Skip to main content
Paulina Galat stands in front of her classroom
Top Issues

How Teachers Stepped Up to Help Ukrainian Refugees

Members of Teach For Poland and other Teach For All programs pivoted from their regular academic programs to support children and other refugees fleeing the war in the Eastern European nation.

August 24, 2022
Brendan Lowe headshot

Brendan Lowe

Contributing Writer

Brendan Lowe headshot

Brendan Lowe

Contributing Writer

After Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, about 500 school-age children who had fled the country eventually enrolled at Teach For Poland partner schools. Thirty of them ended up in Paulina Galat’s classroom at a K-8 school in Warsaw.

Galat, a first-year teacher, had to tackle teaching Polish history to Ukrainian students who experienced the terrors of war and, while hundreds of miles from home, were uncertain about the fates of their friends and loved ones. Galat wondered how she would reach them. 

“In the beginning, I thought that the biggest problem would be communication,” Galat said. “I don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian, and they don’t speak Polish.”

That wasn’t her only challenge. At the time, she already had about 270 students who were still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. Poland also has a test-heavy education system.

Administrators relaxed a policy on mobile phone use, which enabled students to use the Google Translate app during the school day. Galat also tracked down books in Ukrainian about Polish history, drew on her familiarity with the Cyrillic alphabet, and sought to build goodwill by organizing a day when students wore blue and yellow clothes—the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

“Now I think Ukrainian children feel very well in our school, and other children from Poland really try to include them,” Galat said.

Karolina Kaniowska stands in front of her classroom. ©Tomek Kaczor

Galat is part of the inaugural cohort of Teach For Poland, a program similar to Teach For America, which is designed to bring agents of change into the education system. Teach For Poland, which began operating in 2021, is part of Teach For All, a global network of 61 independent partner organizations that recruit and develop leaders to teach in their nation’s under-resourced schools.. Teach For All was co-founded by Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp and has programs around the world, including in Ukraine and some nearby nations.

More than 12 million Ukrainian families have left their homes, and nearly 4 million of them have registered in European countries, according to data from the United Nations. Ukraine’s leaders required nearly all men between the ages of 18-60 to remain in the country, so the vast majority of refugees were women and children. As of Aug. 2, more than 1.2 million Ukrainian refugees have been recorded in Poland, according to U.N. data.   

After the Russian invasion, with guidance from Teach For All, the network’s members pivoted from their regular program plans to develop ways to support Ukrainian refugees in the region. Some Ukrainian women had worked as educators or could help out in schools because they speak Ukrainian. 

Many displaced Ukrainian students have continued to attend their home school through e-learning, but hundreds of thousands of others have enrolled in the public schools of the countries where they’ve settled, sending educators there scurrying to find ways to support them.

Offering Essentials for Living and Consistent Support 

Leaders of Teach for Poland quickly gathered the program’s 17 teachers online to provide context on what led to the war and guidance on how to answer students’ questions. Then the teachers received an online resource guide covering topics from translating documents to supporting students who have experienced trauma. Teach For Poland has also helped Ukrainian educators get new jobs.

Some teachers and staff members also worked on their own to support students from Ukraine. Marta Michalska, a school psychologist, bought a student a pair of shoes. English teacher Karolina Kaniowska brought English-language books from her home and, with her principal’s permission, set up a makeshift bookshelf in the hallway for students to take the books they want.

Get more articles like this delivered to your inbox.

The monthly ‘One Day Today’ newsletter features our top stories, delivered straight to your in-box.

Alexis Ramos (New York City ’13), who coaches first-year teachers, drove supplies to the border and welcomed refugees to stay at her home. 

She learned Polish as a foreign language and used that experience to help the teachers she coaches empathize with—and adjust their instruction for—students from Ukraine. 

“It was a lot of going back to the basic techniques that you would use in any (English as a Second Language) classroom in our case,” Ramos said, “a lot of making sure you have routines, making sure you’re checking for understanding, making sure you’re using a lot of visuals, and that you’re consistent every time with what you’re using.”

Teach For All has played a coordinating role to help Teach For Poland and other members support Ukrainian students, marshaling resources and facilitating information-sharing about similar situations that have played out in other parts of the world. For example, Teach For Poland teachers and staff accessed workshops and resources from Teach For All, which has one staff member devoted to education in emergencies and another focused on trauma-sensitive practices. Teach For All also offered case studies of partner organizations that have responded to large numbers of refugee students—Ecuador and Lebanon, for instance—as well as partners who have been impacted by armed conflict in Afghanistan and Armenia. 

Teach For All’s first priority when the war started, however, was to make contact with and support the Teach For Ukraine team, said Abby Huston, who has led Teach For All’s Europe region since 2013. Many schools in Ukraine reopened a few weeks after the war broke out, and Teach For Ukraine teachers continued their instruction, some in-person and some remotely. Teach For All looked for housing options for displaced staff members and worked to get medical supplies into the country. 

“I think we all feel so united that whatever we can do, even if it’s outside of our core mission, that’s what we’re here to do, to help in whatever way,” Huston said. 

Creating an International Support System for Teachers and Ukrainian Students

Teach For All organized calls between the Teach For Ukraine CEO Oksana Matiiash and her peers at other programs. Other CEOs offered to reallocate their budgets to support Teach For Ukraine. Matiiash brought on-the-ground pictures and shared information she received from the Ukrainian Ministry of Education so they could rally support locally. She also shared the story of Yulia Zdanowska, a Teach For Ukraine fellow who was killed by a Russian bomb while volunteering in her home city of Kharkiv. She was 21.

Across the network, partners took the information shared by Matiiash to help better serve Ukrainian students and families. Teach For Bulgaria translated resources from Teach For Ukraine and posted them online to support teachers across the country. A Teach For Romania alum opened a youth center to serve 200 Ukrainian students. 

The progress of Ukrainian students in Poland has been hard-earned. Before her principal assigned her 25 students from Ukraine across grades four through six, Teach For Poland teacher Kasia Chamienia did not speak Ukrainian and had only been to Ukraine once, as a camp counselor. But Chamienia had experience teaching Polish as a foreign language, and she took on the challenge, even though it meant she was teaching 29 hours a week instead of the typical 18.

“I did not run away,” she said.

She acknowledged the challenges were significant. Ukrainian students came and went as families decided to return to Ukraine or settle elsewhere. Those that stayed were not sure how long they would remain.

Nevertheless, with support from her Teach For Poland coach, Chamienia persisted. She volunteered to be the Ukrainian students’ homeroom teacher, and she found ways to forge relationships and teach the Polish language. 

“It can be done,” she said. 

Want to help? Support Teach For Ukraine’s emergency response projects

The photos in this story were supported by the Pulitzer Center.

We want to hear your opinions! To submit an idea for an Opinion piece or offer feedback on this story, visit our Suggestion Box.

Sign up to receive articles like this in your inbox!

Thanks for signing up!