Schools for Ukrainian children were completed in three months

Tiina Laura Kimmel
, ajakirjanik
The Freedom School in Tallinn, on Endla Street, was created just a few months ago. The school welcomes students from seventh to twelfth grade and has 800 places.
The Freedom School in Tallinn, on Endla Street, was created just a few months ago. The school welcomes students from seventh to twelfth grade and has 800 places. Photo: Madis Veltman
  • The Ukrainian schools seek for teachers of Estonian.
  • Half of the Ukrainian children are missing from our school system.
  • Career changers start working as teachers.

A miracle has been made in three months – Tallinn has created from scratch schools for Ukrainian pupils and found teachers for them, despite the shortage of pedagogues.

Tiina Jaakson, who has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years and is known from the daily news program, is one of the career changers who will teach Estonian to Ukrainian children in the recently established Freedom School. Having begun studies of Finnish and Estonian as a second language at the Tallinn University a year ago, she chose teaching because of the constant complaints that Russian children cannot speak Estonian after graduating from school – there are textbooks and methodology but not enough teachers. But she could have never guessed that she would stand by the blackboard that soon.

The first school day brings tears in the eyes

“I personally did not plan that I would come here to become a teacher halfway through my studies,” explains Jaakson, who believes that the war in Ukraine made this decision for her. “It's exciting right now. The principle is that there will be one language at a time – Estonian. I will not speak any other language. I shall start teaching in the tenth grade and I am very happy with it. These young people mostly already know what they want to do with their lives,” Jaakson says.

Junior high school (grades 7-9) and high school pupils will study at the state-established Freedom School. According to Olga Selishcheva, the director of studies, the forming of the school only started in May. Finding teachers proved to be a serious challenge and the process is not over yet.

“Establishing a school in three months was possible only thanks to the recruited team and extremely experienced management,” says Selishcheva. “We are all creating this school with a great sense of mission, because we know that it is important for the society and the Ukrainian families right now.”

The teachers found for the school come from very different backgrounds. Some have been teaching for 30 years while many are standing in front of the class for the first time. There are career changers and those who are still studying to become teachers. “Many have thought about maybe starting to work as teachers but the Freedom School made them act,” Selishcheva says. The school is presently looking for five more Estonian language teachers, a music teacher and a teacher of Ukrainian.

There are places for 800 students at the Freedom School; no one dares to predict how quickly they will fill up in the autumn. According to the director of studies, she is receiving calls and letters every day from Ukraine, where people have decided to come to Estonia because of the war. In the summer, many Ukrainians who had already arrived here had a wait-and-see attitude towards their children's schooling, because they still hoped to return to their homeland. “Some want to go home as soon as possible, but there are also many who understand that they will stay in Estonia for years," says Selishcheva.

September 1 at the Freedom School begins with a concert to which the pupils' families have also been invited. According to the director, this day will be difficult for many, because then they will finally understand how their lives have changed. Selishcheva already saw a lot of tears while accepting the applications, because when the parents were sending their children to school, they realized that there will be no quick return.

A contribution to relieving the Ukrainian tragedy

Birgit Uibo, who graduated from the Academy of Arts textile design course in the spring, will teach handicrafts to girls at the Freedom School. “When I finished high school, I had the idea of going to study to be a teacher, but I first ended up in Tartu Pallas in textiles specialty, and later I graduated from the Academy of Arts,” Uibo says. “After graduation I felt that I still wanted to be a teacher, and I started looking for a school where I could work. The Freedom School seemed especially nice, because here I can combine several things: firstly, teaching, which has always seemed like a mission to me, and Ukraine.”

Uibo will teach only in Estonian, because she does not know Russian much anyway. This will also force the pupils to understand the Estonian language faster. Moreover, most things can be demonstrated in handicrafts lessons and pictures can be used as well.

No school has been opened in such short time before

The school for children from 1st to 6th grade began operating already at the end of the last academic year in Räägu Street in Tallinn. It was opened by the city government because it received thousands of applications for school places in a short period of time.

Initially, the school offered recreational activities for the Ukrainian children, but now the real teaching begins. According to headmistress Natalya Myalitsina, over four hundred pupils have been assigned to them, and quality education must be ensured for everybody. There are three parallel classes, making a total of eighteen classes from first to sixth. It is already a full-fledged school.

The school has been busy searching for and hiring teachers all summer. “At present we are only looking for one more Estonian language teacher, so we have done really well,” says Myalitsina. “We have received people who have studied to be teachers, but have never worked in the profession. It seems that many have realized that now is the moment to contribute to the acquired profession, and they are happy to do it. We have no room for error, because no one has ever created such a school before,” Myalitsina laughs.

The headmistress says that she has no idea of what to fear because creating this kind of school involves too many different nuances. “Teachers, pupils, teaching aids, the school must be furnished – what should I fear the most? For example, we do not have study aids yet, we are still assembling them. Estonian language textbooks have been ordered. We have asked the ministry whether there will be textbooks in Ukrainian, but have not yet received the answer. If we have to make copies, we will”

Riding therapist becomes teacher of Estonian

Ene Kont graduated from Tallinn University, specializing in preschool pedagogy and psychology, and worked in a kindergarten and a school. But life presented other challenges. “In 2003 the Estonian Equestrian Federation organized training in horse riding therapy in cooperation with the Finnish state and the University of Tartu, and now I have been involved in it for 17 years. I do not really give up my job, I continue to work with some children in the evenings,” says Kont, who arrived at the Räägu Street school already in the spring after Myalitsina's encouraging TV interview.

“All fears dissipated when I met my future colleagues. I take working at this school as a new experience, an opportunity to add zest to my life. What makes it exciting is the principle of language immersion – that no language other than Estonian can be used. In the spring, the little children sometimes looked at me wide-eyed and said that they did not understand anything. If you cannot do it otherwise, you have to use body language and all your acting skills,” says Kont.

Ukrainian schools may have to be established in other cities as well

According to Kristi Vinter-Nemvalts, Secretary General of the Ministry of Education and Research, the idea of the Freedom School was born in the ministry when it was realized that the biggest problem in Tallinn is finding places for students in the junior high school.

“Studying at the high school is voluntary, therefore the local government has no obligation to offer school places in this age group,” she explains. “We saw that this is where the state should come to the rescue, and in addition to 7th to 9th grades. I can talk more about the state Freedom School, which has classic problems. It is difficult to find Estonian-speaking teachers, we have enough Ukrainian teachers. We have promised the city of Tallinn that we will not attract teachers from other schools in the city, and we have not done so. They have come from outside Tallinn and from other specialties.”

Vinter-Nemvalts stated that, in addition to the shortage of teachers, another concern is that as many as 54 percent of the children and youths who arrived from Ukraine have not yet been registered in any educational institution. The Ministry has tried to reach the Ukrainian parents through different ways and tell them that even if there is a plan to go back, they should still register their children in educational institutions.

“Some of them rely on distance learning from Ukraine but our schools will not be able to support the pupils leaning this way,” she explains. “People may want to go back, but if they no longer have a home in Ukraine, they may stay here for years. During September, many children who are currently still missing from the school system may arrive in the Ukrainian schools. So we have realized that we may need to create similar schools in other municipalities.”