Teaching as Resistance: Ukrainian Educators Reflect on Their Role in Wartime

Ukraine in Focus

Mariia Shuvalova is a Kyiv-based literary scholar and lecturer. She is a PhD Candidate at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, where she teaches Academic Writing and specialized courses (“Rethinking Donbas: Literature, Cinema, and Visual Art” in cooperation with the University of Giessen). At The International Baccalaureate Program of Swiss International Boarding School Lyceum Alpinum Zuoz, she teaches online seminars on Ukrainian literature. She is also a guest lecturer at Oberlin College (USA) (“Art as a Witness in Eastern Europe,, “20th-Century Ukrainian Literature and Film”).  

“There is a Future”: The Shock of the Full-Scale Invasion and Getting Back to the Classroom

I remember that when the war broke out on 24 February, everyone was trying to figure out what to do next. Already in March, I received an email from Mohylianka [Kyiv-Mohyla Academy] notifying us to get back to the online classroom. This was a great stress and shock. I had no idea how to go on with my regular duties, because when such a traumatic moment occurs, you can't just go back to doing what you were doing before. You must rethink everything: for example, what your teaching means now. The situation at the frontline and in the country overall was not the best at that time, so we wondered why we were going to university at all. There was a very strong feeling that this was not important, and why waste time on it when we all should be fundraising. And almost all my colleagues had a feeling of: “Why are we doing this?” But then, we all concluded that it was very important for students and for us too to understand that there is a future, that we are returning to the educational process so that students can graduate this year and enter the next one, so that they have a future. 

When we got together for the first time with the students, many of them were crying, sharing their emotions, and telling us their latest news, and that of their families (some students were from Donetsk and Luhansk regions). We felt that it was really good to be together like this, and we all decided that we would work. It doesn't matter what we do today: maybe we spend half the lesson collecting money or things for those students who lost their homes, for example, and have no clothes or money to buy food; and then maybe we do some work during the other half of the lesson... But the important thing is that we work to ensure that we have a future. This was probably a stage of psychological adaptation, and after that there was more of a methodological adaptation when we tried to figure out what worked best, how to use our time efficiently and what tools were useful.  

As part of distance learning, we had a small chat room where we could upload documents and discuss things. I remember very early in the morning, at 9 a.m. on 24 February, everyone was discussing in that chat whether we would have a class, what would happen, and so on. One of our students, Bohdan, wrote that he was already in line at the military registration and enlistment office: “Don't worry. I am the son of a Ukrainian soldier, and I am also going to defend all of you, so everything will be fine because I am going to the front.” This was such a heartbreaking moment to realize that your students are going to defend you. Bohdan is also very young, only 18 years old at that time. He is extremely kind and polite. His biggest ambition is to become the President of Ukraine, and the two issues he cares about the most are gender equality and the environment. Bohdan is such a sweet, pure, and bright young man. His message, his mood on the morning of 24 February is one of those moments that shaped my response to this war: if Bohdan is protecting me, then we have to be here and protect Bohdan and do everything we can. 

Materiality of Teaching: Blackouts, Generators, and “Punkty Nezlamnosti”  

 It was great to work with students, but since we had constant blackouts, I had to first find a gas station with electricity or go to Epicenter [hardware supermarket]. At that time, there were not so many facilities that had generators or punkty nezlamnosti [“Unbreakable Centers”, state-sponsored shelters where people can stay warm, charge phones, use electricity, etc.]. That’s why we went to our friends’ dacha that had a small generator. Outside the city, the internet is supplied via fiber optic cables, so there is internet access even in the absence of electricity. There was a potbelly stove and a very weak gasoline generator, which only provided enough energy to power a router. We would throw firewood into the stove, like in old times, and work like this for a week.  

One week was enough for businesses to adapt to the new conditions, and I rented a spot in the hallway in one of the business centers in Kyiv. The office center near my apartment procured generators and Starlinks that weren’t available for home use. They realized that they could rent out office space to different companies and there was a great demand for it. In addition, the business center had a bomb shelter, where they allowed people to bring family members for free. Overall, it was an interesting experience to try to work while sitting in the hallway with dogs, but it was still better than at the gas stations. However, on New Year’s Eve, I was planning to go to the office but changed my mind and went instead to my parents’ place. On that very day, a missile hit nearby, and all the windows in the office were blown out. Everyone went downstairs to the bomb shelter, but unfortunately two people were killed not far from where the missile hit.  

Russia’s Terror and How One Gets Used to It  

You do not adapt to teaching in a new environment, you adapt to the war. The war has different phases because the enemy analyzes what is happening and what you get used to. All of us who continue to work and live in Ukraine, we simply find our role in this war. We join the resistance, we take concrete steps every day that bring us closer to the future we want, and we feel a sense of belonging to a community with which we are moving forward together. We feel solidarity and agency, and we don't feel overwhelmed or like we can’t change anything: we know that we have a choice and that our actions matter in the long run. 

