Teaching through the tears: creating cross-border classes in a time of conflict

I first went to Russia in December 1999 to visit a friend of mine who’d just taken a teaching job there. Little did I know then what a central part in my life the country would come to play over the next twenty-plus years. Since the turn of the century, I’ve visited Russia more times than I’ve been to any other country on earth. I’ve travelled the length and breadth of the place, from Vladivostok in the Far East to Kaliningrad in the west, and I’ve been to more cities than many of my friends there, including Norilsk right up in the Arctic Circle.

As the INNOVATIONS and then the OUTCOMES series of coursebooks I’ve co-authored started to take off, I also got to visit Ukraine, a country I first went to in 2008, and have been back to several times since. More recently, I’ve been lucky enough to visit Minsk in Belarus a few times. In all three countries, I’ve made friends with the most remarkable, kind, clever, funny, caring people, I’ve been struck by the incredible professionalism and expertise of the teachers I’ve worked with, and I’ve always felt welcomed and at home among everyone I met on my travels. These twenty years have been both an incredible privilege and a real pleasure. 

When Covid struck and we at Lexical Lab realised that we wouldn’t be able to run our London summer schools for the foreseeable future, that coursebook sales would drop as schools closed, and that there’d obviously be no overseas training gigs for quite some time, we did what the rest of the ELT world was also forced to do and went online. We realised very quickly that the best niche we could aim for was teaching teachers, helping already super-fluent teachers consolidate and develop their English. Unsurprisingly, given the countries we’d spent most time in, the vast bulk of the students we managed to attract came from the three aforementioned countries.

For almost two years, we ran weekly classes focused primarily on speaking and language development, covering a very wide array of different topics, and I was also struck by how much common ground there always was not only among the students from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, but also our other students from Poland, Brazil, Belgium, Spain and beyond. The sense of common ground and common purpose was palpable and these classes were a joy to teach. Until, that is, ten days ago. Then everything changed. Forever.

The most obvious and immediate change was that our Ukrainian students stopped attending the online classes. We emailed and texted and messaged and tried to check up on how everyone was doing. Some students were holed up in bunkers as Russian missiles rained on Kharkiv, others were nervously staying out in Kyiv, wondering if and when the troops would start to roll in; students saw their husbands, sons and father sign up to fight with the defenders; students fled in fear for their lives, and there were examples of the heroic decency of everyday people as Polish students went to the border to pick up and house Ukrainians they’d only ever met online. I was getting countless messages every day and seeing footage of cities I knew well being absolutely devastated.

Many of the students who did still come to class were based in Russia and Belarus and as the shock and creeping realisation of what was happening started to sink in, there were many tears in class and many difficult conversations. Overnight, students saw their worlds changing irreversibly and many said they suddenly felt as if they were on the Titanic, going down at an alarming rate yet unable to do anything to halt the slide into the deepest depths. Students were shocked to find that people they’d known for years, even people they were in relationships with, weren’t the people they thought they were. The downside of living in a society where political discussions are often avoided for the sake of maintaining civility became glaringly apparent and unbridgeable schisms started opening up all around. 

Some students had been on demos and seen extreme police brutality; others were shaking with fear and anger about the sudden and immediate loss of the way they’d imagined the future panning out. There were grim jokes about the fact that nobody expected to feel nostalgia for the Covid years quite so quickly. 

The normal beginning-of-lesson ritual of simply asking how students were when they appeared on Zoom soon became redundant. It felt like we needed new questions for a new era. I soon found myself asking how people were coping, how they were bearing up instead. Students treated each other with exceptional kindness and understanding, and even where there were disagreements, they were handled tactfully and with care. After all, these were people who’d been meeting up regularly and who’d got to know and like each other as a result of these interactions.

