Montessori in Ukraine: What happens to a Montessori vision when it is arrested by war? (From the Fall Issue of Montessori Life 2022)
John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City, November 1993:
A slight woman in a long maroon coat descends a bustling stairway and walks down a long terminal hallway. The lighting grows dim; she can no longer read what’s printed on her ticket. She wonders if she is in the right place. She turns to ask but can find no one in this hallway who speaks English—all she hears around her is Russian and Ukrainian. This makes sense, since she’s on her way to Ukraine. Her mission? To help a small team of invested Ukrainian educators and administrators set up a model Montessori school and teacher training center in Kyiv in the very recent wake of the Soviet Union’s downfall.
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That woman was my mother, Joyce Tatsch. She had been slated to make this initial journey to the newly independent Ukraine with Nancy McCormick Rambusch, AMS’s founder. Joyce, then a primary teacher at Princeton Montessori School and a teacher trainer for PCTE (Princeton Center for Teacher Education), both in Princeton, NJ, was nervous about the trip but knew she would be in good hands with Nancy, whose unwavering commitment and vision made her a force to be reckoned with.
However, shortly before the trip, Nancy fell ill and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Both she and my mother were devastated, and my mother was on her own to travel to Ukraine, a country just waking up to a world that had been closed off to it for 75 years.
She uses the word terror to describe her reaction to realizing this was a journey she would take alone. The flight didn’t help. “Everyone was drinking so much vodka,” she recalls, “and my husband [a pilot] told me later that the kind of plane I was on should not have been in use” (J. Tatsch, personal communication, March 3, 2022). But the plane landed safely at Boryspil International Airport, and, after finding her four bags in a huge pile of luggage beneath a bare hanging lightbulb (there were no fancy baggage carousels in Kyiv at that time), she proceeded to the stern-faced man at security. It was with great relief that she passed through.
She stayed with the Minko family on that first trip. Stepan was a school principal and his wife, Tatiana, was a teacher. They had two daughters, Vita and Natasha.
Joyce, standing by the Dnieper River, in Kyiv, 1994
The first Early Childhood cohort at Kyiv Montessori School, 1994
She remembers their hospitality and endless kindness despite the fact that she spoke no Ukrainian and they spoke very little English. “On the first morning, they served me coffee at breakfast, and I asked for milk, which they did not have. The next morning, they offered me milk for my coffee, and I discovered that their 12-year-old daughter had gone off at 4:00 a.m. to wait in line for milk.” She takes a deep breath, remembering. “I felt so terrible! How gracious, kind, and open they were.” For the remainder of this trip, and on subsequent trips, she continued to be overwhelmed by the kindnesses, big and small, that she either witnessed or personally experienced.
The year after Joyce’s first trip, Ginny Cusack, founder and former director of PCTE, and Marsha Stencel, former director of Princeton Montessori School (PMS) and CEO of PCTE, partnered with Ukrainian educators to set up the model Kyiv Montessori School—the first Montessori school in the country. Through this school, people could observe and learn about what was then a novel educational environment in Ukraine. The model school was a major success, and, in 1996, the team was able to establish a teacher training center, the Ukrainian Montessori Center (UMC)—also the first of its kind in Ukraine.
On all her subsequent trips, another family hosted Joyce: the Goryunovs. Over the years, she would grow close to them. Their teenage son, Yuri, spoke fluent English (although with a heavy Ukrainian accent). With his rare skill, he quickly took on the role of Joyce’s translator. He would accompany the touring Montessori educator group everywhere. “I got to pretend I knew English!” says Yuri with a laugh, recalling that time period. “It was the coolest thing! I mean, I was a high school kid who had literally just witnessed the Soviet Union crumble before my eyes. After a while, I realized that I wasn’t just translating, I was learning from people. And what I learned was that there was another way of life out there! That was the fascinating thing for me, and I heard so many valuable perspectives that I’d never been exposed to—Montessori education being a major one, of course” (Y. Goryunov, personal communication, March 18, 2022).
