For the first time in nearly two decades, Colette Hebert had planned to take a summer off from work. But the call of a summer camp a continent away proved too loud to keep her home.
The Yonkers Federation of Teachers member and music teacher is among four NYSUT members joining a 15-person delegation of educators from across the nation for a two-week summer camp in Poland to work with students from war-torn Ukraine and Poland. The trip — organized by the American Federation of Teachers, NATAN Worldwide Disaster Relief and the Kosciuszko and Folkowisko foundations — is aimed at providing educational support to 12-to-15-year-olds affected by the disruptions of war through experiential, project-based outdoor activities.
Joining Hebert are fellow YFT member Shai Stephenson, Syracuse TA member Jean-Pierre Rosas and Alexandra Hernandez of the United Federation of Teachers. Beyond helping teach English, the delegation’s aim is to provide some semblance of normalcy for the students.
“I think that music can bring students from all over together,” Hebert said of her specialty. “I have 1,000 students. Some of my students don’t speak English ... but you don’t need to speak English to make music together.”
Added Hernandez, a bilingual special education teacher, “We can be a beacon of hope to these amazing people who have lost so much and make sure they are not forgotten.”
Like his colleagues, Rosas was eager to apply for the camp. The English as a New Language educator teaches refugee students in Syracuse and travels abroad to work with impoverished children. He said the academic work of helping the Polish and Ukrainian students grow their English skills will be important, but the social-emotional work they’ll be doing is essential.
“I think that’s the most important part,” Rosas said. “It’s very difficult to reach somebody at an academic level if you don’t focus on the emotional stuff.”
Back home, the war continues to be top-of-mind for many New York educators. They’ve dealt with questions in the classroom about the Russian invasion, felt first-person impacts of the war and committed themselves to local efforts to assist Ukrainian people. Teachers preparing this summer for the coming school year have access to Share My Lesson resources to help teach about the ongoing war and the geopolitical context surrounding it. More information is available online at sharemylesson.com/blog/teaching-ukraine-war.
Meanwhile, the AFT delegation will have some unique lessons of their own to teach. Elementary teacher Stephenson is another world traveler whose time serving in the Peace Corps, including in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, and teaching in China and the United Arab Emirates has led to a plethora of experiences she shares with students. The Poland trip will be no different.
“We have an extraordinary group of teachers. I think the teachers will get a lot out of it,” she said. “Of course we’re going to bring whatever we learn and experience back into our classrooms.”