It’s an ordinary Monday morning in Ukraine and Fedir Shandor is starting his internet connection to teach his classes online.
The university professor has been teaching virtually since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic. In recent months, he has continued teaching online for another reason: he is on the front lines of the conflict with Russia.
The 47-year-old joined the army after the Russian invasion but was worried because he wanted his students to continue studying.
The result of all this? From the trenches, he teaches twice a week on his cell phone on subjects such as tourism and sociology.
“I’ve been teaching for 27 years. I can’t give up on it. It’s what I know how to do,” he told the BBC.
Shandor has been teaching while serving in the military since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. He joined because he wanted to fight for his country and protect his wife and daughter.
“I had to stop the Russians before they got to my house,” he said.
His dedication to work also helped him maintain a high attendance rate in his classes.
“Even students who used to skip classes now attend every class,” says one of her students, Iryna, 20.
“He always told us that we had to be smart, that we fought for a smart nation,” adds the young woman.
But teaching in the trenches is not easy, and students have had to get used to hearing bombings in the background.
“During a class, the sounds were very loud and the students could hear everything. I quickly hid in the trenches and continued teaching,” he says.
In the midst of the conflict, he was also able to show his students the shrapnel and talk about the different missiles.
Shandor’s classes are also a curiosity for his comrades-in-arms, who often attend these times and take pictures of him at work.
One such photo, of him holding a cellphone in a trench, was shared on the internet and went viral in Ukraine. Since then, several artists across the country have made images and caricatures of her.
The “Best Distraction”
Shandor isn’t the only professor fighting on the front lines of the conflict. According to Ukrainian Education Minister Serhiy Shkarlet, around 900 teachers have joined the armed forces so far.
“We are proud of each of them,” he said. “We also have people who joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the Ministry of Education,” said the minister.
Another case is that of Anton Tselovalnyk.
His classes were canceled for the first two weeks of the war, but after a while the schools where he worked began sending messages asking for help.
The 42-year-old responded immediately, choosing to teach directly from the trenches or in nearby barracks. Nothing could stop him, not even the cold.
He explains that at first it was not about teaching the children, but talking and supporting each other.
“The children went to school every day and suddenly everything stopped.”
Mr. Tselovalnyk teaches architecture from elementary to high school.
“The most important thing now is to maintain the connection between your past and your future. Teaching now is also like that for me”, he says.
One of her students, Viktoria Volkova, 17, says Tselovalnyk’s classes are fun and help keep students in a good mood.
“It’s the best distraction,” said the young woman. She says her teacher often shows the class where he is, tells about the trenches he helped build and where he sits to look at the stars.
“He is thoughtful and considerate during classes. He always asks for feedback and tries to make the subject interesting for us,” adds Ms. Volkova.
Other teachers, like Maksym Kozhemiaka, use their medical knowledge to help the military in Ukraine.
The 41-year-old professor of traumatology at Zaporizhzhia State University realized he could be useful at the city’s military hospital and offered to help.
After a few days of work, he found a way to help his students continue their studies as well.
“We thought we could take classes online,” he says. “We already had experience of teaching online during covid”, he points out.
So, after the difficult first two weeks of the war, Kozhemiaka resumed teaching by allowing his students to virtually observe him as he performed surgeries.
It uses a combination of live lectures and reality to allow students to participate and discuss surgeries directly from their homes.
“We teach doctors and young students how to treat battle wounds,” he explains.
Daryna Bavysta takes Kozhemiaka’s virtual classes and says she learned a lot.
“Now I understand everything that happens in the operating room”, he comments. “Maksym explains everything during his surgeries live online: what he does and how,” she says.
But she worries about her teacher. “It’s not just psychologically difficult, but also physically: you want to give everything to the people you care for, our soldiers,” she says.
For Kozhemiaka, leaving the classroom was not an option.
“Teaching is my life’s work,” he says. “I couldn’t give up. Our country was on the right track before the war and still is, so we must fight together for our victory and stand united.”
“It’s important to keep working on what you were doing before. Why should a war stop us?”