Joyce (center, blue shirt) with the Mykhalchuk and Goryunov families
Vera, Ginny, Borys, and Tetiana
These first few visits to Ukraine represented the nascent phase of a network of countless close partnerships and friendships, and a lot of love, that would develop over the next 30 years. Joyce, Ginny, and Marsha formed an American team of Infant/Toddler, Early Childhood, and Elementary teacher educators, and along with Ukrainian staff, teachers, and parents, wasted no time in assisting the setup of the model Montessori school and the training center. As Ginny speaks to the process of how the model school and training center came to be, she focuses more on the details of the task than on the people at first. She makes it sound almost recipe-simple when she says, “You set up a model school, you set up a training center. The Montessori approach adapts to the culture of the country. Then it spreads throughout” (G. Cusack, personal communication, March 15, 2022). The tale she goes on to tell, though, weaves a story of beauty and heart, and a mosaic of relationships that run deep. “If there’s any country that wanted true democracy in the world, it was Ukraine,” she says. “You cannot kill that spirit.”
While the school struggled to gather enough funds to gain accreditation through MACTE, the administrative team knew that it was of the utmost importance to establish standards by which they, and future Montessori schools, could grow from this first single seed sown in post-Soviet Ukraine. Leaning heavily on AMS and AMI to set Ukrainian standards, this foundation ensured excellence as Montessori methodology spread throughout the country and even beyond its borders.
But let’s back up a bit. None of this would have happened without Borys Zhebrovsky, raised under the Soviet regime, who at the time of Ukrainian independence was serving as the chairman of the Main Board for Public Education Kyiv. Borys knew the current educational method wasn’t the way to teach a generation of people who would someday—hopefully—lead a democratic country. One would need to be a visionary to imagine something different under such lifelong constraints!
So, immediately after Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, Borys went on a pilgrimage of sorts. He began his journey by traveling through Europe, where he visited schools employing Waldorf and Reggio Emilia methods, among others. When he arrived in Italy, he attended an educational fair (Cusack, 2008), and it was there that he first witnessed the Montessori Method. He saw children moving about and working with beautiful materials. Borys knew at this moment that Montessori was what he was looking for. To further his education, he came to the United States and visited Princeton Montessori School, where he observed collaboration between teachers, relaxed relationships between teachers and administration (“Teachers aren’t nervous!”), and peaceful interactions between teachers and students. As he told Ginny during his initial visit, “It is a fairy tale. I would like to tell this fairy tale to parents and teachers, and make this fairy tale real in Ukraine” (Cusack, 2008). Borys came away from his U.S. trip deeply inspired and allowed that inspiration to drive him to promote this kind of peaceful independence of spirit and thought in Ukraine’s youngest generation. This, he thought, would be the best chance at forging a peaceful future.
Ginny’s tone shifts as she speaks of Borys, who still lives in Kyiv. Her worry for him emanates from her tangible reverence. “This is a man raised in the Soviet Union. Borys,…” she says to herself, as though conjuring him in the room next to her. “He was full of heart—brilliant, well-educated, first and foremost a teacher who loved teaching, who had a heart for it. You just felt that when you were with Borys. He had the will, the desire, and the authority to make this happen.”
While public education constraints in Ukraine existed (and still exist), as they do here in the United States, Ginny notes, with emphasis, “Borys was not one to let those government mandates get in the way. He would find a way to move the barriers!”
While the Soviet regime had established free schooling for children from a young age, one could hardly call it joyful. What made Borys’s drive to change the face of education in Ukraine so remarkable was that he had never seen or experienced a child-centered approach to education himself. Yet, he instinctively knew that there must be a better way.
Both photos taken at Kyiv Montessori School in 2021, before the Russian invasion
While I did not have the chance to speak with Borys about what it was like to personally move through schooling at the height of the Soviet regime, I was able to talk with Yuri, who now lives in Illinois, about his experience. “It was highly standardized, with no room for individuality,” he remembers. He goes on to recall how the day would begin with public shaming for students who did not complete their work, did not adhere to the stringent government-dictated standards, or had lost their “Children of October” pin (which symbolized the October Revolution and the takedown of the tsarist Russian leaders). “We all had to have the same haircuts and clothes, and we were basically molded into gears of a militaristic machine,” he continues. “There was no such thing as privacy or self-expression. It was about full, explicit loyalty.”
