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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Perspective that Arrived on Georgian Time

So, really slowly. 



Really terrible iPod (yes, iPod) photo of my teaching materials while in Georgia


When I started THIS blog, I went back to my old blog from when I was in Georgia to reminisce (fawn over how clever I was). And while I loved it and cried more times than I would like to admit, I couldn’t help but have a good long think when I looked at the few things I posted about my school. Five years ago, I was a bright-eyed college graduate who knew EVERYTHING about education, like any recent college graduate. And I was going to take my talents to the Black Sea.

My first posts about school eek with confidence that I will make a true difference and a little bit of snobbishness at the condition of the school (almost falling apart, even though it was the nicest in the town). It’s tough to face the fact that I looked down on my school even the tiniest amount, but, here we are. I was thrilled to meet the co-teachers I would work with and learn with and from them, and I valued, or at least pretended to value due to previous snobbishness, their experience so much. Even though I did adore them, I am also very awkward, so I knew even before going that a co-teaching model would be difficult for me, because I would never know where to jump in and if I was stepping on toes or not pulling my weight. I was not wrong. I spent many days sitting in a corner of the classroom because my co-teacher did not want to bother me to ask me to participate, and I did not want to bother her to ask her if I could lead some things, or, you know, teach the lessons I had prepared in hopes of teaching. We could not logistically co-plan, because they only had me in one or two of their 10-15 classes per week. Like the a-hole that I was at 23, I was actually a little bit ok with this, because it gave me time to text Clare and to write my blog posts about dance class for the one millionth time during class. I never wanted to admit this until now, but I comforted myself by telling myself that they did not want me around anyway, that they did not like my American accent. I felt resented, and under-utilized. And shitty.

Teach and Learn with Georgia, the government initiative that hired me, that same year, wiped all English-language instruction clean from schools to start new with a country-wide standardized curriculum complete with shiny new text sets and shiny new native-speaking teachers! I only assumed that they were thrilled to have us, because, duh. Who WOULDN’T be thrilled to have us! We wandered around the streets of the town at all hours of day and night and started random sweater vest dance parties in the middle of their restaurants! Oh, we were also there to teach, too, when that worked out.

As a teacher in the US, I have now had my fair share of curriculum being handed down to me that I did not choose, and I have also had my fair share of being made to feel like I am not doing a proper job at being what I worked my whole life to be. I thought these teachers may have had a problem with me personally, or more likely that something was getting lost in translation (because they were some of the sweetest women I had ever met), but I never stopped to think how insulting my presence was to their careers. To their LIVELIHOODS. To them. They were essentially told (or made to feel, because our feeling of uckiness as a result of curriculum changes is rarely remedied), that they were not teaching what their job is to teach properly. And a native speaker would be coming in to teach instead. A young, fresh out of college person who may or may not even have studied teaching and whose only redeeming quality is that they speak English as easily as breathing and are definitely probably not a serial killer or Russian spy. I now wonder if I had any right to be there, a constant reminder that the powers that be deem these wonderful women unfit to teach. And oh my, these dear ladies. Here is what I wrote about them in one of my first posts:

it is impossible to spend even a few minutes in the company of these people and not want to put in as much work as these months will allow. For Nino, who won a contest years ago to receive an American English instruction teachers kit, complete with lessons, posters, and cassette tapes. Yes, it was that long ago. The kind of curriculum kits that school boards vote every few years to throw away and replace for every teacher and student in the district? That one kit had been a lifeline for Nino and for English instruction in the entire school in the past few years. Or for Khatuna, who makes up not only a song but a dance to along with every simple phrase to help first-graders remember them. Or for Rusiko, who goes home every day to care for her brother who suffered lifelong injuries after being drafted to fight in Afghanistan during the Soviet Union. It is my job to help them teach English and prepare these students for global opportunities.

Did I do that? Did I break my back for them? No. I worked hard when I was included, and our students improved, but like any difficult venture, I started out with dreams that were perhaps a little too big. But I got there. Kind of. Damn, though. I wish I would have worked harder. Harder to make my teachers understand that they could take a week (or a MONTH!) off and sit in the corner and I would handle things. To tell them how much I valued them and what I learned from them. To speak Georgian to my students, something I was terrified of because they lost their MINDS laughing when I tried. I should have let them laugh! I should have let them see me struggle with language just like they were! Why did I not get that? Why didn’t I try harder to understand and leverage the school structure that baffled me into fear because it was so different from what I was used to.

Like any red-blooded American, I sometimes can’t see the forest through the trees now that I am a public school teacher in the states. Especially when those trees are comprised of overcrowded classrooms and all but impossible evaluation systems upon which, you know, our entire careers depend. I forget what a luxury my marker board is, the fact that my co-workers speak the same language as me, the fact that MOST days I know what needs to be taught. I didn’t always have that. My dear former co-teachers still don’t have that.

When the inevitable times come when someone who has never set foot in my school district, let alone my school, hands down another initiative to make us feel even more inadequate than a room full of sixth-graders can, I hope to have enough perspective to look back on my Georgian co-teachers and, after crying over how many school supras I have missed in the last four years, remember what they endure day in and day out to deliver much-needed education to their students and, turns out, to their fresh off the campus foreign co-teachers. I’ve spent years thinking I was doing them a favor when really, the benefit was all mine.

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