Some days I really don’t know why I’m here.
This program is an effort by the Georgian government to bring in native speakers en masse to Georgia and try to have at least one English teacher in each school in Georgia. My flight was covered, as is my housing, and my stipend is more than what the Georgian teachers are paid. I think it’s silly for me to think that I’ve been brought here to change anything, but rather that I’m here to help out. Most of the volunteers are not qualified teachers, so I think we’re basically here to speak English. Most of the co-teachers I’ve met have never spoken with a native English speaker, so we’re here in part for them to improve their English. We’re also here for the benefit of our host families, or in my situation, the staff of the dormitory. I can tell that the few staff members who do know English have improved in the past month of my stay.
But some days it all just seems futile. Especially at the school I work at, it feels like a dead end road. Whatever teaching methods I might bring to the class, or how speaking with my co-teachers might improve their English, there are some deep rooted problems that make my presence here seem like a joke.
Part of it is that I’m not really in a school. It’s a vocational college, where acquisition of the English language is of secondary importance. Teachers know it, and students know it. I only see each class once per week, so whatever they picked up in the last lesson isn’t retained. It’s rare that they even write down what I teach them in the class. Most don’t have notepads and pens, or if they do, they don’t care to write in them. And they don’t study their notes, because the notepads usually stay in the classroom until their next lesson. There’s a huge sense of apathy on the part of the students. They’re all eager to greet me and ask me how much I love Georgia, but when it comes to taking notes in class, all eagerness vanishes.
Then there’s attendance. In many of my classes, half the students, or sometimes the whole class, will be missing. They just won’t show up. Oh, they have a volleyball tournament, says the co-teacher. Or: they are almost done with the term, so they don’t want to have the lesson. Sometimes they won’t show up until 10 minutes before the lesson is over. Not that they’re going to participate at all, no, they usually just sit and play with their phones or something. Which, on the other hand, is preferable to students who are loud and disruptive (oh, the dreaded computer programmers….)
Cell phones ringing in class is perfectly acceptable. Not only ringing, but the answering of cell phones in class is typical as well. And not just of students, but of the teachers as well. And then sometimes in the middle of class, my co-teacher will translate some of the conversations going on in the class. Sometimes they will be questions: she wonders why you are not married, she says you are a very handsome boy. Or endless questions about how I like Georgian food. Another time my co-teacher was in a conversation with a group of students in the back of the class, then turned to me and said they are wondering about your salary.
And sometimes the teachers don’t go to the lessons, often without informing me. Sometimes it will because they had a meeting with some person on the school staff. In the middle of the class they’re supposedly teaching. Sometimes there are other excuses.
And it’s frustrating to teach a lesson without a co-teacher, as not one of my students understands what I say, unless they speak German and I can explain it in a different language. For example, my lessons last week without my co-teachers were all on daily habits. So this week I tried to complement those with lessons on how to say what time it is. Bibi interrupted me to say Steven, they can’t say what time it is because they don’t know numbers. Oh dear. Well, let’s do numbers then. Maybe we can do time next week. But that gets into the problem of the futility of the curriculum too.
I was observed a few weeks ago (in the dreaded computer programmer class) and the feedback I got was that I need to follow the lessons in the textbook, give the students grades on their participation, and assign them homework. But when there are no overall grades, why hand out arbitrary grades, especially if the students don’t care? How assign homework if the students don’t have books? How to follow the textbook when I’ve looked at what previous lessons have been on (past perfect continuous, imperatives, weather, etc), but when the students don’t know numbers, the alphabet, or how to respond to how are you? is there any point in following the plan that’s already in place?
New British host brother says: Well Sven, it’s like a game of chess. Your opponent doesn’t have a plan, and is just moving pieces about the board randomly. You’re best off if you have a plan for forward movement. So if I can get the students to count to ten and say hello, how are you, I think that’s a success. So yes, planning moves. I have a basic idea of what very, very introductory English should be. But how useful is my plan of attack when I can’t plan on students showing up, teachers showing up, or anyone caring the least bit about learning anything? What exactly am I doing here again?
It all reminds me of that delightful German word that so well captures the attitude. Schlamperei, or, literally, sloppy work. Lack of responsibility, or lack of motivation to do something productive. Make little effort, carry on with the status quo, don’t worry – and things will be as they have been. There’s a theme in Slavenka Drakulic’s Cafe Europa that captures this idea pretty well. Basically, how does a society that was totalitarian all of a sudden learn responsibility, individuality, initiative, drive? I feel that everything’s just a matter of going through the motions. Someone decided that in order for Georgia to develop, English is necessary. How to learn English? Well, bring in a bunch of under qualified volunteers in their mid 20s, and put them in schools around the country. They’ll figure it out.
But sometimes, I have hope that I might be doing something productive. On Tuesday the dorm director had a mini supra in his office with the dormitory staff. (You can never really plan on supras, they sort of just happen. You’ll be walking down the street, minding your own business, enjoying sobriety, when all of a sudden someone will invite you in and start making toasts in your honor.) The dorm director at one point made reference to PHB moving back to Tbilisi, and made a toast for me. That he was glad that I stayed in Kutaisi, that it’s sometimes a difficult place to live, but that what we’re doing is good for Georgia, good for the school I’m at, good for the dorm staff. Maybe it’s just hard to see at times.
The feeling of futility is understandable, little brother, but I’d toast to you. Dorm Director and British HB have some good ideas – what you’re doing is good for Georgia (even if just for the dorm staff or a few students) and maybe someone will learn how to count to ten because you were there. Sometimes you never can tell what your influence has been.
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