In 2011 Mildmay sent a former colleague (Lynne Hulka) and me to a project in Ukraine to facilitate some HIV teaching. At the time I was studying for a formal qualification which would enable me to train health care workers and nurses, and as part of the college course, I had a to write a weekly reflection. Here is the reflection I wrote about my experience in Irpen, Ukraine.
REFLECTIVE LEARNING JOURNAL
1st November 2011
I have decided to structure this week’s reflective learning journal differently so that I can accurately describe my recent teaching experiences in Ukraine.
In July I was selected by my workplace, Mildmay Mission Hospital, to design and deliver a teaching programme about HIV for a charity in Ukraine. Samaritan’s Purse was working with a local charity in Ukraine, trying to support people living with HIV, which is a rapidly growing problem in Eastern Europe, particularly in the ex-Soviet states, mainly because of large numbers of people unsafely injecting drugs such as heroin. The charity running the project were Evangelical Christians working with people living with HIV. They wanted to run a conference/training programme for health workers from all over Ukraine and chose Mildmay to deliver the programme because of our expertise in the field – Mildmay UK is the only unit in Europe which specialises in the rehabilitation of people living with HIV, in particular HIV related neuro cognitive impairment.
I was completely stunned to be chosen, along with the Day Services manager Lynne. But it was incredibly daunting! I was chosen because of my love of teaching as well as nursing, and because of my 6 years experience of working in this field, and because of my love of travel! All my friends and colleagues know that a vast proportion of my wages go on travelling – I love to find out about diverse cultures and see completely different parts of the world! However, I had never been to Ukraine or Russia before! I had also never taught solidly for a whole week – the most teaching I had ever done before would be an hour here or there, or a half day workshop. I didn’t know how on earth we would be able to fill a whole week! Also, we were told that the delegates attending would not speak any English – we would have to teach via translators! I learnt some Russian at school, but this was 15 years ago and I had never had a chance to practice, so as far as I was concerned I couldn’t remember a thing! So even though I was incredibly excited I also felt really nervous!
Lynne and I had a few incredibly stressful weeks preparing all our materials. And then things got worse – the proposal was changed, and we were told we would be teaching doctors, not just health care assistants, nurses, and social workers! I panicked – while I am an experienced nurse, I couldn’t possibly pretend my knowledge could match that of a doctor’s, or that I could teach at that level! Lynne felt the same. But thankfully our medical consultant helped us prepare higher level training materials and I just made sure I didn’t put in anything I didn’t understand or couldn’t explain – that would have been very embarrassing indeed!
And then finally it was October 23rd, and we were off…
Ukraine was thankfully nowhere near as cold as we had expected. We were taken to a religious seminary in a quiet town – this would be our home and workplace for the whole of the next week! Our rooms were next door to the teaching room – this was a pleasure for me as I’m used to an hour and a half long commute to work every day! But there was a lot to get used to. We quickly discovered that if we waited to shower after 9pm the building would run out of hot water, as there were so many delegates staying! Both Lynne and I unfortunately smoke, and it was tricky finding somewhere we could do this without causing offence! There was also nowhere to go out in the evenings – no pub, restaurant etc, just some woods! There was just a tiny shop! We’d eat chocolates, chat, and read good books every evening. There was nothing else to do! Also, our stomachs started to suffer as we quickly discovered that Ukrainians adore fried food. I’m vegetarian and my diet consisted of fried potato pancakes and eggs for a whole week. Not great!
But the teaching itself tuned out to be an incredible experience. I felt a little nervous the first time I addressed the 30 delegates but after that I truly got into the swing of things – I couldn’t stop talking! We taught for approximately three and a half hours each, each day and then would usually sit in on each other’s sessions the rest of the time, to offer advice and support. The delegates were all nice and very respectful – but they really didn’t speak any English so any time we wanted to converse with them we had to use the translators!
The translators, Sasha and Nadia were fantastic. They were a married couple, spoke almost perfect English and we quickly made friends with them. They had a great sense of humour and halfway through the week we started having movie nights in their room, watching comedies and laughing and chatting before the 11pm curfew! But teaching via translators was an amazing experience and easier than I thought it would be, possibly because they were so good, and noticeably confident!
Lynne would usually work with Nadia, and I would work with Sasha. Their translation was so fast and fluent it was as if they were inside our heads when we were teaching, continuously translating every word we said. But I would drive Sasha mad sometimes, because of my refusal to simply read out the PowerPoint slides – I would constantly elaborate on the points featured on the slides and also found myself using a lot of anecdotes, frequently talking about things I had seen in nursing practice. I tried to point out to Sasha that if it was just a case of me reading out the slides then he could have done it all without me!
There were cultural aspects we struggled at times to get used to! Not least because we were at times asked to alter the timetable at as moment’s notice! In the UK a lot of teaching is very interactive. In the PTLLS course we’re encouraged to use a variety of teaching methods such as groupwork. But this concept seemed quite alien to the delegates – there was an expectation that we should just continuously talk at them while they would take notes. During one session Lynne asked the delegates to form groups to discuss a subject and they simply said no! We were stunned! There were also sometimes issues with delegates talking amongst themselves when we were trying to deliver – we were told that this tends to be a problem in training programmes in Ukraine. It was difficult for us to control this because of the language barrier. If we were reinforcing ground rules in English, we would simply tell the group to quieten down before we’d continue. But doing this via translators was not as easy! Also, in terms of the content we were delivering we were controversial at times. Delegates displayed openly homophobic attitudes at times, and they were shocked when Lynne delivered a session on how to help drug users minimise harm. I was shocked when I was told that dying patients are usually not given any pain relief at all, as ‘unconscious patients do not need it’. So, despite the language barrier many of our sessions evolved into some remarkably interesting discussions and debates with the group!
The feedback we received was positive indeed! As the week progressed the delegates seemed to warm to us and respected us a great deal. Delegates said that they were learning so much from us, and in truth we were learning so much from them too. It no longer seemed to matter that we were not doctors ourselves, I felt comfortable in my subject area and the training programme was an useful opportunity to share ideas and information. It also gave me so much more confidence in myself as a teacher! I felt truly excited each day when I knew my turn to teach was coming up and any nerves disappeared completely after the first day! It was exhausting though! And we all ended up suffering from backache – I previously had no idea that teachers can experience backache from standing up for such long periods – at least in nursing we constantly walk around the wards and have opportunities to sit and write notes in the office for periods.
Bizarrely, a lot of my GCSE Russian started to come back! I discovered I could still read the Cyrillic alphabet (VERY slowly!!), I understood a lot of words and occasionally people would say things in Russian and I’d get the gist of what they were saying before it was translated to me!
It all ended well. We were each given traditional Ukrainian souvenirs – a Babushka doll, coasters, a whistle, a bell and a plate (see the photo above). They will each remind me of my amazing experience forever. Sasha and Nadia invited us to visit them sometime. And of course, Lynne and I ended the trip with two fun days exploring Kyiv! Lots of delicious food, monastery trips, museums, laughter and mulled wine!