Teacher and students in front of vocational school in Kharkyv

Education in a time of war

The ETF’s September communication campaign, ‘Teachers today: Shaping the future’, has provided the opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a teacher today. Innovation and creativity are skills that help to make stimulating learning environments. Resilience is also vital when facing challenging circumstances. The following is a story from a teacher in Ukraine who shows great strength and commitment to helping students continue with their studies.

When Putin’s war came to Kharkiv, one woman was determined that the education of her students would not be abandoned. Ukrainian technical college head, Natalia Yukliayevska, has told the ETF about her experience of the Russian invasion.

Natalia Yukliayevska refuses to let war get in the way of her passion for training the Ukrainian builders of the future. The director of Kharkiv’s state Region Centre for Professional Education of Innovative Technologies in Construction and Industry, Natalia, and her 56 students, some of them disabled, found themselves on the frontlines of Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war in late February.

‘Our lives changed forever on 24 February 2022,' she recalls. 'At four in the morning, we were all woken up by explosions.’

The long-threatened conflict had finally broken out after months of international tension and diplomatic brinkmanship as Putin resolved to take what he had long coveted – swathes of territory in Ukraine’s industrial Russophone east.

‘At the time, we did not understand the scale of what was happening,’ Natalia adds. ‘Every minute we waited for it all to end. We did not believe that the war had really begun.’

What was to follow was an odyssey of seven months of privations, fear, courage, endurance and triumph against the odds to continue her vocation to deliver high-quality education to young men and women as they faced an epic struggle for survival. Natalia sums up her life since late February in a brief, swiftly spoken statement: ‘War… living with 56 students in a basement, evacuation, searching, volunteering – our thorny path of the past seven months.’

Those early hours of chaos and confusion gave way to a quiet determination not to give in to the bombs and the bullets.

‘At that time, our students, including those with disabilities and orphans, were in the centre’s hostel,’ recalls Natalia. ‘My main task was to ensure their safety and to find food.’

Safety was a simple matter: staff and students moved to the centre’s basement, which was furnished with bedding and blankets. A strange new life of living under enemy fire began, with two teachers and 56 students crammed together in the relative security of their underground shelter seeking to comfort each other as war rained death and destruction down on their country.

‘We supported each other. Sitting in a circle, we sang songs, played guitar, cleaned and cooked every morning.’

Kharkiv was under artillery and rocket fire; television viewers around the world watched in horror as rockets slammed into a grand, Soviet-era municipal building in the centre of the city as innocent drivers in the square in front of it disappeared in a lethal blast of smoke and fire. The irony of Russian forces bombarding the city was not lost on those with knowledge of history – Kharkov (as it is known in Russian) was the scene of a major battle against Hitler’s armies in the winter of 1943 and it is commemorated as a Soviet ‘hero city’ on a granite plinth under the Kremlin walls in Moscow.

The relentless bombardment took its toll on local services: after a week of sheltering in the basement, the lights went out. Cooking in the open was to dice with death, but Natalia had no other options.

‘On the second night of darkness, two of our students had nervous breakdowns and panic broke out. Thank God for giving me the wisdom to find the right words with which I was able to stop the panic attacks.’

Thanks to a donation of church candles from the local clergy, some light was returned. Electricity was eventually restored, but the shelling intensified. By day nine of their subterranean life, Natalia understood time was not on their side, and evacuation was the only answer. It was the beginning of what she stoically refers to as ‘the difficult path’ of finding parents and transportation to return students to their families, all under constant shelling, which complicated the transfer process.

The move left 28 students with nowhere to go and it was decided to find a safe place for evacuation for this group. Iryna Shumik, head of the Directorate of Vocational Education at the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science, personally supported the efforts to find a safe berth, and it was through her assistance that Natalia was able to identify shelters in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, far from the frontlines.

That was the simple part, Natalia recalls. Physically getting from Kharkiv, over 1,000 km east, to Lviv, was a real challenge.

‘There was no easy way from the basement to the train to Lviv – 12 hours of standing under fire at Kharkiv station waiting for departure, and another 25 “exciting” hours of travel to the shelters.’

Natalia sent her students on ahead and, three days later, drove to Lviv to help them with food and clothing. The journey took five days – she had challenges finding fuel and encountered ‘unreal traffic congestion’ en route.

The war was barely three weeks old, Russian forces were taking vast swathes of territory in the east, and an armoured column was approaching Kyiv from jumping-off points across the Belarusian border to the north. It was mid-March and time to resume the centre’s educational programme. ‘We started distance learning,’ Natalia says, her delight clear at the memory. Sure, it was hard – but she and other teachers were sure that all obstacles could be overcome.

‘Our teachers and students are the heroes of this time! Those who are still in Kharkiv teach and learn every day under fire, sometimes in darkness, to support our soldiers and the country in difficult times of war!’

The aim is a simple and resolute one: ‘We will rebuild our cities ready to produce builders in a timely manner,’ Natalia states.

By the end of June, her students had completed a full academic programme – via online courses. Graduation theses were defended, and the realisation dawned that, ‘our students were ready to get to work and restore our hometown – and the whole of Ukraine.’ Even students who had left Ukraine as refugees expressed their desire to return and help their homeland.

Despite the ongoing war, the future does not look grim to Natalia and her students.

‘Our graduates are waiting with hope for the opportunity to start working at a construction company, Trust Zhytlobud-1, which is a partner of the centre. The company is among those that will be restoring war-damaged buildings in Kharkiv.’

Many students are already working as volunteers back in Kharkiv, which was fully liberated in September’s offensive by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and is now beyond the reach of Russian artillery, although not rockets.

Natalia finds reasons to be confident and hopeful despite the dreadful challenges she and her students have faced this year.

‘Students with disabilities have been studying at our institution for more than 20 years. Since the beginning of the war, many have moved abroad. It is very pleasing to learn that they have had opportunities to find a job in their profession,’ Natalia remarks.

She highlights one student, Andriy Komnik, a graduate of a landscaping course, who is currently on an internship for landscapers in the German town of Leverkusen, near Cologne in North-Rhine Westphalia.

The success of the Ukrainian offensive against Russian forces – liberating the entire territory of Kharkiv Oblast (region) right up to the border with Russia – means that the new academic year at the centre began as usual in early September. A total of 645 students have begun their studies, including 51 orphans, 57 students with disabilities, and 251 first-year students. International cooperation continues: during the 2021/22 academic year the centre participated in a ‘Vocational Training on Energy Efficiency in Ukraine’, which was supported by Germany’s GIZ international cooperation programme.

The war has left some parts of the centre’s buildings damaged, but Natalia, her students and staff are nonetheless ready for the future.

‘We are now looking forward to returning to the normal learning formula, because even the most ideal online learning platform cannot replace the real eyes and faces of students and teachers.’

The experience of war has deepened Natalia's understanding of what life means.

‘Now we understand that we must appreciate every moment close to those who are in our hearts and souls, because we do not know what awaits us from one minute to the next.’

Natalia says that ‘life will never be the same as it was before’ and that the war has made her more determined than ever to live every moment of life to the full.

‘My teachers and students, who are the dearest people to me, are always in my heart in these difficult times, and together we help everyone who is nearby to go through a difficult path of war. We started to understand and give literal meaning to simple wishes: “Wishing you peace! Have a peaceful (quiet) night!”’

‘Together we shall overcome the challenges of war, and our educational institution will flourish with new force’ she concludes.

ETF resources

Education and work information for Ukrainians and EU countries

ETF's weekly analysis of the invasion of Ukraine: The impact on human capital and education

UA Re-Emerge(ncy): e-learning and skills development to rebuild Ukraine

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