International In Their Own Words

What a Teachers’ Union Leader Saw in Ukraine

By Madeline Will — October 12, 2022 4 min read
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten prepares to cross the border into Ukraine on Oct. 10.
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American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten traveled to Ukraine this week to meet with students and teachers, crossing the border from Poland into the war-torn country on Oct. 10—the day of the largest missile barrage in months.

Ukraine says Russia fired 83 cruise missiles on Monday and 28 on Tuesday, killing at least 19 people, wounding dozens more, and wreaking havoc in cities across the country. Weingarten was scheduled to visit schools in Lviv and donate children’s books and other school supplies on Tuesday but was unable to do so. She did, however, meet with educators and representatives from the Trade Union of Education and Science Workers of Ukraine.

From Lviv, Weingarten called Education Week to share her experience of the trip so far. During the conversation, Weingarten’s hotel lost power, and she spoke for the rest of the time by candlelight. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Because of the bombings in the last two days, all schools are back to being online, so our trips to the schools have been derailed. But what we’re seeing as a result is what people have gone through for the last seven months. It’s pretty inspiring to talk to teachers, which we did today from every region in the country—they came to Lviv, and we had a very long listening session about what teachers are trying to do.

One teacher said to me as we were sitting in a bunker, as we’re waiting for Russia to finish flying their long-range missiles, “May the skies over your school stay clear, and your school bells keep ringing.”

This is what Ukrainian teachers are doing. They are really trying to not just create a hopeful future of light and peace for Ukrainian kids, but they get that their future is the education of kids. They’re going to do everything they can, obviously, to survive but [also] to win the war and to create this kind of solidarity and safety net and education for kids.

It is pretty remarkable to have spent the day with teachers all across the country and not know whether we’d have to have the meeting this afternoon in a bunker or in a university. It just so happened that we were able to have the meeting in the university, but that resilience, that fortitude, and that sense that the future of the country depends on the education of students and ensuring that students are OK—at the same time as there’s a fight for self-determination—is really incredible. It sends a very powerful lesson about the importance of democracy, the importance of children’s futures, the importance of the adults fighting to ensure that children have a future, and here you have teachers doing that.

So what are we doing? We came for a couple of days to support them, just like we came for a couple of days in April to support and see what the Polish [teachers’] union and the Warsaw government and others had done to support Ukrainian refugees. We gave $100,000 to the Ukrainian union and to other efforts, including having summer camps for Ukrainian kids with several Polish organizations. And the money that we’ve given to them, they have used to create a computer lab and computer stations for their kids.

But they are in a live war zone with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin who is trying to take them over—he says that Ukrainians are Russian, but yet he will bomb them.

When you’re here, it’s clear that it’s a live war situation. You don’t have bombings going on every single minute, but there are real precautions that you have to take to be here. Teachers in Kharkiv and Kherson are doing online teaching with their kids at the same time as they are volunteering on the front. Teachers who are displaced, who are teaching in Lviv, are also doing online teaching with their kids in southern and eastern regions.

AFT President Randi Weingarten meets with educators and other representatives from the Trade Union of Education and Science Workers of Ukraine at the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv in Lviv, Ukraine.

We have a long history in our union of fighting for democracy and understanding education is key to that fight. We show up for people who are in the midst of egregious conflicts. We show up in the fight against racism; we show up in the fight for gay people’s equality; we show up for the fight against autocracy.

We’ve had a long relationship with the Polish unions and the Ukrainian unions, and they have asked us for months and months to come—not just to go to Poland, which we did in April, but to Ukraine. And we thought it was a safe time to come, but you see how things have changed. We spent a good long time yesterday trying to figure out if it was safe to [cross the border] or whether we would be a burden. And they really wanted us to be here.

And you could see why. The union came together today for representatives from across the country to really tell us their stories.

As we’re in the dark right now, I’m just very moved by the fact that they wanted us to be here, and they want to make sure that someone is bearing witness to the atrocities that the Russians are doing to them—simply because they want self-determination in their autonomy and not to be controlled by an overlord.

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