Defying dark days
Two TCNJ professors help teachers and students in Ukraine to prepare for their country’s future.
On a recent fall day, Greer Burroughs woke up early to meet with a dozen professors in Ukraine teaching a course she’d developed about democracy. The purpose of the virtual call was to solve an urgent classroom challenge unlike any she’d ever encountered: how to teach when air sirens interrupt lessons and send students to bomb shelters.
While her colleagues brainstormed strategies such as using group chats to continue discussions during forced evacuations, Burroughs marveled at their dedication; even the meeting itself was beset by warning sounds signaling the threat of Russian attacks.
“Air sirens were going off the entire time,” she says. “But they wanted to keep figuring out how to do this course. They are so determined and clear on what they are fighting for. I have learned so much about democracy and what it means to be an American by working with them.”
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Burroughs, along with fellow TCNJ School of Education professor Stuart Carroll MEd ’95, has worked to support Ukrainian teachers and students as they pursue not only an education, but also a brighter future in the midst of a relentless war.
For Burroughs, the effort is part of a decade-long quest to promote civic engagement in developing democracies around the world. Her course, Democracy: From Theory to Practice, is currently offered at universities throughout Eastern Europe, including more than 40 in Ukraine. After the war began, she helped teachers there reshape the class around the mind-boggling task of teaching the concepts of democracy during a real-time invasion by an authoritarian neighbor state.
Carroll, meanwhile, spent the fall semester leading early morning classes for students at Sumy State University in northeastern Ukraine as part of a newly launched virtual U.S. State Department program that provides English as a second language instruction to colleges around the world.
As the air strikes increased throughout the fall, the daunting challenges faced daily by their counterparts — from coping with blackouts and a lack of heat to navigating the dangers of living in a country under siege — were clear to both professors.
But so, too, was the sense of determined optimism among Ukrainian teachers and students.
“I really wanted to give them what they wanted and what they needed,” Carroll says. “If it’s people-to-people diplomacy, the message we’re sending is, ‘We stand with Ukraine. We are with you.’ That’s something I’m always trying to let them know.”
Carroll has an inkling of what it means to live through uncertain times. He taught ESL in Israel during the first Gulf War and vividly remembers Scud missiles flying overhead.
“We thought that Saddam Hussein was going to send chemical weapons,” he says. “I think that helped me understand how life goes on even in those kinds of terrible circumstances.”
Many of his students in Israel at the time were immigrants who had left collapsing Soviet Union countries, including Ukraine. Their eagerness to learn a new language as they reimagined their lives inspired him.
“The whole field of ESL is sort of right in that place of hopes and fears and wants and needs,” he says.
Carroll eventually joined TCNJ after earning a PhD in curriculum and instruction with a focus on elementary teacher preparation. But his experience teaching ESL stuck with him; when he learned about the State Department’s new program, he decided to apply.
Last summer, Carroll was chosen to be one of 13 teachers working with Ukrainian students. He was thrilled — and resolved that the class would not only be academically helpful, but also a break from the wider world.
“I’m a big believer that when people are in stressful situations, one of the best things is distraction,” he says. “And I can be very distracting.”
Carroll fills his classes not with rote recitation, but lively conversations about television, hobbies, and careers. To practice questions, he has them imagine landing on a new planet. (“An alien comes up to you and says, ‘You may ask me any 12 questions about this planet.’ What do you ask?”) To help them hear different verb forms, he plays music, including American favorites such as the ’50s doo-wop hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” and “Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Students rarely talk directly about the war in class, but Carroll glimpses its effect on their lives, from the absences caused by power outages to the questions asked in the alien hypothetical, including: Do you have regular electricity on this planet?
“It is such a labor of love,” he says. “You feel like you’re a part of something, like you’re taking their minds off a pretty rotten situation.”
For Kristina Karnaushenko, a first-year international law student, Carroll’s class is a respite.
“That hour and 20 minutes goes by like ‘poof,’” she says. “It’s a really great way to interrupt ourselves from something like this, but also really helpful for my future and the future of other students.”
When the Russian invasion began, Karnaushenko and her classmates were shocked. “At the start of February, we were talking about it like, ‘No, they would not do that — why would they do that?’” she says. “When it happened, it was awful.”
But students like her quickly “understood their duty,” she says. “Our defenders were fighting for us. We, as students, understand it is our duty to study because we are the future of our country.”
