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When Ukrainian Children And Teachers Come Together In A Polish School

After fleeing the war, many Ukrainian teachers have found new jobs in Poland. But their work involves more than just teaching — they're helping Ukrainian children adapt to a whole new life.

Ukrainian refugee children join Polish schools

Ukrainian refugee children join Polish schools

Polskie Centrum Pomocy Międzynarodowej (PCPM)
Lena Gontarek

The bell rings for Polish lesson in the Primary School 34 in the city of Lublin in southeastern Poland. There are 25 students, five of whom are children from Ukraine who came here after the outbreak of the war with Russia.

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Olga is in the classroom alongside the teacher. She used to teach English in Ukraine, but she is now employed in Poland as a teacher's assistant, thanks to the "Cash for Work" program of the Polish Centre for International Aid.

Today's lesson is on The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The children read paragraphs and analyze them.

Olga circulates among the Ukrainian students. She explains the instructions and helps translate answers. “Your Polish is getting better," she says, encouraging the children to be more active. And she explains: “By learning, you can help Ukraine. Focus on your lessons, so that later you can use the knowledge gained here.”

Discipline when needed

There are other Ukrainian teachers working at the primary school where Olga is employed. They mainly help in preparatory classes, opened especially for Ukrainian children.

“Such classes have been created in many schools accepting Ukrainian children. Pupils are being prepared to study in a Polish school. There are no grades and fewer hours. After completing such classes, which may last up to the end of a given school year, a student is promoted to a class corresponding to their age and skill,” explains Sławomira Kryńska, director of the school. In her school, there are two such classes for grades pre-K and K, one for grades 1 to 3 and one for grades 4 and 5*. Each group can accommodate up to 25 students.

“Our schedule depends on the schedule of the preparatory classes — when these are over, we can help in the general classes, which accommodate approx. 30 students from Ukraine. We translate what the Polish teacher says into Ukrainian, we help them understand the material, we admonish and motivate them," says Maryna.

The first word that came to their minds was not "mom" but "mines".

She taught English in Irpin, in Ukraine before coming to Poland. “Polish teachers want our children to feel safe, so they are gentle to them. We noticed that children sometimes take advantage of this. They say "we don't understand" and do nothing, looking at their phones. We show them that they understand and can engage," she explains.

People who speak less Polish can also be employed as teacher’s assistant. Olga is in such a situation. “I try to help children as much as I can, both with lessons and in understanding what the teacher says. What I understand, I translate into Ukrainian. I discipline them when necessary. But my role is mainly as a psychological support and help with socialization."

Maryna adds: "When we know the topic, it’s easy. I had no problem explaining the difference between past simple and present perfect to children in Ukrainian. But when during one of the lesson, the word 'oxygen' was mentioned, I didn't know what it meant at all.”

Photo of Ukrainian children at the PCPM Foundation in Poland

The PCPM Foundation helps Ukrainian women and children

Polskie Centrum Pomocy Międzynarodowej (PCPM)

"This job helps us"

Victoria, a music teacher from Mariupol, says: “This job helps us. And it is not only about money. Thanks to it, we don't constantly follow updates about Ukraine, because we just don't have time. Besides, this makes us feel a bit like home. Recently I had the opportunity to teach a singing lesson for children at a community center, helping them to prepare for a performance. It was the first time since I left home that I had a chance to make music this way.”

But going to school and having Ukrainian teachers helps Ukrainian children as well. “They became more communicative, more willing to talk to us, and develop friendships with Polish students. They get involved in school life and extracurricular activities. You can see that they are finding their place,” says Sławomira Kryńska after two months of preparatory classes. Ukrainian teachers emphasize that the school helps children return to normality.

Maryna points that “at the beginning, they would associate everything with war. When we were learning letters, the first word that came to their minds was not 'mom' but 'mines'."

Lilia was hired as a teacher's assistant in a primary school. She says that “one of the biggest challenges at the very beginning of my work at school was the conflict between Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking children. In many of us, the war had created an aversion to anything Russian, while for a large group of children, it is their first language. I sat down with the kids and explained that the language they speak doesn't matter, because none of them is for Russia or Putin, and that they all want the same thing: for Ukraine to win the war and be safe again."

Saving the best part of Ukraine in Poland

In Polish schools, there are about 200,000 students from Ukraine who fled the war with Russia. Some local governments — like Lublin — have therefore decided to employ Ukrainian teachers themselves, mainly as teaching assistants. This is the case in other Polish cities, where 42 people had this position in mid-May. Additionally, 50 teachers from Ukraine are working in the preparatory classes in Łódź, a city in central Poland, teaching mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry or geography.

Children do not understand.

Thanks to the "Cash for Work" program, by mid-May, more than 500 Ukrainian teachers had found work as teacher's assistants in 16 Polish cities, both large and small.

The basic contract lasts three months. However, the foundation does its best to extend these contracts for the vacations and next school year.

Maryna says: “War is a difficult experience, especially for children. We adults understand what it means, that we have to get used to the new reality and face the challenges. Children do not understand, and we are not able to explain to them everything. So we have to do everything we can to make them feel safe here. We cannot save all of Ukraine and all the children, but we can do our best to save this part of our country which is here, in Poland, in the school we work in.”

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