Uman, Ukraine became a sister city to Davis, California on May 17,
1988. Citizen exchanges foster goodwill and greater understanding
between our cities. The Uman-Davis Sister City Project and the Davis
Joint Unified School district sponsored a teacher exchange this
spring. My name is Lorraine Visher. I teach second grade at North
Davis Elementary School and visited Uman as an exchange teacher from
March 31, 2001 to April 16.
Ukraine has a rich history, and numerous natural resources, yet
borders on third world poverty. It is currently struggling as an
independent republic to enter the market economy and develop a
democratic society. Uman has a population of over 100,000. Older
model cars and buses and an occasional horse and cart are seen on the
wide flat steets. Surpisingly, there are few bicycles. Cars are a
sign of status. I was often driven from one location to another.
Large, block buildings, six to nine stories high filled with small
apartments called flats are the most common residence. Most of these
flats were built during the soviet occupation to provide equal
housing. I stayed in a cold water flat with my host Irena Orenchuk
and her husband Vova.
Most of the buildings in Uman are quite old, made of brick and
several stories high. Within the city there are several small
museums. The Museum of Fine Arts is located in a former Polish palace
almost 300 years old. Another museum exhibited historical Ukrainian
handcrafts, architecture and tools. A beautiful park named Sophievka
is also proudly owned by the city. It was created over 300 years ago
by a Polish count to honor his wife, "the most beautiful woman in the
There are 13 schools in Uman. Students in grades 1-3 have the same
teacher each year. Each subject is taught by a different teacher in
grades 5-11. Students have the same teacher in a subject area each
year. Oddly enough, there is no 4th grade. Kindergarten begins at age
three It is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. like our preschool/daycare
programs. They enter First grade at age 7.
Students who school at the end of grade 9 may enter a training
college. Completion of grade 11 is required for a University
Education. The Teacher College is one of the training schools
available in Uman. Classrooms here are referred to as Labratories.
Displays surround the room. Desks and chairs fill the center. At the
Laboratory for National Ukrainian Crafts Lopushan Vladimir Pyliporych
invited me to help create a traditional Ukrainian vase. The
preservation of traditional Ukranian art is highly valued.
Most schools are large concrete buildings three stories high. A
staircase goes up the center with classrooms around the outside. One
full wall is windows. Sunlight streams in. Little or no electric
lighting is needed. Classrooms are small and sparsely furnished. The
desks are 1950's vintage. Many amenities we take for granted, clean
toilets with running water, books for all students, computers and
media equipment are almost non-existant. The walls are decorated
with, bright murals, stencils, and wallpaper. The value of artistic
expression as encouraged in the Teacher Training School is evident.
Needlepoint, paysanka eggs, woodcraft, song and dance is displayed in
I visited 8 public schools in Uman. Each school has a unique focus
such as a superior English or athletic program. One school has a 10
year project to improve student health using holistic practices
including posture exercises, and massage for hands and feet with
chestnuts. I was greeted with "Dobre Daynya" by standing students in
many classrooms. Older students with more experience in English
interviewed me. Their questions were descriptive of their perception
of American life. Do you have pets? A car? A computer? How many rooms
are in your house? If you do well in school in America can you get
money to go to college?
Performances by students were part of every visit. I enjoyed
traditional Ukrainian folk songs, nursery rhymes, old Beatles tunes,
skits, and poems. I usually reciprocated with a song accompanied by
my guitar. This resulted in photos and "autograph signing". I also
attended a weekend school performance of ballroom dances, and a
citywide competition of dance and music.
Meals were generous and always included potatoes, some form of pork,
bread, cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage salad, borsht, tea,
coffee, sparkling mineral water, wine. I would have an opportunity to
visit with the teachers. It was during these visits that I learned
about their difficulties, disappointments and discouragements. Many
conversations became quite emotional. The best I could do was provide
someone who would listen sympatheticaly.
The most difficult school to visit was euphemistically called The
Children's House. Other names included The Children's Asylum and The
Orphanage. Many of these children have physical disabilities and
learning disabilities. Some are deaf and mute. I couldn't help but
wonder how many were suffering the after effects of Chernobyl.
Numerous pictures were shown of children who have been adopted. A
plea was made to spread the word in America about these children..
One little boy sang a song about a mama in a voice so sweet and pure
I didn't need to speak Ukrainian to understand its meaning. I wanted
to take him home on the spot.
It is impossible to go on such a journey and leave personal values,
opinions and experiences behind. I was painfully aware of my lack of
knowledge about the history of the area. I have no experience of what
it might be like to live through soviet occupation or the
re-structuring of an independent republic. Despite my best efforts I
could only see things through my American eyes and then try to put
that aside and see life through the eyes of my Ukrainian hosts.
That life is extremely difficult and becoming more difficult each
year. Unemployment is high and the population is declining. The
country has not created the infrastructure needed to support the
towns and citizens. Many people in public office are the same people
who were in positions of power during soviet rule and very little has
changed. Public services we take for granted; street cleaning, refuse
disposal, public toilets, water, electricity and telephones are
scarce and sometimes not available at all. I have a much deeper
appreciation for America and the good fortune I experience by being a
Teachers in particular seem to have moved from optimism to despair.
Most public school teachers make about $180 hrivni a month. At 5.5
American dollars to one hrivni that translates to little more than
$30 American dollars. Even in comparison to pay for other jobs in
Ukraine this is very low. Like California, many educational reforms
are being made but teacher working conditions and pay have not
improved with them. Teaching is given little respect. Bribes are
common and almost a necessity for entry into higher education
Personal friendships are also touched by the political/economic
trials of Ukraine. Irena Orunchuk, my host, translator and dear
friend has been denied a visa by the US Embassy in Kiev. Ukrainian
citizens are currently considered too great a flight risk. The Davis
Sister City Project is working to have her visa approved so she can
visit Davis soon.
My most valuable experiences in Uman did not come from the school
visits. Conversations around dinner tables, in staff rooms and in
private homes showed me the tender, personal side of Ukrainian life.
Living with Ira, her husband and mother, created a personal
connection. Despite hardship, teachers in Uman offer an education of
surprisingly high quality. I am impressed by their efforts and hold
them in very high regard. As one of them said, "We don't teach
because of the money, we teach because we have to, it's in our heart".
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