American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten traveled to Poland this week to speak with children and educators displaced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—an experience, she said, that gave her a sense of what U.S. teachers can expect if they soon have a Ukrainian refugee in their classroom.
The United States is preparing to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and others fleeing the war. Education Week spoke to Weingarten, who heads the second-largest teachers’ union in the United States, about her visit as she was driven back to Warsaw from the Polish-Ukrainian border.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What have you been doing and seeing in Poland these past few days?
We’ve spent the last 48 hours at the border in [the towns of] Medyka and Przemyśl. What has happened over the past four or five weeks is there was a huge number of people, beyond anything than anyone ever expected—two million refugees—that came over the border of Poland. ... We met with two schoolteachers who worked with others so that the schools became hostels for weeks for people who had nowhere to go.
[In Warsaw], we went to three schools—a high school, an elementary/middle school, and a community center that had an after-school program. We met with teachers, we talked with parents, we talked to kids. The Ukrainian teachers really want to go back home. And many of the kids really want to be back home.
The [Ukrainian] kids spoke very good English. And one young man got up and said, “Please tell American students to be grateful for what they have. One day I had this, and the next day I didn’t.” And one of the other students who was leading me around said, “Did you see what happened in Ukraine? Did you see what they did to us?”
Kids want to be in school, and the Polish educators are doing the best that they can to try and create a safe, welcoming environment for the Ukrainian kids. I have deep gratitude for all these regular folks—volunteers, educators—who are really trying to create a climate for the welcoming of children and families and who are opening their borders.
What else did teachers and students say to you?
I talked to Ukrainian teachers who really want us to bear witness to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s barbarian behavior and the atrocities right now. The kids want their lives back and very much want to understand why Putin did what he did.
But what was equally meaningful to me was a conversation with the Polish educators who are doing everything they can to help Ukrainians and, at the same time, understand the need for Ukraine to win this fight. The humanitarian effort is absolutely essential, but so is the effort to support their work to keep their country and to keep their democracy.
So, what I heard from teachers, from young kids: great gratitude for what Poland is doing, great fear of Putin, great admiration for the fighters in Ukraine and for [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky, and a real yearning to be home.
The United States is expecting 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. What do you think U.S. teachers should be prepared to see if those children arrive in their classes? How can they support them?
First off, many [Ukrainian] students who were in this Polish, Warsaw classroom that I was in wanted to go to America. I was asking, “How many of you want to go to America?,” and almost every hand went up. What I think people have to prepare for is that these students and families are coming from a war.
We’ve already been though a lot of trauma and uncertainty because of COVID and all the mental health [challenges] and school disruption issues. But there’s a very different kind of trauma that comes with people ... who are escaping war.
How do you think U.S. teachers, especially social studies teachers, should discuss what’s happening in Ukraine with their students? How would you teach about this if you were still in the classroom?
Well, No. 1, there’s no two sides of being a war criminal here. On a factual basis, you have clear atrocities and an unprovoked war by a so-called superpower to try and dominate and take sovereignty away from a country whose only flaw is that they want to be a democracy.
The way I would be teaching about this is to talk about the why, to talk about why is Russia doing this, and to analyze some of Putin’s speech, analyze [President Joe] Biden’s speech in Poland two weeks ago, analyze Zelensky’s speeches, and to talk about this humanitarian crisis. Center it in some of the long history of struggles in Europe over East and West values. I would not pretend that Russian propaganda should be given equal weight to what our eyes tend to see.
Why was it important to you to see what’s happening with Ukrainian refugees firsthand?
The reason we came was because of our long commitment to children, families, and [their] well-being, both in the United States and abroad, and our long commitment to democracy and the fight against autocracy. That fight in modern times is going to be won or lost right now. Our members who raised over $125,000 in support of Ukrainian refugees—and we’ve given out some of that money already—wanted us to bear witness to what was going on and report to them what else we should be doing. That’s why I’m here.