How US Teachers Are Helping Ukrainian Students ‘Half a World Apart’

Sonya Gauna taught in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in 2011, but none of it prepared her for dealing with students in the midst of war.

“We’re trained on fire drills and lockdown drills and run, hide, and fight with active shooters and all of this stuff, but no one’s prepared for helping students deal with war,” said Gauna, a US history teacher at Arizona State University Prep Digital, a fully online school for K-12 students, where she is providing remote instruction for four of the 44 Ukrainian students who are enrolled in the K-12 school this semester.

The four students are taking Gauna’s class on top of a full course load in Ukraine. These students are pursuing dual diplomas: one from ASU Prep Digital and one from their high school in Ukraine, where many schools have shut down since Russia invaded the country in February, and students have fled to new countries and enrolled in schools there.

ASU Prep Digital anticipates enrolling more Ukrainian students in the upcoming year as families relocate, regroup, and rebuild their lives. On May 2, ASU Prep Digital kicked off a summer English course just for Ukrainian students.

When the invasion began, ASU Prep Digital’s teachers and administrators began contacting their Ukrainian students multiple times per week. They compiled any updates they received into a shared spreadsheet so they could keep track of which students they heard from.

“We were all just sharing—this student reached out to me about this, I’m not really sure how to respond—and we give each other that feedback,” Melissa Woodward, a learning success coach at ASU Prep Digital, said.

Woodward supports students for their academic success and builds relationships with them. She also attends group check-ins with ASU Prep Digital’s teachers.

The school’s teachers also put together video messages for their students, opened up all live classes and help sessions to any Ukrainian student who wants to participate, and extended their semester through the summer.

“Nothing’s going to count against them,” Gauna said. “Everything we do is just going to help them move forward. So I know that’s a day-to-day process of figuring out as we get closer to the end of the school year.”

Teachers are there ‘if they just need to talk to somebody’

Samantha Parker, an English teacher with the school who also teaches four Ukrainian students this semester, reminds her students and their families every week that she is available Monday afternoons and Wednesday mornings if they need help with work or someone to talk to.

“I’m there to teach a lesson. I’m also there if they just need to talk to somebody,” said Parker, who is teaching her English 9 students how to write argumentative essays and poetry and read “Romeo and Juliet.”

Parker said she feels powerless at times in helping her Ukrainian students who are “helped a world apart” from her. One thing she realized she can do, though, is show up.

“They don’t need me as a counselor,” Parker said. “What they need me to do is be there as their teacher and to continue to give them good feedback, and help them excel at the activities that they have time to do right now.”

“They will always have my sympathy,” she added. “I will always listen, and I will also help them find resources.”

Following the outbreak of the war, a member of ASU Prep Digital’s counseling services held a training for its teachers on how to best respond to the experiences of students experiencing trauma, which Parker said helped her with her “feelings of shock and uncertainty.”

“That very first live lesson I was really afraid that nobody would show up and I was really afraid that somebody might show up, because this was four days after [the war] started, and I didn’t know what I was going to say,” Parker said.

The training teachers advised to avoid calling a student’s experience “unimaginable,” since what they’re going through is their reality. Instead, teachers should validate their students’ experience, express sympathy, and help them feel heard by saying, “I’m so glad you shared that with me.”

‘Sometimes you just feel a little guilty’

Even though Gauna, the US history teacher, only sees her students once a week and online, she said it was “just as gut-wrenching to hear what was going on as if they were in my class every day.”

“Sometimes you feel a little guilty as you go through your regular routine, knowing that you have students who are in a subway system, at a bomb shelter,” Parker, the English teacher, said.

But the teaching experience has been as inspiring as it has been stressful. Parker, Gauna, and Woodward all said they were impressed with their Ukrainian students’ positivity and dedication to their education.

“They give me hope,” Parker said. “Every time I talk with my Ukrainian students, I’m hopeful for the future.”

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