"We are connectors and build bridges for children who need it"
Ukrainian teaching assistants play a vital role in Czech schools.
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Yana comes from a small town about 100 kilometres from Kharkiv, Ukraine, where she worked as an assistant to the director of a Czech company, and look after her own farm in the summer. But after the war broke out in February 2022, she fled to western Ukraine first, and then to the Czech Republic.
"A month after the start of the war, our mayor announced an evacuation, so with my parents and our two cats, we left and moved to western Ukraine.
I didn't stay there long, as my family has friends in a town called Rožmitál, in the Czech Republic, and they offered me a place to stay. My parents took me to the border with Slovakia, but I had to cross it on foot. The journey was difficult, but now I feel like I have a second family in the Czech Republic," Yana says.
Because she worked for a Czech company, Yana already spoke basic Czech, and within two weeks of arriving to the country, she started working in a local primary school. Many Ukrainian families found work and accommodation in Rožmital, with 35 Ukrainian children attending the local school and actively participating in the Czech education system.
Yana started working at the school as a cleaner, but also taught adaptation classes and Czech language courses. She then accepted a position as a teaching assistant, but needed additional training to work with children. The school recommended she joins a qualification course organized by the Educational Institute of the Central Bohemian Region (VISK) in cooperation with other regional educational institutions and UNICEF.
"I don't have a pedagogical background and wanted to know how to help children properly. That's why I signed up for a course for teaching assistants. It was led by professionals with a lot of teaching experience. I enjoyed the lectures because the teachers really spoke from their hearts. They know how to explain everything, give advice, help, answer questions about how to work with children. Everything is based on real life experiences, not just theory. Even if someone doesn't have a pedagogical background and wants to work with children, this course will help them," Yana added.
The Educational Institute has been organizing courses for teaching assistants in cooperation with UNICEF from September 2022. These courses are helping both Ukrainian and Czech teaching assistants to gain key skills to support children, including children with disabilities across the Czech Republic. They are also very popular, with 600 students completing the course in the first half of the 2022/23 school year and over 800 students already enrolled for next year. Thanks to UNICEF's support, both Ukrainian and Czech participants can take this courses free of charge.
In order to pass the final exams, foreign assistants must learn the Czech language. That is why the Institute and UNICEF also support Czech language classes as part of the course.
"The only thing left to do is the final exam in February. The biggest challenge for me was to write my final thesis in Czech, I had to write it in Ukrainian first and then translate it into Czech. I still have to defend it and I will also do that in Czech!"
While studying, Yana worked mainly with pupils from first and fourth grades, where most of the Ukrainian children are. Yana has been helping 8 Ukrainian children attending fourth grade, and thanks to her assistance, they are successfully participating in the classes.
"It's stressful when you don't understand something, even for an adult. I can't sit next to every student, but I'm always with them during classes, and when I see they need help with a task, I explain everything. I translate what they don't understand, that's what they need most of all. I am also helping to teach Czech as a second language to children. It's complicated for children, so for example, I make tables for them to make their studies easier, or I teach them how to use a dictionary so they can find information on their own," Yana describes her day at school.
"The school organises a lot of events for the children. On Halloween, we had an event with a sleepover at the school, for both Czech and Ukrainian children, so they have a better chance to play together and connect. For example, in the ninth grade we have a boy who has been playing football and spending breaks with his Czech classmates. Ukrainian children are involved in many sports activities across different classes, we have judo, for example. Other children attend piano and painting classes together," adds Yana.
Yana has made friends with both Ukrainian and Czech residents while studying to become an assistant. In the Czech Republic, especially in Rožmital, she notes that children, her colleagues and everyone in the neighbourhood appreciate her and have quickly accepted her.
"The teachers are great to work with. It is clear that they are genuinely interested in the children. For example, they come to me and ask if I can translate a test for the children, they want them to be successful. I've never had such a good team anywhere else; they are all intelligent people who come out to meet you and we solve problems together."
She has a similar perception of life in the Czech Republic: "It's the same here as it is everywhere else. Humanity has nothing to do with nationality. Not everyone is friendly, but I have never felt like a stranger here, and we work very well at the teachers and teachers at the school and I am very grateful to all the people who have helped me."
Although her situation is unpredictable, Yana approaches life with a positive outlook. Whether she stays in Rozmital or returns to Ukraine, she is sure of one thing. She finds working with children fulfilling and wants to continue doing it.
"I would like to work at a school, to help children, but the war taught me to live in the moment. We'll see what happens next. I never knew how much I would love working with children, but since I found myself doing it, I want to continue. Children need someone they can turn to, who understands them, who makes them feel safe. When they don't understand a foreign language, the teaching assistant can help them and connect with parents who often don't understand the information the school is trying to provide. We are such connectors and bridge builders. If anyone is thinking about getting involved like I am, I would say just go for it, have the courage, just don't be afraid. Fear is in our heads, if we say we want to do something, we can do it. Sometimes people are reluctant to accept a different culture and live by different rules. Just saying what you don't like won't get you anywhere. But if you want to and are willing to adapt, you can always get involved and make something happen."