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A Ukrainian kindergarten teacher returns to the classroom

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Is a teacher with no students still a teacher? That is the question Iryna Sahan has been struggling with for 18 months. For more than three decades, she's taught kindergarten in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city that is regularly under artillery attacks from Russia. Her school and all the public schools in Kharkiv have been shut down since the Russian invasion in February of 2022. I met Sahan more than a year ago, and back then she took me to her beloved kindergarten that had been damaged by shelling.

Tell me a little bit about what it's like to be in this classroom. This isn't what you left in February.

IRYNA SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: All you see is the emptiness, Iryna Sahan tells me. All you hear is the silence. The last class of students she had - a group of 6-year-olds she nicknamed goldfish - the war spread them all over the world.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Back then, I could see their artwork still hanging in the classroom. There were a dozen African violets that they planted in the days before the invasion on a table, and there was Iryna Sahan, a teacher with no students.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I am stuck. I am waiting," she says. "Everything is on pause." This was all in January of 2023. I recently returned to Ukraine and to Kharkiv, and I couldn't resist visiting Iryna Sahan again. On a very cold Saturday in January, she was finally returning to a classroom of students...

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Non-English language spoken).

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: ...Happening deep in one of Kharkiv's underground metro stations.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: It was the first time she'd been in front of students in nearly two years. She and her co-workers at the kindergarten above ground had transformed the space, which overlooks the train platform. In it, there are colorful rugs and little desks, posters and pictures hung up on the walls.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in non-English language).

NADWORNY: The students sing together. They play Simon Says...

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: ...And get one-on-one attention from Sahan.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Sahan, focused and serious but clearly in her element, bends down to help a student with pigtails count the number of stars on a worksheet.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Good job," Sahan says with a big grin. At the end of the class in the underground, parents rushed to her to thank her. It's been so long, they said. Thank you for setting this up. Later, Sahan and I and our interpreter meet up to debrief.

Tell me what it felt like to be in a classroom again.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It was really emotional," she says, "meeting the new students for the first time, and a little scary..."

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "...Because it had been so long," she says, laughing.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "At the end," she said, "I felt like a truck had run me over. I was so tired. I nearly lost my voice."

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: She tells me this new group of students - their social skills, their reading skills - are really far behind. But she's already making a plan, thinking about what each child will need from her.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: She shows me her upcoming lessons, art projects and books. She's been getting ready for months.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: She spreads out a map of Ukraine...

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: ...Made of blue and yellow looped pieces of paper quilted together.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Next, she points to an extra-large jigsaw puzzle. Each piece is a region of the country. For every class, Iryna Sahan makes a group chat for parents.

Would you show us? I just wanted to see (ph).

SAHAN: (Through interpreter) Here, I can show you this one.

NADWORNY: There are already messages from parents saying how happy they are, which our interpreter, Hanna Palamarenko reads aloud for us.

HANNA PALAMARENKO: Some of the parents say we are very grateful to you.

NADWORNY: This new group also has a nickname.

And what is it called?

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Like a merry-go-round.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "The name Carousel seems apt," she says, laughing. "Round and round, we are about to go." Even as the excitement grips her and, for the first time in a long time, she begins to think and plan for the future, the scattered class from 2022 is all around us. Their art is piled up on a table in front of us.

Yeah, this is another Aurora.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Yes," she says. "All the children should be here," she says.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Sofia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Masha.

NADWORNY: Bogdan, yeah.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I can't throw them away," Sahan says. The other thing that survived all this time - the African violets her former students planted, eight of them. They're in Iryna Sahan's apartment. The leaves are now big and thick. She says she still waters them every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT FRIPP AND BRIAN ENO'S "EVENING STAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.