Textbooks and Teachers

Posted on November 14, 2011 by


TLG has send around two emails in the last few days: one about host families and one about end-of-year procedures.

Dry stuff? I want to draw attention to a few things and then tease out a common thread.

First of all, many volunteers have lately been asking what we are to do with the Macmillan textbooks when we’re done with them. Many Georgian school directors and coteachers have suggested that these books are theirs, and that the TLG Volunteers must give them to the school library/director/head English teacher when we leave. This is categorically not true: the books go back to the Ministry. We are supposed to return them when we drop off our phones and get our Certificate of Surviving in Georgia (I’m not sure, but I *think* that’s what they’re calling it). Anyway, today’s email confirms that textbooks go back to TLG.

Secondly we have this host family email. Basically, it should be obvious to everyone that TLG needs host families. What TLG Volunteers may not have known previously (something I only found out after eight months here) is how TLG goes about finding host families. It turns out that this process is outsourced to school directors, who come up with candidates that are then vetted by TLG to confirm that the families are able to meet all the requirements of our contracts (ie safe environment, private room, etc).

So basically TLG is putting out a general call for school directors to recruit more volunteer families, just in case a new volunteer needs to come to the area of that school. TLG points out that some directors might take this as a signal that their TLGV is planning on leaving, which could lead to awkwardness. TLG says that we are not obliged to divulge our plans if we don’t feel like it and we are free to direct our directors to the Ministry if they ask uncomfortable questions.

This is good, in a way – it’s nice that TLG is giving us a heads-up about what to expect, and the fact that TLG anticipated a potential problem and addressed it before it happened demonstrates that people in the organization are being proactive rather than just reactive. So that’s great.

But it also illustrates an interesting phenomenon in Georgia which is that real communication is so rare, and so attenuated by the chain of command and the information distribution networks, that an overall level of distrust and disinformation prevails as part of the organizational culture of Georgian institutions.

Here’s what I mean. Schools are in charge of distributing our books to us. Why would there be any confusion about what we are supposed to do with the books? Shouldn’t the schools have been informed that the books that we get are Ministry property and that they have to go back to the Ministry when we’re done with them? And if they were thus informed, why are they trying to hold onto the books anyway?

Basically, when you have an environment of uncertainty, when plans are made and discarded and made and discarded and at the end of the day bear no relation to what ends up happening, it makes a lot of sense to grab onto whatever you can. Schools are in competition with one another (in a very literal sense – they compete for students, for money, for resources) and schools don’t want resources that they currently have to end up going somewhere else, or disappearing entirely. This is a problem that seems to go along with decentralized, semi-autonomous schools funded through a voucher system.

The host family thing is another example. School directors are undoubtedly being told point-blank that they need to find volunteers just in case, but of course in many cases TLG knows very well whether or not that particular volunteer has signed an extended contract. I don’t know why the end date of a volunteer’s contract should be a sensitive issue – to me it actually makes much more sense if a school director knows how long their volunteer is contracted to be at that school – but for whatever reason, in the culture of the Georgian schools that information is being treated as a trade secret – one that directors may or may not try to extract from volunteers or from the Ministry.

To a certain extent, I see this as arising from the overall post-Soviet paranoia and overall Eastern face-saving tendency of Georgian culture. Both of these systems lend themselves to secrecy and hoarding – hoarding of information, of material and human resources, etc – and both also lend themselves to the idea that if someone loses resources it is somehow dishonorable.

What I mean is that if a volunteer chooses not to renew their contract, that reflects poorly (not saying it should – just that here, it does) on the school they were at, the family and community they were in, and the students and teachers they worked with. These people may beseech the volunteer to stay. I’m not saying that there isn’t a genuine bond with volunteers in many cases – I’m not at all trying to reduce all human relations to cynical calculations of wealth and status – but those dynamics do help to explain various phenomena that we Americans regard as strange or unnecessary.

There’s a constant tension between cultures that goes on along this axis – the Western desire to improve efficiency through open communication and transparency and planning and advanced notice of things, on the one hand, and the Georgian desire to maintain standing and face and gain a comparative advantage by holding on to resources and secrets and to avoid offending people on the other hand. As a blogger, I’m constantly coming up against this tension and the complicated system of taboos that is set up to support the Georgian way of conducting business. Sometimes it’s hard to point to the tangible benefits of open communication because I tend to just take them for granted.

But I think that when you compare the way TLG runs to the way the schools run, the benefits should be fairly obvious. TLG maintains constant direct conversation with its members, they warn us about stuff in advance so we aren’t taken by surprise (and this wasn’t always the case – just look at flights last year), they are always trying to improve and expand lines of communication (such as the forum), and they are responsive to suggestions about how to make things better. As a result, TLG knows what’s going on in the schools and the volunteers know at least some of what TLG is doing to make things better and why. As a result, TLG is going to be a significant vector of reform to not only the English departments, but in my opinion to the whole pedagogical mentality of this country.

So hopefully in two or three years, we won’t have to get emails warning us that our directors and coteachers are going to be *particularly* paranoid this week.