Jessica, 11, stood with a knee on her chair. “Why are most crazy people men?” she wondered.
Issy, 11, turned to the teacher: “Would you stay and fight for your country?”
Tara Harmer, a teacher of 36 years, paused to think. “It’s a difficult one, isn’t it?” she said in her elementary school classroom in Horsham, a town in southern England. “My instinct would be to protect you,” she reasoned. “Yes, I think I would fight for my country.”
As Europeans have grappled with the shock of facing a war on their doorstep and a frenzied news cycle, many teachers have had little time to process what was happening; they had to provide answers, and fast.
Schoolchildren today were born long after the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, and some were toddlers when the war in Syria was at its height. No conflict they are old enough to remember has been so widely displayed on their TikTok feeds as the war in Ukraine, or so close to home.
The distance between their world and that of geopolitics has telescoped, and teachers have struggled to assuage fears that this war might affect them all. After two years of a pandemic, they also say the war has undermined their efforts to convince children that the world is not a hostile place.
Teachers across Europe described the challenges they were facing in the classroom and the questions they had been asked.
Governments around Europe have acknowledged the challenges that the war in Ukraine poses for teachers and have drafted guidelines for them.
In France, the government said teachers should explain the common history of Russia and Ukraine, but make clear that it “does not substantiate the thesis that Ukraine, a sovereign state, does not have the right to independence.” According to the guidelines, teachers should also not insist on discussing the war if students are reluctant to do so.