Ukraine has one of world’s top teachers
When British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, with his fleet of 27 ships, defeated a French-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, capturing 21 enemy ships and destroying one without losing a single British ship, he was helped by knowledge of physics.
Students at Chernivtsy Lyceum No.1 in southwestern Ukraine learned that not during history classes, but from their 71-year-old physics teacher, Paul Pshenichka.
The gunners on the British ships were trained to aim their cannon fire at the waterlines of the French and Spanish ships, while their opponents aimed at the sails and rigging. While the French and Spanish gunners had bigger, easier targets to hit, the British fire tended to cause much more damage — if they could get their aim just right. That’s where the physics came in. “The British took Newton’s formulas, and started to calculate the trajectory of the cannonballs,” says Pshenichka.
Pshenichka, who has been teaching his subject for 47 years, has a host of other such facts about physics and its role in history. He is in love with his work and believes that knowledge of physics is necessary for any job, from aircraft designer, to moviemaker, to admiral of the fleet.
His efforts have now been recognized on a grand scale: On Oct. 7, he won the first-ever Global Teacher Prize Ukraine competition, receiving Hr 100,000 and a trip to the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, scheduled for March.
Teachers also matter
The Global Teacher Prize Ukraine competition is an offshoot of an annual international award established in 2014 — the Global Teacher Prize. Teachers from more than 20 countries who work with children aged 5–18 years compete in that competition.
As a way to recognize and reward teaching excellence in Ukraine, the Ukrainian non-profit public association Osvitoria, in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, launched a similar contest in Ukraine in 2017.
According to Osvitoria head Zoya Lytvyn, the motto of the contest is “Teachers also matter” since “in Ukraine, 82 percent of teachers are not satisfied with their social status.”
“We want to popularize Ukrainian teachers and show the impact they have on society,” she said.
In this year’s inaugural competition, more than 600 Ukrainian teachers were nominated by themselves, students, colleagues or friends. Their teaching accomplishments were the most important factor.
The judges were: Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Education Pavlo Hobzei; one of 2017 Global Teacher Prize winners from Kenya, Michael Vamaya; and 16-year-old international physics championship winner Roman Soletskyi.
Pshenichka nominated himself but didn’t think he’d win, even though he has previously won such awards. In 2004, Pshenichka, along with three other teachers won a prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, held by U.S. tech company Intel Corporation.
“I received a call, and a man asked me in English whether I was sitting or standing,” Pshenichka says.
“I was standing, so the voice said: ‘You’d better sit down, because you’ve been named the best teacher in the world.’”
Soon after, Pshenichka went to the United States to give lectures on how to improve school systems and make lessons more appealing to students. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology also named 21389 Pshenichka — an asteroid discovered by the institute’s Lincoln Laboratory — after the teacher.
Pshenichka says that it’s very important to teach students to ask questions.
“When I show them certain physics experiments, by the time I’m done I’ll ask them whether they have any questions, and if it is a good question I will sometimes grant a student the highest grade,” he says.
He also believes that before teaching new rules, a student needs to see the practical side of a process. “When you learn to ride a bike, you are not instructed how to ride it, you just do it,” he says.
Starting a dialogue
When Pshenichka first started teaching 47 years ago, his students were only a couple of years younger than he was and sometimes did not take him seriously.
To earn their respect, he went hiking with them, taught them photography, demonstrated physics experiments, and eventually befriended them. His colleagues and students quickly become his second family.
Teachers are still confronting the same problems.
“When I was in Austria giving a lecture on optics, one young Austrian teacher asked me: ‘How do you make students to listen to you?’” Pshenichka says. “I was talking about optics, yet people were interested in finding answers to the same old questions.”
Pshenichka said a teacher has to come up with his or her own methods. The main trick, however, is to explain things, he said. According to Pshenichka, students have to understand why they are doing something during classes, and appreciate why knowledge of it will be useful.
“Only then will they take you seriously,” he said.
Paul Pshenichka receives “The Best Teacher Of the Year” award during the Global Teacher Prize Ukraine ceremony at Ivan Franko National Academic Drama Theater in Kyiv on Oct. 7. (Oleg Petrasiuk)