Interview 27. The value of freedom. Svitlana Stelmakh
Educator from Kherson Svitlana Stelmakh tells how Russia instills unfreedom in the occupied territories and why issues of identity and emotional intelligence should become the center of Ukrainian education.
For teachers in the occupied regions of Ukraine, education has become a front in the literal sense. Because the education of children according to Ukrainian curricula in conditions of hostilities, constant surveillance and raids is risky for life and health. This is what Svitlana Stelmakh, a teacher of Ukrainian history, jurisprudence, and civics education, deputy director of training and educational work at the Kherson Academic Lyceum named after O. V. Mishukov, tells us. Mrs. Svitlana and her colleagues conducted lessons, despite physical and moral pressure and supported children and the community in general. According to Ms. Svitlana, in the future, Ukrainian educators should pay much more attention to those subjects that develop the identity of young people and their psychological and physical training.
The Main Lesson
This war opened the core of every person, every state. The war swept away everything superficial, the masks we wore. If a person was honest, now they have become even more honest. If they were merciful, then mercy was manifested in all their actions. If a person was a coward, then their fear increased many times. If a person was a patriot, they are ready to give everything, so their state wins and the people endure.
I also look at the states. Ukraine has shown that the most significant value for us is freedom. Every Ukrainian does everything they can in the front where they work. russia also showed its true face – an empire, a totalitarian country, a country of lies and looters. It seems to me that now the knowledge of the truth is taking place. Everything that was hidden was revealed.
I was under occupation for two months. When I was leaving Kherson, I thought, what drives me so much? I understood that it was not fear, although it was also present, but the feeling of unfreedom. I was suffocated by the fact that I could not express my opinion or support what I liked. I understood that they could take my phone and check my social media every minute. Every minute, the door of my house can be broken down, and my husband or I can be taken away for unknown reasons in an unknown direction. Because it happened to my neighbors and acquaintances, it happened all the time.
After leaving, the feeling that I was free was the strongest. When I came to our territory, and saw the guys from the Armed Forces of Ukraine, I cried with happiness. Now my most important value is freedom. I believe that I can contribute to the victory of my country – and do it freely, without turning to what it might end up being for my family and me.
They long for war
For a while, I hummed a line from the song “Do russians want war?” I understood that in their fake state, there is incredible cynicism – to sing that the russians do not want war, but in fact, their essence is aggression. I understood the depth of the moral decline of russia, which lies not only to other countries but also to itself and its citizens. Therefore, such a country is doomed to defeat; I have a deep hope that it will be so. russians want war; they crave it, this is a war country, and it has no right to exist.
I was suffocating from the feeling of unfreedom. Every minute, the door of my house could be broken down and me or my husband taken away for unknown reasons in an unknown direction.
To Lend a Shoulder
At the beginning of the war, most Kherson residents faced the fact that food had disappeared. That’s why there were 200-300 people in queues when you don’t even know what you’re waiting for. But people helped each other – with money and information, took the line. My husband and I took it upon ourselves to feed the dogs we made porridge for, fed them daily, and shared pet food with a neighbor.
When you help someone, it feels like you’re helping yourself. It became easier for me to live when I was busy with other people’s problems instead of my own. Find medicine for colleagues or refugees and help the children left in the orphanage – almost all of them were sick because they were sitting in the cold basement. We transferred money for medicine to my husband’s colleague in Odesa; he ran around local pharmacies and bought those medicines. Sometimes there was not enough money, and it was transferred to us by people we did not know personally and had never seen. I did not sleep at night; I wrote down the names of who ordered what, and my colleagues delivered help to people.
The Kherson community supported me. Acquaintances or strangers lent a shoulder in a difficult hour. For example, a neighbor brought us chicken eggs and fresh water when we ran out and gave us a place in his basement so we could sit together. I think this is the feeling of a real community.
The Most Valuable Gift
Actions inspire me – when I write, call or transfer money to volunteers, the Armed Forces of Ukraine, for medicine. When I wasn’t busy with that, I was reading. I think I read more than 50 books during the first months of the war. I really like to cook, and I enjoyed cooking with what I had. Also, my family and three cats, which I consider family members, have become my resource; this is my downy support.
On March 8, I went to get my hair done, and I talked to the hairdresser about wanting to cook borscht. But I didn’t have some ingredients – beetroots and cabbage. And the hairdresser brought me a head of cabbage and ten small beetroots. It seemed to me that it was the most valuable gift I had ever received.
Now my native walls support me. Because I left for the city of Kryvyi Rih, where I was born and grew up, and started working as a teacher. Currently, I live in my mother’s apartment, and every wall and even the wallpaper that we glued together with my mother keep me here. It is very symbolic that I returned to my family and roots through great pain. In the same way, Ukraine is returning to itself and groping for its identity. It is very symbolic that my house is located on Victory Avenue – I am sure Ukraine will win.