Ginny, who visited Ukraine around the same time and witnessed similar scenes as an outsider, provides her account: “Children of 3 to 4 years old sat in desks all in rows, [each] with a pencil. They wrote letters and recited them. It was surreal—like a high school classroom but with very young children sitting at large desks on adult-size chairs, their feet dangling in space. Teachers talked. Children listened. That was the entire day. One could hardly call it learning.”
Fifteen-year-old Yuri, through his role as translator, bore witness as the model school’s classrooms came to life with children, trained teachers, and Montessori works. He remembers being amazed at the way that inner curiosity and inspiration could drive learning: “The Montessori Method still taught teamwork and work ethic, but it allowed the students to express themselves in terms of what they were interested in learning. That is the foundation-breaking element of Montessori. It challenged the very core of the Soviet system! In a world where everybody was supposed to be the same, Montessori allowed and encouraged the children to learn differently.” He likens his realization to an awakening. “You suddenly recognize that, for the most part, the world is not necessarily what you thought it was. It’s like waking up from the Matrix when you never even realized you were in it!”
Maria Montessori herself, it seems, was not a huge proponent of any particular form of centralized government structure. Having spent her own formative years under a government in wild flux, and then later under the iron fist of Mussolini, this can hardly come as a surprise. The answer, she believed, is inside each of us. Individual freedoms, she thought, were “essential in the formation of a functional society” (Caldwell & Rich, 2006). This simple thought is observable in any authentic Montessori classroom. Many of us have witnessed a prospective parent visit, when a tour guide might hear expressions of surprise about the peaceful environment and the orderly shelves, and the industrious feel when children move about with purpose and wonder. When even the youngest of students are intentionally educated to respect themselves and the environment, and are free to pursue their inner voice, they will take on the responsibility to help others do the same. They will see the value in themselves and the bigger picture, and, ultimately, the value a peaceful world brings to every creature in it, with no need for the oversight of a governing structure. In theory, then, children would internalize the practice and tools to pursue their goals while encouraging others to do the same.
Ginny (back row, tan blazer) at a Montessori seminar she gave in Kyiv
If only adults could see this dream through. The moments when we’ve seen even the possibility of people acting in the absence of a strong government structure are during times of transition or times of war. So far, clearly, we are light years away from realizing Montessori’s dream. Yet, we keep at it. Montessori teachers are dreamers at their core, willing to put their heart and soul into the idea that we might raise a generation of people that will break the ever-present cycle of violence. In her heart, Montessori believed, “If you want a better world, don’t depend on governments—create better people” (Bowman, para. 6).
As Ginny reports, the people of Ukraine wanted this to be the moment their country’s education system was released from the draconian grips of the government. Borys, of course, wanted it too. He sensed the desire and took action. He engaged Vira Goryunova, Yuri’s mother and the superintendent of the Darnytsa school district in Kyiv, and appointed Tetiana Mykhalchuk, a former high-school administrator, as the model Montessori school’s first principal. Ginny and Joyce both describe Tetiana as sophisticated, well-spoken, wise, realistic, practical, a master of the English language, and a “woman with a mission.” Sure enough, she proved herself quickly as a remarkably adept leader. Her high standards and inner drive fueled the model school. Ginny remembers how many volunteers contributed to the efforts. “There was so much manpower!” she laughs wistfully, adding, “Mostly womanpower! Between the Ukrainian teachers, parents, and grandparents who gathered at the model school to make the materials, PCTE instructors, PMS administrators, and the teachers and parents who supported and housed Ukrainian teachers studying during the summer in Princeton, it felt more like an extended family. In the end, it involved hundreds of volunteers. It was all-hands-on-deck.”