I started fretting about what I wanted to say where. Whilst using my personal Facebook page to post regularly – some might say obsessively – about the war and what I felt had led to it, I also decided to ensure the Facebook group I run, ENGLISH QUESTIONS ANSWERED, be kept free of any mention of the war. This sometimes meant deleting comments and posts I had huge sympathy with, but I felt it was important for everyone on all sides to have a space where we could meet and do what we’d always done: nerd out about language. Over on Instagram, I posted one photo of the anti-war demo I went on last weekend and got sucked into a heated discussion of over 300 comments which saw me accused of hating Russia, taking sides and so on. When I pointed out that I’d hardly spend twenty years visiting a country I hated, that loving a country and supporting the government were two entirely different things, and that in every single war, the side I’d always take is that of the people being invaded, and that this is the same whether we’re talking about Iraq, Palestine or Ukraine, I was told I’d been after folks’ money and saw over 300 people unfollow me. 

I was also very unsure about how best to manage in class: to what degree was it wise to just try and carry on as normal, to have the lessons be a space apart from the rest of the stress of life, and to what degree it was important to let anyone who wanted to talk, talk. The first few days of last week saw me fumbling towards some kind of principled approach. Some classes ran more or less as usual, though there might be ten minutes at the beginning or end where I just checked up on how everyone was doing. One class involved a couple of students talking at great length – through the tears – about what they were going through, until this was interrupted by another student who said for her own sanity’s sake, she just needed to at least go through the motions of simply being a student. 

In the end, I told all my classes that I was adopting a two-pronged approach. I’d try as best as possible to do the hour class they’d paid for as usual, giving everyone respite from the horror of the outside world, allowing space for people to continue to connect with other aspects of life away from the war, to share stories and experiences and emotions and memories; then I’d stay online for another half hour and sometimes students would just go into breakout rooms and talk about how they were, sometimes we’d stay as a whole group and I’d talk, they’d ask questions, we’d discuss the importance of trying to find head space that allowed us to stay human. I won’t lie and pretend it was easy. More often than not, students would be on the verge of tears, I’d often break down crying too, and I’d then struggle to switch back to being a normal father to my kids and husband to my wife after class. Despite the fact I sometimes joked about wishing I could back to being a raw twenty-three-year-old teacher who simply waltzed into class and told students to open their books at page 43 so we could do some grammar for the hour, it was nevertheless both the most gruelling and demanding teaching I’d ever done, and yet also the most rewarding and real. 

Hopefully, this approach will get us through the next four weeks of term, but beyond that, we’ve obviously had to think long and hard about how we move forward. Andrew and I will be spending the best part of the next year writing the third edition of the OUTCOMES series, a job that couldn’t have come at a better time as running an online school whose intake has thus far depended on students from what’s now effectively a mass war zone. However, our colleagues Luis and Margot will be continuing to teach Lexical Lab classes, and we want to return to online teaching next year. We also aim to hold regular free meet-ups on Zoom where anyone can anywhere can simply come along and be together and talk. 

We also want to try and keep spaces of hope open for students on all sides to stay connected. We know that everyone is going to find themselves in incredibly polarising, binary situations where we’re encouraged to see the world in terms of us and them. Neither of us see this as a sustainable position, no matter how understandable it may be, and how tempting its allure. 

To these ends, we’re now trying to establish some form of ground rules that allow for cross-border communication and the possibility of connections across the divide. We both feel it is important to maintain connections at this time. Our speaking club lessons potentially offer the chance to have a diversion from the traumas of everyday life as well as the opportunity to remember that we are all humans that share so much. In turn, we hope this will, in some small way, combat the inevitable othering that takes place during a war. 

However, realistically, whatever topics of conversation we try to encourage students to have, the conflict is going to impinge on things in all manner of ways. Given this, we’ve decided to be clear to prospective students about what our own position is and what it means to take part in our classes if we are all going to maintain some unity and inclusivity. 

The first and most important thing is that we all do our utmost to avoid suggesting individuals in class are responsible for the current situation. We should not use ‘othering’ forms of expression such as you peopleyou Ukrainiansyou Russians, etc. We’d extend this to any expression of the belief that Ukraine and Ukrainians do not have a distinct identity, culture or history. The same is done to both Israelis and Palestinians. It is a form of xenophobia and racism and it is wrong. 

