Questions of Success

Posted on May 31, 2012 by


As the year winds down and the end of my TLG contract draws nigh, I find my thoughts drawn in two very different directions. On the one hand I am constantly looking forward to when I am home—what foods I will eat, friends I will see, gardens I will plant, and other projects I will start, etc.—but on the other hand I find myself looking back at the year that has been, at my time in Georgia and my time in the classroom. I have found myself reticent to write about my experience as a teacher and what I do in the classroom, because I so often look around at the other TLG teachers I have met and interacted with and see a group of people much more talented, motivated, and well-suited to life in the classroom. Through the year I have struggled to find my place as a teacher and really feel comfortable in the classroom, but as the end of the year is at hand, I cannot help but ask myself the question “Were you successful?”

Before I can even begin to answer that question, the question itself demands unpacking. What are the parameters by which my success in TLG could be evaluated? What were the primary goals in me coming here, both from a personal standpoint and the standpoint of TLG as an organization? There are so many different angles to approach my work here from that I often find myself at a loss as to where to begin, and this loss almost invariably draws my thoughts to what could have been, the projects I could have started, the time I could have spent putting in more effort, the difference I could have made. But there is nothing productive in that, for, as T.S. Eliot puts it at the outset of his Four Quartets, “What might have been is only an abstraction/ Remaining a perpetual possibility/ Only in a world of speculation” and nothing that brings me closer to evaluating the work I have done, for what has been done cannot be weighed against what has not been done; this is not just the case for me, but for everyone, for there will always be an indefinite number of doors we did not take.

Ultimately, the resolution that I come to in my quandary over this question and my search for the answer is that maybe at this point that question is not so important. What has been done is done; the lessons I taught, the high fives and passing hello’s in the hallway, broken conversations, and recitations of the alphabet are in the past, existing as points in which the raw content cannot be altered. I no longer have control over what happened in those moments; however, what I do have control over is the way I approach my remaining 3+ weeks in the Ureki school, and rather than losing myself in reflection or anticipation there is still a present moment to be lived and embraced in its fullness. My story of teaching and learning in Georgia is not yet finished, and cannot yet be evaluated. Regardless of the parameters by which success can be judged, approaching each moment I have left with intentionality, cherishing every interaction, and maintaining an awareness of the bearing that the present has on the way the past is interpreted can color the rest of my time in Georgia, hopefully allowing me to leave behind three more weeks’ worth of positive memories and feelings of accomplishment, both in my mind and the mind of the students, teachers, and family I interact with.

And so the conclusion I come to is that now, and in the future, “Was I successful?” is probably not the right question to ask. Success is an elusive thing, especially when one tries to apply the concept to something as nebulous as the many facets of life as a volunteer in Georgia. And so the more useful way to reflect on my experiences here will be to look at the progression of moments, thoughts, feelings, and interactions, the good and the bad, the sweet and the sour, the hilarious and the melancholy, and allow those memories to influence who I am and how I approach each coming moment. I have a wealth of memories that I have collected here that range over the whole spectrum of emotions. I remember my first days out of the safety and comfort of the hotel where our orientation took place, finding myself in a small village near the Black Sea, surrounded by livestock and people with whom I could barely communicate; I remember the feelings of being helpless and overwhelmed on my first day in the classroom as well as the frustrations of days when I was left alone in the classroom with twenty 6th graders with whom I could not communicate effectively enough to impart any sort of discipline. But, conversely, I also remember the good times: picking fresh apples, peaches, feijoias, and hazelnuts in our garden; being greeted by smiling faces and enthusiastic hellos as I walk into the door of the school; and seeing my fourth grade class come together to put on a production of “Little Red Riding Hood.” If they were to stand alone, the feelings of being overwhelmed and helpless in the classroom and in the context of Georgian society in general would be too much to take, but the good times, the unequivocally positive experiences I have had with the children I teach, the family with which I live, and others I have met, and the sense of contribution that I get from teaching as well as opening myself up to the ideas and attitudes of a new culture transform those less positive experiences, positing them as part of a juxtaposition that imbues the positive experiences with more meaning. Much as hunger makes food taste better, so the low moments make the high ones stand out, helping me to appreciate them more fully and to approach each progressive moment more aware of the fact that each challenge is just another opportunity to create a more positive experience later on.

Ultimately, when I am back home, the only way I can imagine evaluating success from my time in Georgia is if I allow the whole wealth of I experiences I have had here transform me and become a part of my consciousness, keeping me focused on what I have to offer as well as where I have often fallen short. But for now I will take these last few weeks, and try to make the most of each coming moment in the hopes that the time I invest in every relationship will fall into the inconceivable causal chains that make up who I and every person I interact with are in the present and will be in the future. Success is something that unfolds over time; it is not a static label that can be stamped on something like a year of teaching in Georgia, but is something to be striven for even after leaving here. And so, perhaps the more useful question is not “Was I successful?” but “Will I allow myself to have been successful?”