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Ukraine: Waldorf schools and kindergartens and the reality of war

Since 24th February, the inhabitants of Ukraine have been suffering massive military attacks by the Russian military. By the end of April, more than 5 million people had already left Ukraine, and another 6.5 million are on the run within Ukraine - fleeing from areas in the east that are under heavy attack, to the less affected areas in the west of the country. Just one day after the war began, we launched an appeal for donations for the Waldorf movement in Ukraine - and experienced an overwhelming response from donors. By mid-April we had received around €750K through private donations, donations from foundations, but also from Waldorf schools. Thanks to these many donations, we were able to support Waldorf schools in the neighbouring states of Ukraine, which took in, accompanied and cared for refugees in large numbers, as well as the Waldorf schools and kindergartens in Ukraine itself,  thus enabling them to continue paying the salaries of the teachers who remained on site (approx. €145K per month). In addition, we financed emergency educational missions in Ukraine and neighbouring countries. We will be able to continue all three tasks in the coming months, thanks to the funds raised.

Olena Mezentseva reports on the situation of Waldorf schools in Ukraine before and during the war. She is an English teacher at the Waldorf School in Kyiv and a board member of the Association for Waldorf Education in Ukraine.

Waldorf education is one of four alternative school movements in Ukraine recognised and respected by the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science. Few schools use the Waldorf curriculum, but their activities influence the Ukrainian education system.

The first Waldorf schools were established in the 1990s. Four Ukrainian Waldorf schools (Stupeni in Odessa, the Waldorf schools in Dnipro and Krywyj Rih and the Sophia School in Kyiv), are fully recognised by the Ukrainian education authorities, as well as by the World Waldorf Movement. They offer the full range of schooling and their pupils achieve good results in the national exam system. Some students who have been to a Waldorf school themselves return later, as parent, bringing their own children to Waldorf kindergartens and schools. And some return to work as Waldorf teachers themselves.

A new wave of Waldorf initiatives emerged in 2014 when Waldorf education received its full recognition from the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science. A new generation of parents came into the schools. They are highly educated free thinkers and sometimes very courageous. They are skilled in IT and social sciences, and well trained in cooperative work. They have already internalised the idea of conscious parenting; they are dedicated to their children, active in communication and quick in action. At present there are other Waldorf school and kindergarten initiatives in Kyiv, Dnipro, Odessa, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Lutsk, Kremenchuk and Horodenka.

A number of traditions have already developed within the Ukrainian Waldorf movement. Some of them are connected with the pupils (Ukrainian Waldorf Olympics for fifth graders, Medieval Festival for sixth graders, the festival of 8th grade theatre projects), others bring the teachers together (at the Waldorf teachers' seminar which travels from one school to another during the school year, and also at Ukrainian conferences and congresses).

But ... Black Thursday, 24th February 2022 ...

All at once, plans, thoughts and hopes were thrown overboard. Ukrainian colleagues (teachers from all Waldorf schools) had already started to look for a beautiful place at the Black Sea for the Ukrainian Waldorf Olympics. An old castle in the west of Ukraine was ready to invite our sixth graders for the medieval festival. Pupils were rehearsing their class plays, the graduates were thinking about beautiful dresses for farewell parties. Some schools invested money in school renovations, others in new gyms, garden projects, schoolyards.

Yes! We had a normal life! Class trips, art projects, new kindergarten groups ... We built, we planned, we hoped ...

Because we didn't quite realise the real situation and we rejected the idea that this could also happen to us and our country. The first thing everyone did was to pack up the children and run away! Where to flee to? What to take with them? How to travel? Who should one meet? 

Some cities were attacked on the very first day (Kyiv, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhya), and the buildings of schools and kindergartens became places of refuge for the local people. So some teachers (not only Waldorf teachers), helped to organise the children's lives in the basements of the schools, or give educational support in the classrooms when the sirens weren’t wailing. Some teachers cooked in the school kitchens for the city guard or knitted camouflage nets for the armed forces. Some educators volunteered by collecting medicine, weapons and money for the Ukrainian armed forces. Some of our teachers went to the border to defend the country.

