IREX – #WhatsYourPeace?

December 10, 2015

Teaching for Peace in Ukraine

Original story can be found here.

By Guest Contributor Randal Mason

“I considered my country to be one of the most peaceful places in the world,” says Olena Umanets, a Ukrainian teacher. But the armed clashes in Ukraine, which left nearly 8,000 people dead over the past 18 months, shocked her awake.

She wanted to make a difference. But in an atmosphere of such deep national and political conflict, what can one teacher hope to accomplish? “Every person has to do his [or her] own duty,” states Umanets, who, as an educator, was inspired to “teach young people—future leaders or soldiers—how to settle disputes in a positive, constructive way.”

With support from IREX, she launched “PEACE,” Professional Educators Against Conflict Escalation, a practical workshop she designed in collaboration with a group of psychologists in order to teach students how to peacefully resolve conflicts.

“The participants were trained to analyze the nature of conflict,” says Umanets. They learned to understand others’ perspectives through active questioning and used role-play in order to act out real-life situations and explore productive ways to resolve disputes.

Umanets was also determined to extend the benefits of the training beyond students in major cities. Describing the sharp contrast between schools in rural and urban areas, she says, “Small schools cannot afford their own psychologists, and regional psychological services doesn’t have enough finance to get to those schools.” So, her project helped train student volunteers from urban schools, who then traveled to rural areas in order to train and interact with peers at 15 additional schools to date.

But she didn’t always feel so empowered. “Being a skeptical type of person, I used to doubt the value of volunteering for global change,” notes Umanets. She credits her time in the Teaching Excellence and Achievement (TEA) Program with learning how other international teachers are making a difference. “[TEA] gave me examples of my colleagues around the world who were able to perform great things for their local communities.”

Umanets’ work is paying off. She’s discovered that it’s not just the students who are learning, but their families and communities as well. “The parents of our volunteers quote our rules … which means that the audience of our project was much broader than we had expected. The project was discussed a lot among adults and kids. We learned together that each person can do a lot to change any situation positively.”

As the conflict in Ukraine continues to wax and wane, what are her hopes for those who have completed the PEACE training? “I think all of them in their future life experiences will be able to find effective compromises.”