“I never thought I would teach in the internat (orphanage)…”

Teachers in the two Ukrainian orphanages I studied graduated with a Specialist teaching degree from pedagogical institutes and universities in Ukraine. They majored in such subjects as history, math, physics, chemistry and biology, languages and literatures, music, geography, physical education, and labor skills, among others. None received any specialized training to teach vulnerable children removed from their families and shuffled through a series of shelters and orphanages. In fact, in Ukraine no teachers or caretakers (who are essentially trained as teachers) receive special preparation or professional development to work with orphans and children deprived of parental care beyond an introductory freshman year psychology course with only one session devoted to vulnerable children’s needs.

Orphanage educators and policy-makers overwhelmingly stated that no differentiated teacher training was necessary because “children are all alike,” and “teaching [orphans] comes with experience.” All teachers and caretakers (41 total) reported that their extensive experience in the orphanage taught them how to work with “troubled” children and youth. For example, Ms. Valentyna shared her teacher training experience in the Soviet era: “We were never trained to teach a specific group of students, such as orphans. We were trained to teach all kids.” Similarly, Ms. Iryna concurred that Soviet pedagogical institutes offered no special training for teaching orphans and children deprived of parental care:

They never equipped us with any skills and we had no clue we would be working with such children. It’s all about experience. Those who can’t handle this – they are the young teachers who are 20-25 years of age… And those who are over 40 years of age, we will stay here until retirement. 

Trained to teach in mainstream schools, only one of the interviewed teachers reported that she ever aspired to teach in an orphanage. The majority of teachers stated they had never imagined working in an orphanage given the notorious reputation these institutions have for housing “unruly and psycho-traumatized children." However, due to limited alternative opportunities for employment, teachers and caretakers considered teaching in the orphanage as their last resort. Ms. Oksana, for example, accepted an orphanage teaching position due to a dearth of employment opportunities in mainstream schools:

First, I taught in preschool after graduating from the university. Then I was looking for a job. I was calling everyone I could think of… perusing ads in the paper. So it was just a happenstance that my acquaintance told me their teacher in this school broke her leg and was not able to teach for four months and was likely to resign. I came to this school and was offered a job and have been teaching here for the past 16 years.

Mr. Vasyliy reported that he had never imagined teaching in an orphanage, but stated, “[s]ometimes our desires don’t match the reality.” Never passionate about teaching “troubled children,” he accepted a job in the orphanage as a last resort. He also noted that teaching in the orphanage was “emotionally demanding” work, which resonated with virtually all educators.

Ms. Anastasia was the only individual passionate about teaching in the orphanage because of her prior educational experience:

I am a unique person here. I have been teaching here for 15 years, but I had also studied here before [as an athlete]. Children from troubled families inspired me to pursue teaching here. I felt so bad for these children, especially those in primary school. I thought I just needed to get my education to return here and bring them love and care. For me, this school is a [native] place.

Ms. Anastasia was an exception among all of the teachers and caretakers I interviewed. Empathetic to orphans’ emotional deprivation and their struggles, she was committed to teaching “troubled kids” and wanted to make a difference in their lives, rather than treat them like “someone else’s” [chuzhi] less important children.

Pedagogical universities did not offer special training for caretakers; therefore, university-trained teachers unable to find teaching positions accepted caretaker jobs. A caretaker was required to spend five hours a day with orphans, watch their development, attend to their immediate needs, monitor their academic performance, and assist with homework during the self-preparation (or “self-prep”) time in the evening. Caretakers were responsible for orphans’ well-being and safety. Generally, two caretakers were assigned to each grade. However, in the urban orphanage, starting from Grade 5 or 7, only one caretaker was designated for each grade. This placed more responsibility on that one caretaker, who had to supervise 20-25 children; it also deprived the latter of individual attention. Ideally, a female and a male caretaker were assigned to each grade to represent a traditional family model for the children. In the urban orphanage, however, starting from Grade 5, only one female caretaker was assigned to each grade.

Due to the emotionally demanding and high stakes responsibilities of working with “troubled” children, both orphanages experienced significant turnover among teachers and caretakers. Ms. Oksana substantiated:

I must tell you we have a huge turnover here. A lot of teachers can’t handle teaching here. The most they can handle is 1-2 years. Those who have stuck around for more than 10 years, they will be carried out from here. They have no place to go. This is how we have been working here.

Ms. Oksana stated that only the most persevering teachers and caretakers endured working with “troubled” children, and some of these educators found their job taxing, morally exhausting, and intellectually degrading. Ms. Kateryna noted:

You are morally exhausted working with them [orphans]. When you come home, you are ready to drop and you find yourself intellectually degenerating because the level [of knowledge] is not high. You keep repeating the same thing over and over again, and they don’t understand things. It’s really hard.

Educators lamented the “intellectually degenerating” environment the orphanage fostered. Some tackled this by tutoring mainstream students: “We just take up tutoring in order not to dip into intellectual degeneration.” While tutoring served as supplemental income for meager teacher salaries, as well as intellectual stimulation for teachers, it limited orphans’ access to teachers outside the classroom. 

The orphanage teachers rationalized and dealt with the private tutoring phenomenon differently. For example, the majority of teachers in one orphanage lamented the fact that orphans never approached them after class if they had any homework problems, while a number of teachers in the other orphanage took pride in working overtime and attending to students’ academic needs. This distinct approach to tutoring orphans outside of class time sheds light on teacher commitment in orphanages: one group of the teachers perceived tutoring mainstream students as their major source of income and held themselves accountable for the quality instruction provided to private students; while the other group, on the contrary, extended free tutoring services to proactive orphans seeking extra help rather than seeking to supplement their income by tutoring mainstream students. 

Author: Alla Korzh