Georgian classrooms are quite different than most American classrooms I’ve ever been in. The classes can be huge here (up to 35 students – too many!), some kids will never have proper materials for class and even the most disciplined classrooms oftentimes require one to shout to be heard. Most of the time kids don’t mean anything by the inappropriate noise levels… they are just REALLY excited to see me and to learn English every day. On the other hand, it does make it hard. And discipline? What’s that?
I’ve been lucky to have really good co-teachers for the most part. They already have pretty good teaching methods by Georgian standards. The norm for the Georgian classroom is a lot of memorization, reading and writing, which is good in part, but as an American I’m more used to activities, games and critical thinking exercises. Luckily our new English books incorporate a lot of this automatically, but sometimes I think the teachers are unsure of these new tactics. This is where my common sense comes in.
For example, my co-teachers were perfectly fine not using the listening cds when I showed up, instead reading the dialogs themselves. This isn’t necessarily bad, but when I offered my computer’s cd player during classtime, we discovered that the kids LOVE the cds with the actual character voices, songs and poems… it’s a huge incentive for them. My co-teacher actually said to me the other day, “I don’t know what I will do when you go and we don’t have music anymore!” Sadly, the school doesn’t have a working cd player.
I have made some classroom suggestions that to me seemed very obvious and small, but had never been considered. With one of my co-teachers, I realized that she only checked exercises orally, and as a result the kids probably had horrible spelling. She didn’t seem to ever look at the kids’ workbooks either, so there was no telling what disasters they had created there. One day I suggested that we have the kids write answers on the board, and I was right. Most of the kids could not spell anything! We have made this a habit in all of the classes we teach together, and we have the kids help each other correct mistakes. It’s really helped a lot with class participation, grammar and spelling. I also make a point when we check homework to look at each student’s and help them correct mistakes and give them a smiley face when they at least tried. This small encouragement makes their day and helps a lot of students to at least write something or to copy their friend’s, which is better than doing nothing at all.
I’ve also tried to show my teachers by example that you can somewhat control students’ reactions to you. For example, it helps to call on every student, not just the good ones who raise their hand and scream “MAS MAS MAS MAS!”. In fact, to call on the quiet ones makes them all be quieter. And there’s definitely a tendency for them to pick students they know have the right answers in order to hurry through the exercises. What’s the point of that? I’ve tried to pick the students who don’t pay attention and the kids who need attention, and I can’t say it’s made a difference for them all, but some have become more motivated and attentive as a result. Students who had never raised their hand for me suddenly began doing so after I randomly called on them for an answer. I don’t think some of them have ever been given a chance to think, and sometimes after a minute they really do know the answer! Disciplinewise, I have also changed the seats of some disruptive students, to the bafflement of my co-teachers, but they have seen that it helps a lot so maybe this practice will continue after I go. Once or twice I’ve even done the unthinkable and confiscated Distracting Objects (where do they get mini blowhorns??), which always freaks the students out because they have never experienced this phenomenon before.
I feel really bad for the students who obviously can’t afford school supplies and books (they have to buy their own books in Georgia). They are basically invisible to the teachers because they “can’t participate”. I can’t stand this mindset. I make a conscious effort to lend kids my pens and pencils and even my extra English book when they are just sitting there. After class they ALWAYS give them back immediately with a huge smile on their faces. Sometimes I put kids together to share books, which for some reason the teachers never do. I encourage kids to write out the exercises on blank paper when they don’t have books, and when it’s applicable, I have also been known to draw pictures in kids’ notebooks so they can color or describe them at home. One girl who I continuously do this for happily shows it off to the other kids and they actually get jealous of her and want me to draw for them too. Sometimes it just baffles me that this stuff doesn’t already happen – the norm is for kids to sit and do nothing just because they don’t have something. As a result they try to use their lack of materials as an excuse, but now they know it doesn’t work that way with me – I have extras of everything. I win! I’ve seen how the gap widens every year between The Kids Who Can and The Kids Who Can’t, and the gap starts for reasons like this! It’s so easy to fix if one puts forth a tiny bit of effort.
Other than that, I correct wrong pronunciation and talk to students between classes and during extra-curricular activities. I’ve found that I bond the most with the kids during excursions, because they are having fun and it gives us lots of chances to talk naturally. Class is good, but they really just want to leave the whole time, as evidenced by the speed at which they run out of the classroom screaming when the bell rings. Excursions are laid back, the shy students actually feel comfortable enough to talk to me and I get a chance to teach them little bits of practical English all day. I have also helped the English teachers over time by subtly correcting them by correcting the children and sometimes even tutoring them individually after class. They seem to take well to it, especially since they’ve gotten to know me better.
In all of these little things, I have seen a big difference since my arrival. In a few specific students I have seen huge changes in quality of work and motivation. I haven’t enacted dramatic reforms anywhere, but I think I’ve showed by example a few new mindsets that are necessary for improving education here. Sometimes it just takes a new pair of eyes and a fresh perspective to do this. I know that some of these changes will stick and others probably won’t, but I hope that at least I’ve encouraged new thinking for the teachers and that if these kids ever travel to America they will be better prepared for the society and people they encounter. Mostly I hope the teachers have seen that there is hope for the kids they don’t want to concentrate on, because this will affect many lives down the road. Miracles can’t be worked on every kid in school, but for each one I have helped I can say that I’ve made a difference to that one, a difference they will hopefully carry through their whole life.