The success of the model school and the teacher training center, which, by 1997, was formally established and staffed by AMS-credentialed Ukrainian Montessori teachers, led to a positive ripple effect in education over the course of the next 30 years. At the beginning of 2022, there were Montessori schools throughout Ukraine, as well as in many neighboring countries, including Belarus, Russia, and China. Without a doubt, Montessori education had a strong foothold in Kyiv and was pushing boundaries in education in unlikely places too. Over time, the UMC grew to the healthy number of 50 teachers per cohort, but it wasn’t until the beginning of 2022 that the center was poised for accreditation through AMS, says Ginny. However, at this moment, war ripped through the country, violently shattering the positive trajectory that so many children and adults had built and enjoyed for nearly three decades.
I learned through Ginny that Tetiana, in an effort to gather information on the Montessori community in Ukraine after the Russian invasion, sent out a survey to the approximately 100 schools that exist(ed) within Ukraine’s borders. Only 22 responded. Eight reported having sustained damage and are either totally or partially destroyed; ten have closed, and four have moved to online education indefinitely. Any reader of this article can certainly relate to the limitations of online schooling of any kind, particularly when it comes to the delivery of the Montessori Method. Without a prepared environment, without strong guides and an established community, teaching quickly takes on a different shape. Add to that equation the imminent and constant threat of violence…and teaching and learning must be all but unrecognizable. For the schools that are lucky enough to remain standing, for the present, and for students and teachers who are pushing on despite extreme conditions, there is no security and there are no assurances.
Much like starting an educational movement in Ukraine, it’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach to putting a stop to the horrific events unfolding. It’s clear that Ukraine and neighboring Poland intrinsically know this; it’s obvious from the way their citizens are fighting together, in the way Polish people are leaving baby strollers, toys, and food for those fleeing, and are offering millions of people refuge. It will take millions of hands to buoy the suffering. Funding, heightened awareness, care for the human spirit, and endurance too. It’s up to the rest of us, those privileged enough to bear witness from a safe distance, to help, if we are to come anywhere close to rebuilding the “functional society”—to borrow an earlier phrase—that so many people have worked so hard for so long to establish in Ukraine.
Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova, a journalist and former student at Kyiv Montessori School, was killed by Russian forces on March 14, 2022.
Many of us have organized marches, started or contributed to fundraisers, and raised awareness in our classrooms. Princeton Montessori School held a fundraiser for the Polish Montessori Association, to fund their support of Ukrainian refugee families and Montessori education for the children of those families. The school raised $40,000, which will go a long way in supporting Montessori education, as the average annual Montessori tuition in Poland is $500. Wellan Montessori School (Newton, MA), where I teach, organized a Peace Walk. Yuri, with whom I’m still in close contact, works through social media platforms to promote petitions and fundraisers to support refugees as well as raise awareness.
Now, the world watches in horror as events continue to unfold in Ukraine. The landscape is broken. The human spirit is challenged in unspeakable ways. Every day we apprehensively check the news, wanting to know—and at the same time not wanting to know—what is happening, what is going to happen. Through email communication in February 2022, in the first week of the Russian invasion, Ginny learned that Tetiana and her family had escaped and were on the run. For the meantime, they are safe in Germany. My mother learned that her close friend’s sister, a pulmonary physician, was able to get her two teenagers out of Ukraine, but she chose to remain with her father because he was too feeble to travel. A graduate of the school, Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova, age 24, was serving as a Fox News correspondent when she was killed in an early attack by Russian forces. Her colleagues described her as “hardworking, funny, kind, and brave” (Flood, 2022).
We are bearing witness to an unfolding atrocity, not unlike many other power struggles that have turned violent. But this is not just a story of a catastrophic humanitarian disaster. It’s also a story of development arrested just at the time of its greatest beauty. Ginny shakes her head as she reports, in her volunteer position as UMC’s MACTE United States accreditation coordinator, that UMC submitted its Infant & Toddler and Early Childhood self-studies for MACTE accreditation only 2 days before Russia invaded Ukraine. Now, of course, all of that is on hold.