We also believe we should not dismiss people’s individual experiences and feelings. We need to listen and accept those experiences as true and the feelings as genuine. However, it is equally important that we do not use individual experiences to start generalising about a whole group of people. This is a classic xenophobic / racist trope and will not be accepted. 

We also feel we need ground rules about the way we describe what’s happening. The first thing to say is that when referring to the current situation, we need to call a spade a spade and use the terms war and invasion. Secondly, we also want to be clear that everyone at Lexical Lab is completely opposed to this invasion and believe that it is entirely unjustified. This does not mean that you may not hold views dislike the Ukrainian government or their policies – no doubt there were / are Ukrainian citizens who opposed / oppose the current government. However, we need to be clear that there really was no genocide happening or about to happen in any part of Ukraine, the Ukrainian government is neither ‘fascist’ nor ‘Nazi’, and there have been no threats by Ukraine, the EU, the US or NATO to invade Russian soil.

Nor should we see the invasion as any kind of ‘rescue’ or ‘protection’ of Russian speakers. Cities with large majorities of Russian mother-tongue speakers are right now being blockaded and bombed. People who the Kremlin claims are supposedly being rescued are being killed by the invading troops. A million Ukrainians have already been forced to flee the devastation. 

This is not to blame individual Russians for believing such lies. In the UK, we have also had experience of how this works. Before the Iraq war, the UK and US governments fed lies to the media to justify an appalling and widely opposed invasion. We were told there were threats to our cities and the risk of impending genocides. These were proved to be lies and it has been shown beyond all reasonable doubt that the invasion was planned in advance. The current control that President Putin has on the Russian media is far stronger than either the UK or US government ever managed or attempted, but essentially exactly the same thing has happened to justify the invasion of Ukraine.

We were also told similar lies about the invasion of Iraq only using precision bombing or only targeting military personnel and objects. We very quickly saw this for the bullshit it was. In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and cities were laid waste. The same is happening now in Ukraine. We understand that people may be angered by the hypocrisy of UK media in this regard, and we are both sympathetic to this. Let’s be clear, though. The hypocrisy does not lie in the coverage of Ukraine; it lies in the failure to sufficiently call out the lies told about Iraq. 

It is important that any views about the war in class acknowledge these basic facts and we simply will not accept attempted justifications of the invasion or war. At the same time, though, we know that many of the Russian citizens who attend our classes are already aware of these issues and are fully opposed to the war. Some may have voiced their protests in whatever way they could, and some may not have. We very much understand the real dangers of protest in an authoritarian society and we also understand why people may feel that it’s pointless. Both Andrew and I attended mass protests against the war in Iraq and yet these protests did nothing to prevent the war. We understand the limits of what individuals can do and why some become fatalistic. We need to respect individual choices that might involve protecting home and family against defending nation or wider freedoms, whatever our own personal beliefs. These are very difficult choices to make, which we here in London don’t currently have to make. There’s obviously no one single correct choice here, and we would simply ask everyone involved – and invested – in what we do as a company to find some acceptance of this.

Perhaps we are being naïve in believing we can maintain some kind of shared spaces, but we also feel it’s crucial that we try. 

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35 Responses

  1. Oksana Fyodorova says:

    I am really grateful for your deep thoughts on this tough issue. They can help me concentrate on the most significant thing these days, just stay stable, strong, and resistant to face all possible deprivations and hardships of upcoming poverty and misery for my poor mother Russia.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Oksana. I guess I should add that whatever hardships and deprivations will now face – and I know they will be extreme and will affect not only those who supported Putin or the war, but everyone – they are still minor compared to what millions of Ukrainians are experiencing as I type. I realise this makes them no easier for you, of course, and I also realise it’s easy for me to write this from the comfort of my London house where I am – for the time being, at least – still safe from these horrors.

