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«Children feel they are being deprived of their future.» Confessions of Russian school teachers

On February 28, teachers in Russian schools started receiving methodological materials with lesson plans on the war in Ukraine. They justify the need for a «military operation» against the «fascist state» and contain prepared answers to possible questions from schoolchildren, in the spirit of Maria Zakharova and Margarita Simonyan. In some schools, teachers are directly prohibited from talking to children about the war via online work chats. Some schools allow it, but only if the teacher supports Putin's actions. The Insider talked to teachers about pressure in schools, teacher ethics, and how children react to what is going on.

ALL CARDS
  • Natalia (name changed), English teacher, Moscow

  • Svetlana, a computer science teacher at the Physics and Technology School Lyceum in Obninsk

  • Elena (name changed), English teacher

  • Kristina, biology teacher, Moscow

  • Olga, biology teacher at a private school in the Sverdlovsk region

Natalia (name changed), English teacher, Moscow

I took the news of the beginning of the war as a personal tragedy. It was as if a family member has been diagnosed with a terrible disease and you realize there's nothing you can do. There is endless pain inside, and you have to live with this pain every day, communicate with your child and go to work. I work as an English teacher at a school. On February 24, during the third lesson, it was reported via the online school chat that we were all forbidden to talk to the children about the «special operation», except for two teachers. Those two posted in the chat that everything would be okay. They said they fully supported the president, for he knew what he was doing. And so those individuals were officially permitted to explain to the children what was going on.

Many children, thanks to their families at home, understand what is really going on in Ukraine. One boy said he wanted to get a Ukrainian language textbook because he was worried about the Ukrainians and the only thing he could do was learning their language. The second child asked how it was at all possible: after all, there are so many examples of terrible wars in history, how can you start a new one.

The seventh graders, to whom I teach English, were very active in asking about my position on the war. I explained that I couldn't talk to them about it. They really wondered: why is everyone afraid, why can't they just say their opinion? They think that if you keep silent, this war won't end. Some of the children felt very sad. They ask why they should go to school at all, study foreign languages and world literature, if they are about to live in a place completely isolated from the rest of the world.

Children ask why they should go to school at all, study foreign languages and world literature, if they are about to live in a place completely isolated from the rest of the world.

They are already feeling the effects of this war. In international online games, they have begun to be kicked out of games and banned because they speak or correspond in Russian. They feel that something is happening now that could deprive them of the future they would like to have. I tell them to study and otherwise get distracted. I have not stated my position, but I will not shut them up and forbid them to talk about the war and its consequences among themselves in any way. I was eager to listen to their reasoning.

It's very difficult for me to work. You have to be focused and positive when you teach a class. I have to smile and give some knowledge, and when answering questions I have to maneuver to avid stating my position directly. It is very hard to get endless messages from friends who abandon everything and urgently leave for Armenia or Turkey, while I am teaching a class in a Russian school.

Before March 8, we had a corporate party at our school: we had pizza, cake, all that stuff. I sat with a colleague and told her it was like a feast during the plague. We are living a kind of quiet and peaceful life, but what we feel inside is only pain and fear, and worrying both for ourselves and for those who are sitting in bomb shelters.

If Russia suddenly runs out of equipment, it will invent its own iPhones, and everything will be fine.

But the bulk of my colleagues at school take the situation for granted. For them the situation is not at all tragic. «If Russia suddenly runs out of high tech equipment, it will invent its own iPhones, and everything will be fine.» The general mood among the work collective is quite optimistic. They go on living like they're used to. The class supervisors held special explanatory lessons for the students. I don't supervise a class, I was lucky not to participate.

But we were all sent a link to materials for the nationwide lesson. This is something that can be shown and explained to the children. I was able to refuse, no one can make me do it in our school, at least as long as I only teach certain disciplines without class supervision. I know from colleagues in the regions that class supervisors were ordered to hold special lessons based on the materials provided.


Svetlana, a computer science teacher at the Physics and Technology School Lyceum in Obninsk

Despite the fact that ours is a public school, there were no strict instructions or even mild recommendations on how to communicate with children about the war. Of course, we don't walk away from conversations if kids start them. We sincerely talk about our worries, our pain and anxieties. My mother left Donbas fleeing from the war and ended up in Shostka, Sumy region; she now lives to the sound of air-raid alarms. I call Ukraine every day and it's heartbreaking that they have no food or medicine. I'm scared for my loved ones. And I really want it to be over soon. This is what I tell my children.

I'm scared for my loved ones. And I really want it to be over soon. That's what I tell my children.

There's no fighting at school and there's no division into insiders and outsiders. Now both teachers and children are very busy preparing for exams.