With Risk to Life
When we were supposed to resume studying on March 14, I had many questions. How to teach the history of Ukraine, critical thinking, and civic education in the occupied territory? Online education involves unsecured access of students and their parents, and an outsider can log in under the student’s name. I realized that not all parents of students have a pro-Ukrainian position. It is dangerous for the teacher.
I talked about it with the administration of the lyceum, and we reached an understanding. We decided that we would work with links to video materials. Mathematics and physics teachers – of those subjects that do not have a social component – conducted classes live. I also taught classes for the first two days, but when the occupiers entered the city, the civics teachers switched to a consultation format. I worked in private chats, gave consultations, and used recorded videos.
I am very grateful to our director Halyna Volodymyrivna for the decision to start classes not in the morning but at 1:00 p.m. Because, as a rule, shelling happened most often in the morning. It was terrifying to conduct lessons under explosions every hour – such that the legs seemed crushed. One of my students was very nervous that she was on the eighth floor, that a Russian helicopter with a red star would fly into the apartment, and what should she do? It is not possible to conduct lessons in such a state. We all know that when a person is in danger, there is no question of learning. Because safety and life must come first. We started at 1 p.m. also because in the morning all the teachers were looking for food for their children. We had to survive and “hunt” for food.
There was a time when we were disconnected for a day or two. This also affected the quality of education, but we did everything possible to ensure that education was carried out according to our Ukrainian programs. I am sure that 99% of Kherson educators are true Ukrainian patriots, and I am proud of them because they worked on the educational front at the risk of their lives. There were cases when the occupiers visited colleagues at remote lessons, threatened teachers and children, and cursed obscenely. russia has brought its totalitarian system to the occupied territories because it does not know how to do anything else.
At the same time, teachers in Kherson were urged to participate in subotniks (communal works). I understand that it is necessary to maintain cleanliness and order. But forcing to clean the territory amid explosions and occupiers driving their APCs and providing photo reports – was a ridiculous decision. These subotniks are remnants of the Soviet system; forcing people to do this in conditions of occupation is a theater of the absurd.
There were cases when the occupiers visited colleagues at remote lessons, threatened teachers and children, and cursed obscenely. russia brought its totalitarian system to the occupied territories because it does not know how to do anything else.
Realize Your Identity
As an educator, I have thought a lot about what is right and wrong in our education. The state’s policy towards teaching history was wrong and exterminating. I don’t know if it was done deliberately, but one lesson of the history of Ukraine per week is nonsense that leads to the loss of our identity. It seems to me that after our victory, we should return to the fact that history is a strategic subject. It was not for nothing that the occupiers, having entered the Kherson region, first became interested in history textbooks and said that we were educating nationalists. But it is not so. We must raise children who are aware of their identity, feel their belonging to the nation, and can defend it. Therefore, the history of Ukraine, civic education, and critical thinking, which is absolutely absent in the education of the occupiers, can become the salvation for our children because they educate and develop essential competencies.
It hurt me to watch how the defense of the motherland was taught. I remembered my experience. When I studied at school, I took part in a training battle with tanks; I knew how to provide medical aid, and I had practical knowledge. I was convinced that I could defend myself at any moment. Now I feel defenseless. I understand that our children were absolutely not ready for war – neither psychologically nor physically. Someone is going through it with dignity, and someone is under tremendous stress and needs help. Military training for boys and girls should be mandatory. Students must remember that the aggressor state is next to us. I am sure that the war will end and we will win, but we must be ready to fight back at any moment if the aggressor pays attention to us again. It is necessary to prepare young people for this.
Priorities of Future Education
In the events of this war, I see many parallels with the Second World War. This is both Lend-Lease and the Marshall Plan for our recovery. Therefore, we need to overcome corruption, which harms our image and trust in us as partners of those donor states that help us. At the same time, it is necessary to talk about this war as a war of technologies. The security of our country depends on professionals working with these technologies.
Therefore, professionalism, values, and identity are keywords that should be heard not only at EdCamp events but also in educational work. In my opinion, teachers abroad should also pay attention to their nation’s identity, although many countries are now multinational. But the loss of one’s identity is the loss of the country, one’s borders, and one’s own security.
A vital initiative of EdCamp is the practice of resilience, the development of emotional intelligence. Providing psychological support to oneself and loved ones is an excellent competence to help maintain mental health. Many Ukrainians need and will need psychological help in the future. Therefore, emotional intelligence will be in the first place after the war. We must develop in children the self-regulation skills of their emotional state. There may be different situations in their life, and a person must be ready, know how to act, and provide support, psychological and physical.
I regret that we did not pay due attention to sports and the physical development of children. Now physical education and defense of the motherland are mega-important lessons. Sports, military, psychological, and historical skills should become the center of Ukrainian education.
The interview series My War. Lessons was prepared with financial support from the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation – a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ed Camp Ukraine and the Foundation.