But there is enormous pressure on the civilian population from the Russian Federation as a result of the use of terror against civilians. After all, the shelling of civilian infrastructure and universities is primarily designed to make us surrender: to stop donating, doing our job, to become so desperate that we start calling on Russia for “peace.”   

The blackouts served as very strong psychological and physical terror of the civilian population. Just as we had adapted to the realities of working under shelling, the enemy began to target civilian infrastructure. What did it look like? All winter long, no heating, you are constantly cold. The electricity works only for a few hours, you eat either cold or raw food all the time, you don’t get the vitamins you need. And it was very clever of Russia, once we had adapted and got some kind of stable supply of light, electricity, and internet, to start targeting, for example, the sewerage system in Kyiv. Because then the toilet doesn’t work, you can’t use the co-working space, and your elevators don’t work, so you have to walk down from the seventh floor to get water. In addition, there is shelling every night. Imagine a situation where you live in the cold, without hot food, without stable mobile communication, you don’t know what is happening to your parents, you are cut off from the information space, and you don’t sleep every night because every day at 2 and 4 a.m. you run to the basement because the Shaheds [Iranian drones] are flying overhead. You hear a drone and you run to the basement. You get no sleep, and this goes on for a few months. 

And in addition to this, Russia began to spread narratives through different social media apps: “Ukrainians, have dignity, go to the Maidan, protest against your government, Russia will give you everything.” To make it seem as if these messages were coming from the Ukrainian side, they were disseminating them in Ukrainian, not Russian. It was very funny because the translation did not make any sense, and everyone understood where it was coming from.  

So, in these conditions, when there is so much pressure, the only way to get the upper hand over your enemy is to keep working. This really drives you: to do your job at a gas station or wherever. But this is when you know that you have a choice. When the enemy tries to break you down and demoralize you, you break down and demoralize your enemy in such a way. For example, when they frightened us with the prospect of a nuclear strike, Ukrainians were joking that they would celebrate the end of the world with an orgy on Mount Shchekavytsia.  

Continuing education is simply a way to resist high pressure and terror, to demoralize our enemy. That is why we are doing all this. As for institutional adaptation, just as we are flexible with our students, the administration is flexible with us. I have the option to take part in faculty meetings or just read the minutes. It’s not well paid, and you have to pay the bills. Many people were forced to go to work at foreign universities or to take commercial work.  

Thinking about money is another challenge in addition to the psychological, physiological, intellectual, and administrative ones. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, I went to work in the publishing sector, and this allowed me to pay my bills and stay in Ukraine. In general, I think this is a positive experience because it is unique: to immerse yourself in a different field and in a different context, and then, when the need to work multiple jobs and wear multiple hats is over, you will have a unique perspective on both education and your specialization. This is a comforting thought in these difficult times when you can’t do as much research as your colleagues abroad. 

There is a term called “trauma-education,” and it is used in our educational process now. We are not the only ones who are living through this experience, and these are not the last difficult events in our lives and in the lives of other countries. I really like Sasha Dovzhyk's text, “Ukraine Lab: Lessons from the Frontlines,” in which she writes that Ukraine is a laboratory. Despite the fact that we are losing a lot, Ukraine and Ukrainian educators can offer solutions to a number of problems in the world. Therefore, for me, as an educator, it is a priority to work in Ukraine, because it is an extremely valuable experience that is not available anywhere else. 

Ukrainian Scholars in the Global Academic Community: Advantages and Pitfalls  

I finished my education not so long ago, so I can say that my generation has already had quite a lot of connections and communication at the institutional level; we have always felt part of this global context. I like this communication because it is, first, the exchange of knowledge. It adds value to both Ukrainian and foreign academics. I would like to work on making Ukrainian academics perceive invitations less as charity, and instead to understand that foreign universities benefit greatly from cooperation with them, because in this way they solve the crisis in their expertise and broaden their horizons. 

But we can also come across situations where Ukrainian academics are not paid on the same level as others, and this cooperation takes place on very unfavorable terms, for example, with regard to copyright or intellectual property rights, meaning that Ukrainian academics are used as a resource. And in such a situation, it is our task to set these boundaries, to negotiate our terms, and to overcome the inferiority complex. This is what I constantly say to both my colleagues and foreign partners. On the other hand, such creative experience, unregulated and decentralized, is very Ukrainian, and I am sure that over time it will change the type of cooperation between many foreign institutions. In general, the crisis of expertise concerns not only Ukraine, but the whole of Eastern Europe, even all the eastern regions. 

Educators like us from Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and other Eastern countries need to unite and have our own associations to overcome this crisis on a global level. I think that Ukrainians have a key role to play here, because they are the people who are now the focus of the world’s attention, who have a voice, and they should speak for those whose voices are not so clearly heard. These are prospects that will have a positive impact not only for Ukraine but for the entire region. 

Again, the role of empathetic science is clearly seen here, and when you find yourself in the situation that Ukrainian researchers are in now, you realize how much a new perspective on research ethics is lacking, and this is not just a country-specific problem –– it is a global problem. With this experience, we can help solve some of the systemic problems that exist in the world today, and thanks to our international work experience and contacts, we can take a seat at the table where these problems are being solved.