Borys, Tetiana, countless families who gathered to make materials, and many others who poured their hearts and souls into intentionally developing education for their country’s healing are suddenly wracked by trauma. Ginny, Marsha, and Joyce are feeling it too. Ginny says tearfully, “I’m not in the war, and yet, my heart is there.”
From the air, Rusanivka, the district in which the UMC is located, could almost be mistaken for New York’s Financial District. It’s located on a peninsula of sorts, jutting out into the Dnieper River, with patches of green and bridges stretching across several connection points to the rest of the city. As of February 23, 2022, modern-looking, tall buildings dominated the landscape.
My mother, ever the optimist, is hopeful. “You know, not all is lost. So many people have worked to make this happen. Since 1994, an entire generation of independent-thinking children have become the adult future of Ukraine. They have learned about the power of peace and know what life can be like. They will rebuild when all of this is over. They have to!” I hope with all my heart that she is right.
The work behind Kyiv Montessori School and UMC has been a more-than-30-year labor of love. Here’s what some of the key individuals involved in the programs’ founding are up to as of 2022:
Ginny Cusack is a Montessori leadership coach.
In 1995, Yuri Goryunov left Ukraine to pursue further education in the United States. He moved in with Joyce and her husband and daughter—the author—in a small, rural New Jersey town so that he could have the chance to attend college. He first attended a local community college and then earned his BA from Denison University and, later, an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University. He now advises global health-care CEOs as a partner in the Chicago office of McKinsey & Company. Yuri’s daughter attended a Montessori school when she began her education. Yuri remains in close contact with the author’s family as well as his extended family in Ukraine, who are now internally displaced. (His parents moved to the U.S. in 2012.)
Vira Goryunova and Joyce Tatsch are retired.
Tetiana Mykhalchuk is the vice president of the Ukrainian Montessori Association and a co-leader of the Ukrainian-American educational project on rebirth and development of Montessori pedagogy in Ukraine. She also coordinates the Program of Introduction of Montessori Standards in Ukraine.
Marsha Stencel is executive director of Montessori Leadership Consultants and director of the Strategic Montessori Initiatives organization for the Ukrainian Montessori Association.
Borys Zhebrovsky retired as Ukraine’s deputy minister of education. In his retirement, he spends time writing children’s books and educational articles.
A fundraising campaign has been established to help children and teachers in Ukraine. For more information, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-children-and-teachers-who-remain-in-ukraine.
Andronov, L. (n.d.). Aerial view of Rusanivka district of Kyiv, Ukraine [Photograph]. Dreamstime. https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-aerial-view-rusanivka-district-kyiv-ukraine-capital-image98475062
Bowman, J. (2018, March 9). Maria Montessori: Political visionary [LinkedIn post]. Retrieved March 20, 2022, from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/maria-montessori-political-visionary-john-bowman/.
Caldwell, S. E. C., & Rich, M. H. R. R. (2006). Thoughts on freedom and democracy in the Montessori environment. In D. Bennis and I. Graves (Eds.), Directory of Democratic Education (2nd edition). Alternative Education Resource Organization. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://sites.google.com/a/real-learning.org/sharon-caldwell/sample-page/freedom-and-democracy-in-montessori.
Cusack, G. (1997). Ukraine forms Montessori association and opens first teacher training center. Ukrainian Weekly. http://www.ukr.weekly.com/old/archive/1997/049729.shtml
Cusack, G. (2008). Building Ukrainian Montessori from the ground up. Montessori Life, 20(2), 22–27.
Flood, B. (2022, March 24). Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshinova’s Fox News colleagues remember her life: “She had a special presence.” Fox News. https://www.foxnews.com/media/sasha-kuvshinova-life-remembered
About the Author
Julia Tatsch, MA, (she/her) is the Middle School program designer and Humanities teacher at Wellan Montessori School in Newton, MA (where her son is a fifth grader). She is AMS-credentialed (Early Childhood). Over the course of her career, she has worked with students ages 2 to 18 in Montessori schools, IB schools, and more traditional settings, as well as on the slopes in Colorado as a ski instructor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Julia Tatsch.