  2. Elena Kozlova says:

    Hugh, thank you for your letter. From what I have learned, there is a great need in personal opinions being expressed publicly with no fear. It sets a great example to those who think alike but aren’t brave enough to voice their point. Even graphities on walls may help people overcome fear.
    My concern is for those in Russia who have been watching propaganda for years and years and now aren’t capable of any sane judgment. It is a great pain and bitter shame we feel for our country’s invasion in Ukrain, also for the support so many show to our beserk government and demented predident. I believe, even if they don’t take your point and unsubscribe, your personal statement might in a long run serve the milestone for a new direction in their set of mind. So, I do feel very grateful to you for your sincere effort to help everybody understand where we presently are.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Elena and for representing another – better – Russia. You’re obviously right about the way the mass media there has managed to poison so many minds and blind so many people to the reality of what’s happening, a reality everyone outside of Russia can see very very clearly now. I’m obviously going to lose plenty of Russian students and followers as a result of this, sure, but in the end, I need to stick to my own principles, I need to think of how to support Ukrainian students who’ve been living through hell these last ten days and do not under any circumstances need to be put in classes with Russians who can’t accept the reality of the war, and to provide hope and support for the many many decent Russians out there who stand against this madness.

  3. Renee says:

    Thank you for this extremely well said and wise post. I respect you so very much for your honesty and balance, and am grateful for the guidance this gives us all as teachers.
    Please take care.

  4. Ellie says:

    Thank you so much for the eloquent post. Like you, I teach mostly Russian and Ukrainian students. I have been utterly lost for words since the invasion, I’ve simply had no idea what to say, how to say it, whether I should say anything in my public social media. I’ve cried in class, woken up thinking of each individual student in turn. So utterly heartbreaking

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Yep. Sounds very familiar. Hope it’s given you some little bit of strength to go forward and face the next week, Ellie.

  5. Galina says:

    Thank you for your wise, free of propaganda letter. I am appalled by everything that is going on in Ukraine. I feel like we all face “unfolding disaster.”
    My family is directly affected by this war. My cousin’s father lives in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, and God knows what awaits him and other citizens there tomorrow. Staying in touch with him, making sure he is OK, and being scared that we will not hear from him or see him anymore is the most frightening feeling for us.
    I read the “comments/invasions” of people on your page in vk.com brainwashed by propaganda. Sadly, most of them are teachers.
    It is hard to keep a cool head, but, at least, we have to try.
    Please, take care. May peace be with you and your family.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Many thanks for this Galina – and hats off for staying in touch with family in Ukraine. Many Ukrainians I know have spoken with deep sadness and anger about the fact that when they’ve tried to tell family over the border about what they’re experiencing, they’re told to stop lying, that it can;’t be true, that it must all be coming from ‘their own Nazis’ and so on. This degree of disconnect from reality is seriously chilling and will take a long time to be forgiven.

  6. Ruth says:

    Thank you for publishing this. I think your ‘two pronged’ approach of having class and break out rooms is clever. Well done for declaring language terms like war and invasion – while forbidding othering terms. It must be very hard to be teaching, but at this time it’s so very important to keep people in conversations with each other. It’s the only way to stop polarisation escalating.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Thanks for this Ruth. Appreciated.
      Yeah, it is hard and I’m crying every single day either in or after class, as are many students.
      But the general desire to stay together in solidarity with each other gives me hope and shows a way forward.

  7. Steve K says:

    Thanks for this post Hugh. I mostly teach Polish students so I’m not quite as emotionally involved as you are. Nevertheless, at around midnight one night last week, a former Ukrainian student of mine who lives in Kharkiv popped into my mind. I had to send him a note of support. His response was unbelievably upbeat, without hate and whining. It seems that seven days is a long time in that city. I better check up on him and his family again.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Thanks Steve. I have a whole class of students based in Kharkiv – or they were until ten days ago. They’re now scattered out across the country and the city is still being shelled. It’s heart-breaking.

  8. Andrew Wickham says:

    Hey Hugh
    A beautifully written and deeply thought out article that encompasses the key issues and the complexity of this terrifying situation, while outlining a clear moral stance against tyranny, wherever it comes from. Thank you.

  9. An excellent post, Hugh. It’s so important to call a spade a spade and at the same time to create spaces where we can speak out and ask for and offer support. I’m sure a lot of teachers will be grateful for your common sense words.