So far, between 60% and 80% of the families from the schools and kindergartens have left their homes. Some crossed the borders of Ukraine; others went to the west of Ukraine. Our schools and kindergartens are now scattered all over Europe. Mothers with their children had to leave their husbands, brothers and elderly parents and to continue their lives in other countries, in foreign languages, in the homes of relatives or Waldorf friends. Some families who could not leave with their relatives rented flats in western Ukraine and have been trying to make a living there.

After the initial shock had passed, the teachers began to adapt the learning process. The main task now is to provide psychological support to the children. Communication with their teachers and classmates became a "bridge" to a peaceful life, to the school community, the hometown and the motherland. Waldorf teachers actively use various online platforms to help children and young people stay in the rhythm of the curriculum. Some teachers have opened Telegram channels inviting students from all over Ukraine. Teachers from several schools joined forces and created a common timetable for each grade that is taught online. Teachers make videos, record stories, or even birdsong, and send pictures. Kindergarten teachers make little videos with spring crafts and finger games, and record songs and fairy tales.

The children communicate in chats, telling teachers and classmates about their lives and sharing their thoughts, experiences and photos. Parents report that the children sometimes ask to repeat the recordings several times to hear the voice of the teacher they love.

Some schools and kindergartens in Ukraine are still partly supported by the state, others rely on parents' money. But many families can no longer pay school fees, or only a minimal amount, because they have had to flee or have lost their jobs. We received news from some families about destroyed homes due to military action. As a result, some schools have lost all funding, and many teachers have lost their livelihoods.

Recently, we received news from the teaching staff of the small Kyiv public school, Borysphen (88 students, 38 staff and 120 parents): "We were all forced to leave our homes because the school and most of our families live in the north-western part of Kyiv, which is on the border or even on the battlefront itself ... But the existence of our school and the community of teachers is one of the reasons for our teachers and families to keep going, giving us strength to fight."

A letter from the school in Kharkiv (6 classes, 109 pupils, 15 teachers) says: "We know for sure that all teachers, pupils and their families are very much looking forward to returning to Ukraine, to the walls of their home school, for which we pray every day".

The public school ASTR in Odessa (the oldest Waldorf school in Ukraine, with 108 students and 25 staff) doubts that it will survive: "Nobody can guess what will happen next. But if the situation continues to deteriorate and parents and children do not return to the school, we will have to start all over again. We might lose our school building because we have no money for rent. Now people are thinking about saving their lives and not investing in business or education. We don't want to lose the school, which has existed for more than 30 years, for lack of money, but apart from the parents we have no one to support the school."

Kyiv Sophia Waldorf School (20 classes, 425 students, 47 teachers) reports that, "the 11th grade students were in a special situation. The war immediately made them adults, so many of them focused on volunteering, or supporting their families and friends. And those who went abroad faced the task of adapting to a new environment. All this requires a lot of mental and physical strength. At the same time, they are preparing for universities with the help of various learning platforms. We have also offered them help in the form of counselling and a range of classes on specific topics. But the most important things for the children and young people across all the classes are the human encounters (albeit online), and the conversations of mutual support during this tough time. They give us all the strength to live and work."

The tiny Waldorf initiative (3 classes, 12 pupils, 9 staff), in the small town of Horodenka in western Ukraine has become the only place where schooling has not yet stopped! Families from all over Ukraine - especially from the highly vulnerable areas in the east - found shelter there. This small school took in refugee children. The Waldorf teachers from different towns began to organise lessons for the grades that did not yet exist there. They passed on their experience to their younger colleagues. They even decided to organise a Waldorf teacher training to which all teachers are invited.

The entire world is now united around Ukraine. We are incredibly grateful for every family that gives food and shelter to our families, for every school that opens its classes to our students and for every person who gives a friendly hand to the people from Ukraine. We are also grateful for the financial support given to Ukrainian schools to help them survive.

Teachers, parents and children are full of hope that the situation in Ukraine will change for the better and that we can return. Some of the schools have already announced the opening of the first classes for the next school year.

The schools are living and bearing the coming challenges of our common destiny.

Olena Mezentseva, 15th April 2022

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