One of our missions as foreign volunteers in Georgia is to exchange cultural perspectives, especially on education. Exchange is apparently a two-way street, so when I’m not bloviating about kids these days running in the halls and touching me with their filthy hands I make it a point to listen to, and try to understand, some of the ideas and attitudes that Georgian parents and teachers bring to the educational process.
Now, don’t get me wrong: a lot of what is wrong with the English language instruction in Georgia has less to do with different cultural attitudes towards education and more to do with a deficit between the number of teachers required and the number of qualified teachers available. The MES has been taking steps to rectify these issues, but as many of us have observed there is not yet any kind of unified approach to classroom management or pedagogical methodology and that causes no end of trouble. However, these issues don’t really speak to the underlying approaches Georgians take to thinking about education. For that you have to dig a little deeper.
For instance, this year I have met resistance from the parents of first graders who do not want their children to be taught the English alphabet. This was new – I had never heard of such a complaint before, either from my coteachers in Tbilisi or from any other TLG volunteer. I was perplexed and went in search of a reason.
At first it was a lot of “it’s too hard for the kids” and “they can’t do it.” I’ve taught 6-year-olds, in Georgia, for two years now, and I have seen every single one of them write the letters of the English alphabet, most of them more legibly than I do. *I* know they can do it, so why don’t their parents?
Well one of the major objections was that teaching first graders to write English meant teaching the English alphabet as the same time as the Georgian alphabet. That’s right – Georgian children are taught to read and write Georgian, for the first time, when they go to first grade. For me this was shocking – when I was a child, my parents read to me every night, showing me the words and pictures, and every day they sat me down for Sesame Street and Mister Rogers, and at the very least Sesame Street taught reading. I got to first grade fully literate, to the surprise of no one.
However, Georgians must be doing something right, because Georgia has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, and I haven’t met a single Georgian who can’t read at least two different alphabets (often Georgian and Russian) and most adults seem to be able to at least read the English letters if not decipher the meaning of the words. In other words, the late start Georgian kids get in literacy seems not to have any detrimental effect, especially in a culture that loves its literature so much that the main streets of every city are named after Georgia’s famous writers – Rustaveli, Tsereteli, Chavchavadze, etc. Show me a city in America where you can walk down Walt Whitman Street and make a left on Nathaniel Hawthorne Avenue. In Georgia, every city is like that.
It turns out that Georgian parents are specifically encouraged to avoid teaching their kids literacy at home, because if they show up in first grade already knowing how to read and write, they’ll be ahead of their peers, which will result in boredom in class and the social alienation that comes from standing out as a child. As an early starter myself, I felt this isolation keenly in school, and I used to regret being at a higher level of literacy since it made my social life so much more difficult. It’s interesting to see this phenomenon acknowledged and avoided by an entire culture, and the results speak for themselves – Georgia has a higher literacy rate than the US.
Another very interesting, and possibly related, attitude is that children should be spared discomfort at all costs. As I’ve mentioned before, kids are allowed to run around in the halls here and when questioned about this teachers’ attitudes range from “because they want to” to “how can we stop them?” Another manifestation of this is that parents and teachers seem to shy away from any material that might be considered too hard (like learning two alphabets at once). From my perspective, this means that teachers constantly underestimate their kids, and that rather than making the effort to teach difficult concepts, teachers err on the side of rushing through difficult material in an attempt to get it over with.
Nowhere is this more apparent to the TLG volunteer than when a student is assigned a text to read. Even the smallest hesitation elicits help from the teacher – I have not met the Georgian teacher who doesn’t regularly finish their students’ words or sentences for them, although the younger teachers seem to have a little more patience in this regard. I think this is a combination of a lot of different attitudes – a lack of faith in the students, a rush to get through material, a desire to protect students from embarrassment by cutting them off when they are having trouble, and the underlying attitude that helping someone means giving them a fish rather than teaching them to fish.
I think that underneath the desire to protect the students from difficulty and challenge and losing face by getting bad marks or reading slowly is the solidarity that teachers have with their students. Georgian teachers and students are very close – they are part of the same community, and their relationship rarely ends when the class bell rings. Exams, certifications, knowledge of English, completion of this textbook or that textbook – these are all just so many hoops that the community has to jump through together, foisted upon them from afar – from Tbilisi, now, but in most teachers’ memories, from Moscow before that.
I think that most Georgians don’t see much of a practical benefit in most of what goes on at school for most students – sure, there are some who study diligently, who are self-motivated and will doubtlessly go on to university and have good careers; for the rest, however, why make things needlessly difficult or painful? If you’re going to be a farmer or a laborer (or even a famous sportsman or a dancer – it’s not necessarily about class) it doesn’t matter how you pass English, and there’s little point in a teacher wasting precious class time waiting for you to sound out “table” when she could be focusing on the students who are going to study in the UK or America – and it’s pretty clear that many teachers already have the class sorted into these groups by the time they’re in second or third grade. I think teachers see spending time on the slowest students as needlessly cruel and embarrassing to them and as unfair to the faster students who benefit more from class time.
As I adapt to teaching in Georgian schools, I am always torn between my personal goals as an educator – to challenge kids, but also to give them the time they need to learn at their own pace, to give individual attention to everyone who needs it, but also to use my short time with the students efficiently – and my instinct to integrate into my environment, to not sweat the small stuff, to avoid conflict with my coteachers, and to be liked and appreciated by the students. It’s a tough balance to strike, but I am finding it easier and easier the deeper I dig into the cultural and philosophical underpinnings of that environment.