  10. Bob Eckhart says:

    Great post, brother. Agreed an all counts. Keep up the good work of speaking truth to power in terms of your resistance to invading nations and speaking kindness to everyone else. We will prevail or we will fail but we need to adhere to these core values.

  11. Thank you, Hugh for your well-thought and beautifully-written article. I like the fact that you managed to touch on how maniac leaders and their cronies can manipulate people with their propaganda and spin doctors. I fully understand how this works, as I come from a country and a region that has been mired in such campaigns of misinformation and fake news for decades, to the extent that, unfortunately, many people are leading lives out of touch with reality and common sense. Many around me here support Russia’s ill-fated actions in the Ukraine, and I can’t feel but disdain and disgust towards these people, even though I know it can sometimes be difficult for them to fully come to grips with what is actually happening on the ground, mainly because of the kind of rhetoric they have been subjected to by our notoriously corrupt and thoroughly illegitimate leaders in the Mideast. I’m just unable to sympathize with people who side with tyrannical practices and find the means to justify them. I wish everyone peace and hope this brutal and inexplicable war comes to an abrupt end as soon as possible.

  12. Sharyn Collins says:

    Well said, Hugh. I appreciate the time you took to write this. I am sure I will go back and read it a few more times yet.

  13. Lexical Leo says:

    Hi Hugh,
    I admire your reconciliatory attempts and the effort to keep the dialogue going in a civilised manner. I’ve also been following your thoughtful Facebook posts and even shared one with my students, who found it profoundly insightful and better than any analyses they’d seen in the media.
    Leo

  14. Nadezhda says:

    Thank you for this deep post, Hugh. Despite the fact that I have neither relatives nor friends in Ukraine (I’m Russian), this horror makes me cry in despair as I’m human! It must not be like that. And I’m ruined by the thought that there are people in my country who don’t understand it and they are writing it here and there freely, while people like me are trying to balance between “expressing opinion against” and “being sent to prison”. I wish I had a magic wand and there were no wars and suffering in the whole world. Sorry for such a childish thought. Thank you for showing humanity and not taking extreme sides, it really matters.

  15. Olha says:

    Thank you very much for your support and calling a spade a spade. I’m an English teacher from Western Ukraine. Our lives stopped on 24th of February. Only God knows how scared we are as we don’t know what to expect. World has to help us. How many people have to die? We live in such terror in Europe in 2022.

  16. Simona says:

    It’s the best piece I’ve read about what’s happening right now, well-balanced, emotional and taking all aspects into consideration!

  17. Judie says:

    Adding to the 15 thank yous so far – you’ve provided sensitive and sensible support. We hold our breath every day and search FB for signs our friends and colleagues are still online.
    Olha’s post is heart-breaking …

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Yeah. I hear you. I have really good friends from Kharkiv that I’ve not heard from for two weeks now and who I can’t contact.
      The waiting and anxiety is horrible.

  18. Stanisław Ryguła says:

    I truly appreciate your words, Hugh. It scares me when I realise that those who hold power do not care about the fate of so many people around the world. Good luck, Hugh.

  19. Lucy Tilney says:

    Very eloquent and well balanced article, Hugh. It must be very, very difficult for you as it’s so bound up with your personal and business world. Difficult times for so many people, and you’ve made your position clear, with your reasons. Good for you.

  20. Thank you for this. It’s vital now to stand up and be counted. George Orwell knew this in 1936. We are relearning what it costs to preserve the freedoms we have. Vladimir Putin wants to snuff them out. We can’t let him. I admire your efforts to keep a dialogue going, even in these troubled times. I just hope that the people of Russia and Belarus aren’t all deaf.

  21. […] very thoughtful post from someone teaching many Ukrainians and Russians online in Europe about what has been happening in his classes and what he has decided to do in […]

  22. Drew237 (iHaveNoName) says:

    I’m following you on YTube; apart from being a great English teacher you’re also a really great guy with a very good heart. This was an amazing post. I agree it’s crucial to maintain shared spaces, it’s not only the right thing but also the humane thing to do.

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