No Touching

Posted on May 8, 2012 by


I know I risk sounding like the Professor Snape of TLG with all these posts about how kids in Georgia need a little discipline in their diets, but it’s taken me a while to put my finger on exactly how deep the cultural differences go between American education and Georgian education. As I’ve said before, American educational outcomes aren’t exactly something to brag about, but, at least in most places, there are certain expectations about the sort of behavior that is and is not tolerated at schools. Even when you have inner-city schools where these norms are blatantly violated (e.g. the metal-detector schools) everyone still understands at some level that this is not how school is supposed to be. After two school years in Georgia I don’t get that sense at all.

The topic of today’s comparison is that of physical contact, specifically between teachers and students. This is something that I initially thought was really cool about Georgia – students shower teachers with hugs and handshakes, even kisses on the cheek on or around holidays or special occasions; students crowd around the teachers’ desks at various times, and a teacher’s trip down a hallway is full of minor collisions and physical gestures of friendliness and solidarity.

The reason this initially seems cool is that it is something that we have largely lost in America. My parents told me of a time before corporal punishment was banned from schools and before litigation and sex offender hysteria created social barriers to touch. I believe that in most districts now, the general rule is that teachers should not touch students, and in many cases students are limited from touching each other. That was not so a generation ago. So coming to Georgia and seeing a society that is not afraid of physical contact was sort of refreshing.

However, there’s another dimension to it that I had not taken into account – something that only occurred to me very recently. While rules about touching in the US seem designed to protect young children, in general there would not be rules preventing, say, a teacher from shaking hands with a student, especially in higher grades, and certainly in college. And yet we still see very, very few cases of this. In none of my schools was it in any way normal for a student and a teacher to touch – whether it was a handshake, a hug, a kiss on the cheek – and while it never seemed expressly prohibited and I suspect there were some teachers who would give out hugs or handshakes once in a great while, it was certainly not common. Why?

Well, in the U.S., students and teachers are generally not expected to perform social interactions that display friendliness and solidarity. That is not the student-teacher relationship. Teachers are authority figures and students are not. There is not supposed to be solidarity. Students are supposed to behave in ways that show deference and teachers are expected to maintain a certain level of social distance to avoid having their authority compromised.

Any attempt I have made in Georgia to maintain any amount of social distance from my students – especially the older students who I taught last year – has been met with shock and hostility. If I refuse to take a student’s outstretched hand it is a cause for him and his friends to shout and insult me in Georgian. If I decide that a question is too personal or too impertinent (e.g. “do you have a lover” and “do you know Shorena Begashvili” – both questions that I have been asked by fifth graders) and refuse to answer the student simply repeats the question, often at full voice in a way that disturbs class, over and over again. Once I declined to go to a girl’s 15th birthday party and she punched me in the stomach (okay, that’s probably an unusual one, but it fits the theme).

And the result of all this has typically been that I end up feeling disrespected without really quite grasping why. When my former students accost me in the halls to slap me on the back, when my current students demand handshakes or hugs or answers to questions they ought not be asking, I am left with the distinct feeling that they all think of this as some kind of joke, that I am not respected or taken seriously, and that people here regard me as a source of entertainment rather than of education.

But thinking about it explicitly led me to realize that Georgian students probably don’t intend any more disrespect than the average student in America displays towards his or her teachers. Cultural buzzwords like “power distance” jump to mind and I try to remind myself that in Georgia this is the way all students behave and they do so because their teachers allow them to.

Now, I’m going to be predictable and say that I don’t think it’s good for the educational process for teachers to allow themselves to be dragged down to their students’ level. I think there’s a good reason why most educational institutions, especially for young people, emphasize things like social distance and deference to authority. When students and teachers get too close, teachers’ directions are treated as suggestions. Teachers’ evaluations are no longer impartial because their solidarity with their students compromises their objectivity. Teachers are reluctant to hand out discipline because it is seen as a betrayal of friendship.

I know a lot of TLG Volunteers are initially very psyched about the fact that their students shower them with affection – but after over a year in public school, if I could do it all over again I’d make sure my students knew, from day one, that where I come from, students never address teachers by their first name and never even think about offering a handshake. I think if I had established a proper student-teacher relationship immediately, instead of trying to be friendly and fit in with Georgian norms, my lessons and my trips down the hall would be a lot less daunting.