Outside the Box: I was a teacher in Ukraine, and I am scared for my students and worried about their survival
I am an American who lived and worked in Ukraine from 2018
until a few weeks ago.
Here are some of the experiences that my
students, from college kids to young adults, are going through:
• A mother had a birthday party for her son in the basement while
bombs rained down on their city.
• A man went to bed in the midst of gunfire and explosions for the
second time in his life, after previously living in a war zone in
• A family of four, including a two-year-old girl, slept in a train
station with little cash and no food. They had dropped everything
and gotten out of Kyiv as fast as they could, but they couldn’t find
housing in the city to which they fled. It was below freezing.
• A woman and 10 of her friends and acquaintances bolted west and
are living in an apartment that is meant for two people. She has a
couple changes of clothes because she had an hour to pack up her
entire life and run from the bombings. They consider themselves
• A young couple ran through gunfire to get to a bomb shelter.
• Middle school students gathered in a gym to handweave cloth for
I first went to Ukraine after graduating from college as a volunteer with
the United States Peace Corps, teaching English to middle- and high-schoolers.
After my service ended, I continued to teach English online,
mostly to IT professionals. Before the Russian invasion I was living in
the western region of Zakarpattia, in a town just three miles from
Ukraine’s border with Slovakia. I was lucky to be able to evacuate
Ukraine quickly and seamlessly, which can’t be said for the majority of
my students, many of whom live in the eastern part of the country and
instantly began facing the bombings and shellings.
I have worked with these people for the past two years, and I teach
each of them between one and three times a week. In that time, I have
had hundreds of conversations with them and gotten to know them deep down.
Most of them speak English quite well and work for international
IT companies as programmers, designers and project managers. They are
part of the bustling cohort of young techies in Ukraine who are either
permanently working at home or occasionally commuting to modern
offices with a coffee bar, beanbag chairs and a ping pong table. It’s that kind
Now, instead of starting their workday whenever they please, they
are jolted awake by sirens, if they are getting any sleep at all. Now,
instead of dealing with routine issues like work/life balance and
budgeting for vacations, they are running for their lives.
Many have made it out of the battlefields of Kharkiv, which has
been leveled by missiles over the past few days, but most of my students
still are east of Kyiv. I am scared for them and deeply worried about
their survival. Now, instead of talking with them about everyday topics,
I message them to see if they are alive.
I knew that war existed. In the past, whenever I read about
tragedies in faraway places, I tended to feel terrible for a few minutes
and then go about my day. War seemed such a distant thing, mostly
because it was. Many young Americans like me have never had to think
about it as a possibility, and with this privilege we go about life without
understanding the horror that war brings.
I am unable to do that now, and I feel ashamed that I ever could.
War is reality-bending and all-encompassing in the worst way possible,
even for the people in relatively safer positions. Many of my students are
dealing with life-and-death decisions on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter
who you were before or what you did for a living, because there is no
escape from the tragedy of your country being destroyed.
Some are trying to continue their jobs to escape the madness as
much as possible, while some can’t focus on anything but the news. As
for me, all I can do is pray that my students can make it to safety in the
west — much farther west than they currently are. I’ll keep messaging
them every other day until that happens. Maybe then our lessons can
Robert Minton is a teacher, former Peace Corps volunteer and
the author of “Slipping on the Ice: A Collection of Stories From a Peace
Corps Ukraine Volunteer.” He currently lives in Prague.