A similar sense of purpose spread among Ukrainian citizens as their neighborhoods were bombed. Ballet dancers and boxers alike joined the military. Students raised money for emergency medical supplies. And the teachers leading Burroughs’ class were, if anything, even more determined to continue their work.
Iuliia Pachos, a former political science professor who now oversees teacher training and support for Burroughs’ course throughout Ukraine, says the commitment — including from some teachers who’d been displaced from their homes or were living in occupied territories — didn’t surprise her.
“For myself and my colleagues, to continue to teach students is a contribution to the future of our country,” Pachos says. “We feel that we are making a contribution to a new kind of citizen. Active citizens. Responsible citizens. Citizens who understand their role in the rebuilding of Ukraine.”
That sense of civic participation is at the center of Burroughs’ work. She first began thinking about how to sustain healthy democracies early in her career as a social studies teacher, increasingly fascinated by the ability of social movements to bring about change.
“It was never those who were in power who said, ‘We need to reform ourselves,’” she says. “It solidified for me that the public has to be an engaged partner. We have this concept of democracy, but if we are not active players in telling our representatives what we want and holding them accountable, it doesn’t work.”
Alongside her work in early childhood and elementary education, Burroughs began developing interactive strategies to teach students civic engagement skills. In the late 2000s, she was invited to speak in Georgia, a country that had gained its independence from the Soviet Union less than 20 years earlier. There, the idea to create a civic education course for university students in transitional democracies emerged.
Working with colleagues in Georgia, Burroughs built a curriculum that introduced the tenets of democracy as well as hands-on action projects that required students to identify problems in their communities and implement solutions. Over the next decade, with support from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, a non-profit that promotes global democracy, the course expanded from Georgia into Ukraine, Armenia, and Serbia.
When the war began in Ukraine, Burroughs was bereft. She’d visited the country 10 times to work with teachers and students whose belief in the possibilities of democracy seemed limitless.
“I thought everything we’d worked for was going to be destroyed,” she says. “I kept thinking about the students that I taught in summer school in 2019. There had been so much hope, such a sense of how they wanted to transform their country.”
But when her colleagues made it clear that the attacks on the country would not stop their work, Burroughs jumped in to support them. Together, they modified lessons, sometimes to avoid traumatic subjects, while other times using the real-life examples around them to discuss democracy.
Students considered the psychological impact of disinformation on citizens. They debated the treatment of war prisoners under international human rights laws. And they reconsidered the action projects at the heart of the class.
Instead of more traditional environmental initiatives or get-out-the-vote campaigns for student government elections, students were brainstorming how to identify fake news and report Russian troop movements.
“We really looked at the role citizens can play in a war context,” Burroughs says. “We switched from this happy course of ‘you can bring about change at your university,’ to ‘how can you continue to defend democracy during a war?’”
Some student projects raised money for local charities. Another built an interactive app to help internally displaced people adapt to new communities. Mariia Bohaienko and classmates at V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University in eastern Ukraine launched a social media campaign to chronicle how students were affected as the city around them was bombed. Using text messages and Zoom videos, the group interviewed dozens of students who shared stories of lives that were both inspiring and heartbreaking, from volunteering to bake cookies for the military to fleeing their homes and country.
“It was essential to document that our lives were changed, that the war was real,” Bohaienko said. “We thought maybe it would be motivation for other students not to give up.”
Bohaienko said being part of the course throughout that chaotic spring helped her understand the impact she could have. She volunteered with her mother to weave camouflage nets for the army and joined the university’s student council. During a recent Zoom interview, she proudly fanned a sheaf of certificates she’d collected as a regular blood donor.
“My blood is fighting for peace, too,” she says, adding, “Your sadness doesn’t make life better. But your knowledge, your education, and your actions will.”
As the war grinds into its second year, Burroughs worries for the safety of students and colleagues during what promises to be a difficult winter. But she will be there to support their efforts for as long as they need her.
“We still don’t know what will happen, but we are moving forward,” she says. “The day is going to come when the war is going to end. We continue with trainings. We modify lessons to adapt to the needs of the teachers. We talk about giving students the skills that they will need when the war is over so they can be part of the rebuilding.”
Pictures: Bill Cardoni
Posted on February 13, 2023