how to access and use the free online resources provided to English teachers by the U.S. Embassy’s Regional English Language Office, specifically those found at the American English website and in Forum magazine.
More than anything, we wanted our teachers to have fun while they were with us! Having an art table, late-night movie-watching, mini-dance parties, and a photo scavenger hunt around the city drew us all closer while giving them a brief respite from their troubles. Laughing together definitely allowed them to build positive and meaningful connections and new friendships during such difficult times.
“Thank you for extending compassion and flexibility.”
“I’ve had in my head so many things, concerns, knowledge, worries…about teaching, career and life…and today you managed to put some of them in order.”
At the end of the six days together, Eve and I were not only touched by the inspiration and optimism of our teacher trainees, but were also left with a renewed sense of the importance of compassion, resiliency, and connections. It’s great to know that they’ll be bringing that passion and inspiration into the classroom with them this semester. Having had this opportunity to work with those who will be carrying Ukraine into a brighter future is something that is incredibly impactful to me and which I hope will continue to influence my work with both teachers and my students in the future.
“Through teaching English we learn how to be compassionate and friendly to each other.”
“I root for my country and I believe that eventually it’ll show everybody what it’s worth.”