Elena (name changed), English teacher

When the war started, it was as if a glass dome was put over me and no emotions were let out, and nothing penetrated inside. It was as if my body took some kind of pause and went into self-preservation mode. I went to work on automatic. This was my reaction to severe stress - to continue living my daily life, as usual. There were no reactions or conversations at school. In the school chat the principal wrote: «Stay calm, everything will be resolved in the end. Our school is separated from politics and religion. We don't talk about it at school, we don't engage in any discussions, kids don't ask, we don't tell them anything.

We do not talk about it at school, we don't engage in any discussions, kids don't ask, we don't tell them anything.

It has always been that way, we do not react to any situations in the country or the world, at least in our school. Our goal is to teach the children and to keep our cool. The children have parents who probably discuss things with them. We do not feel any pressure from the school administration. We are doing our job. Our task is to get the children in the mood for exams, they are already nervous about them.

Kristina, biology teacher, Moscow

Last year, when there were rallies in support of Alexei Navalny in Russia, our teachers were promptly notified via online work chats that we were supposed to converse with the children explaining to them «it was bad to go to rallies.» I agree that schoolchildren should not attend rallies or meetings, but the pressure was enormous. We used to get those kinds of messages about once a week, or even more often. It was unpleasant. I was repeatedly summoned to the principal's office because of the children discussing and joking about the political situation after my lessons; the principle blamed me for organizing a rally, for social media reposts.

I quit school at the beginning of January precisely because of this pressure. But when Russia started a war in Ukraine, a colleague of mine called me and told me in confidence that some of the teachers at the school had received a manual they had to read out to the children in each class before the beginning of the lesson. It was a text describing the situation and providing answers to possible questions.

It shocked me, and I was once again convinced that I had no desire to work in a public school under the current system. There is, of course, much talk about current events among the teaching staff. But there is also a rule that a teacher must be apolitical. Many children complain to me that teachers often share their political views, even during lessons. That should not be the case in the educational process. The children's psyche is not wholly shaped, they do not have their own point of view, so they soak up all the information that is presented to them like sponges.

After I learned about the manual, I asked the children on social media how those lessons were being presented. Some of them said that the teachers explained to them the benefits of the «special operation in Ukraine,» saying that this was the right thing to do and that the Russian military was doing a great job. I know of one case when after such a lesson a child described it to his parents, and his mother called the school administration asking why this was happening at all.

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I worry a lot. And I am also afraid because of the information environment the students find themselves in. I hear different things about teachers openly demonstrating their political stance. Some of them support the actions of the Russian troops, and there are those who criticize them. Some read the methodological materials and broadcast them to the children, some ignore them. I still think that no political stance should be broadcast to children. I can't influence that. But I'm glad I took the hard decision and left school. I couldn't look kids in the eye and answer their questions, I couldn't lie to them. And if I had told them my position, it could have had a negative effect on them.

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If I worked at a school right now and they brought me those materials, I would certainly go to the school principal and demand a written order that required me to read them to the students. Had I been presented with an official document from the Ministry of Education, I would have attempted to somehow argue against it.

Today's school students are avid users of social media. And the flow of information they get from Instagram and TikTok is much more powerful than any manuals. And we shouldn't forget about their families - all these events are being discussed at home, too. Quite a few of my students are conscious citizens. They can make connections and draw conclusions. Especially the older students. They can think critically, and I hope that, even if we fail, they will make Russia happy.

Olga, biology teacher at a private school in the Sverdlovsk region

I found out about the start of the war on the road. I started getting messages from friends and acquaintances, and at first I didn't really understand what it was about. And then I opened the news, flipped through the feed and could not believe what I was seeing. I'm even a little glad that the news caught me in mid-trip, that I had some time off, and was able to mentally prepare for returning to work and to order my thoughts.

Our job as teachers is to look firm and grownup in front of the kids. Overall, there is a lot of work at our school, and we are busy doing it, not talking about politics, and it has always been that way.

We have long agreed with our colleagues and the school administration not to broadcast our political views to the children. Under a certain age a child forms an opinion based on your personality rather than your arguments, and he or she cannot objectively assess your views. Children can pose any follow-up questions on terminology to teachers of relevant disciplines (e.g., social studies teachers), but we've decided to refrain from broadcasting our political worldview. We have not received any methodological manuals. There has been a very odd recommendation to hold classes on the history of the people's republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, but a recommendation is not an order.

The moods at school vary. Among my colleagues there are those whose family and friends are now in the war zone. It's scary. We will simply try to support one another. Of course, there are also colleagues with a different point of view, who support the policy of the Russian Federation. I've just seen their social media posts. They support the government policy, and my position is different, but I see no reason to act unprofessionally and despise those persons. Ours is a small private school, and the feuds and conflicts within the team will interfere with the implementation of our main goal - providing education. Those colleagues do not broadcast their point of view to the children, and that's what matters most.

Children understand there is a war going on. They know where to look for information and they are in roughly the same environment as we are. They do not ask direct questions. As a methodologist, I've been asking them whether the teachers share their political views in class. My job is to stay informed.

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