My class size ranges from 4 to 7 children, and while one would think that means classroom management is not a problem, that is not always the case. Fortunately, TLG gave adequate forewarning that Georgian teachers’ methods of maintaining order could be very different than their western counterparts’. Now, rather than being shocked by the more extreme displays of negative feedback, I try to dole out extra compliments and smiles.
More startling is that even with such small classes there are evident skill level differences. Essentially, grade level is not an indicator of a student’s understanding. Teachers seem to teach at the highest student’s, level disregarding the others’ struggles. Students also must not be held back despite not having made any progress. I assume this because I have second graders with more impressive language skills than students in the upper grades who have been studying English for years. In the 8th and 9th grade classes I volunteered to help with, the difference in skill levels is really surprising and is largely divided along gender lines. The girls are able to ask me questions while the boys do not feel confident greeting me with more than a “Hello.” I wonder if this is attributed mostly to cultural expectations, teaching styles being limited, or what I would consider harsh criticism that teachers give to such young students. Because 1st-4th grade students do not receive actual grades from their teachers, I was startled when my co-teacher ranked 2nd grade students following a spelling quiz from best to worst placing an extra emphasis on the student who had done the poorest. The harshness at times seems so surprising considering their young age, but coming from an American background I have heard critiques that our educational system celebrates mediocrity and babies students. I’ve made it my mission to work especially hard to keep the ability gap in each classroom from growing even more, but it is so difficult when some students can read and speak well, and others do not know the alphabet yet.
While I have worked with ELL students in the States, all of the older children had come from a French or Spanish background, and the few that had come from other languages were so young that the English alphabet was still their first. That being said, working in Georgia has opened my eyes to the difficulties in learning English especially with Georgian as your first language where each letter has only one sound and will be pronounced in every word. I almost feel guilty explaining the variety of letter combinations that can make the same sound, or the number of letters that are silent in various words when, in comparison, reading and writing in Georgian is much more intuitive. I remember a friend once saying that as a poor speller her biggest pet peeve was when people answered her question of how to spell a word by saying, “it’s spelled like how it sounds.” You can know how an English word sounds and have no idea how to spell it. For example, the two words sweets and treats. I made the grievous error of knowing American English as opposed to the “correct” British English. (Why that bias exists here, I am really not sure.) So naturally, I called the “sweets” flashcard “treats” and then had to explain that these two words with the similar sound and definitions are spelled differently.
Yet, rather than look at me despairingly when these linguistic challenges arise, the students take it as another crazy English rule and move on. Their enthusiasm to learn English is an undeniable advantage to a teacher, but can also add to classroom management issues. All of the students in the class will have their hands up, with that two finger salute they do, literally begging to be called on, but only one or two may actually have the correct answer. It’s pretty endearing to have to constantly remind students to stay in their seats because they run the risk of falling out in their eagerness to answer your questions. I am just so excited just thinking about the potential impact I will have on these students’ ability to learn the language.