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Staff Stories

Ukraine: ‘This has been the biggest challenge of my career’

David Cole, principal of the British International School Ukraine, remains optimistic about the future, despite the horrors of Russia's invasion

As told to Irena Barker

The article was published in Independent School Management 

When I was appointed to the British International School Ukraine (BISU) nearly five years ago, I reassured the owner, “Don’t worry I’ve experienced nearly everything, just maybe not all at once.”

I believed, probably quite reasonably, that my 20 years of headship in the UK and internationally, would stand me in good stead to help the school to reach its potential.

But when war struck in February, close behind a once-in-a-century pandemic, I realised my own arrogance.

Running the British International School Ukraine during the invasion has been the biggest challenge of my career. The stakes have felt incredibly high with both, but while we knew Covid would end eventually, the war feels even more uncertain and complex.

While we are very proud to be successfully running a full virtual curriculum for our pupils, around 40 per cent have taken up places elsewhere and it has been very difficult to see the team we have built up reduced by voluntary redundancy.

But alongside this sadness I remain incredibly optimistic for the school, proud of our staff team and grateful for the phenomenal level of support we have received from across the world.

I remain optimistic that the war will be won and BISU will play an important role in educating the outward looking Ukrainians who will help the country reach its potential.

But for now, how do you run a school in the middle of a war?

Like most people in Ukraine, we were as prepared as we could be. Although also like most people here, we never really believed Putin would invade, especially not in the way he did.

Some of our international teachers had already returned to their home countries in January, on the advice of their embassies, and they were teaching online as they had been during Covid. Others, including local staff, were teaching as normal on site.

We had also pre-written the email we had dubbed “the email we never want to send”. Which of course, on February 24, we had to send to parents, informing them the school would close temporarily.

Thanks to the systems we had built up through Covid, we were able to get an online school up and running within two working days, whilst also providing support to families and staff moving out of the country to seek safety.

Opening the virtual school was important for continuity and very symbolic as we were determined that learning and teaching would not be extinguished by the invasion.

It’s important to point out that, although I have been working hard to play my part, I am living in relative security. After a few days, I moved to a safer city, a few hours drive from the Romanian border and have been helping organise things from there ever since.

I had wanted to stay in Kyiv and hope to return in the next few weeks. But I was wary of becoming a burden on other people and felt I could make my best contribution from elsewhere.

Many local staff however decided to remain in Kyiv, working in the day and volunteering with the war effort. A number of colleagues and pupils have also joined the military and the courage of all of them is phenomenal.

The British International School Ukraine has now got pupils and staff in six continents, most of them are in Europe, many in Poland, some in the same city I’m in in Western Ukraine, some in Egypt and Turkey.

Amidst the uncertainty and challenges, we have been extremely grateful for the support we have received from the global community and the efforts of people to keep the Ukraine war at the top of the news agenda.

CenturyTech have been brilliant helping with our online curriculum, schools in the Black Sea Schools Group have been incredible, and we have had support from many UK schools including Ratcliffe College, King’s Worcester, Byron College, John Bunyan Primary and Osbaston Primary.

We are delighted that Cambridge Assessment and the IB have agreed to let our students have their qualifications teacher assessed this year.

MP Liz Saville-Roberts, Lord Sharpe of Epsom and Colin Bell at Cobis’s lobbying of government I believe helped lead directly to the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

But it has been the smaller gestures too that mean so much in terms of boosting the moral particularly of staff here.

Even when people do things as simple as sending us pictures of flags being flown, in shop windows, people wearing the ribbons, it helps the people of Ukraine see they have not been forgotten.

A number of people have asked, since the war started, whether it has been a frightening experience. Of course there has been fear but uncertainty is the biggest problem people are dealing with emotionally.

I have experienced a kind of guilt in the past weeks. I’ve got a British passport, I’m a few hours from the border and I only have to leave and I’ll be home in a few days. My wife and two grown up sons are safe living in Australia.

But for those who have left their entire lives in areas that are now occupied by Russia, I can’t even imagine what that must be like, the uncertainty. The consequences if Ukraine doesn’t win for those individuals must be a great fear for them.

But there’s a stoicism, they’re getting on with the job, they’re convinced they are going to win and everything up to now shows that if they are supported they will.

One thing I want the British International School Ukraine to provide amid all this is continuity. One day the war will be won and peace will return – children will need learning and teaching and it is important we will be there for them as we reopen in Kyiv and Dnipro.

I have the greatest admiration for our Chair and CEO. They have invested their own time and resources in supporting staff as they were evacuated and in providing much needed humanitarian aid.

Now they are committed to the goal of helping Ukraine rebuild by ensuring learning and teaching has continued and that there are schools for the students when they return home.

The invasion has done the opposite of what Putin wanted: it’s united the country, it’s stronger than I’ve ever seen it in five years. I sometimes laugh with my Ukrainian colleagues that I’m more optimistic than they are, and as a foreigner see the country’s potential better than they do.

I took this job on because I wanted to play my part in helping the next generation of Ukrainians develop a modern, international outlook to help this great country participate at a European and global level.

And I firmly believe that potential is still there and will be realised.

If, in the past, it had ever been an option, would I have chosen to be here at this time? Probably not. However, now, I would not want to be anywhere else.

Categories: Staff Stories

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