Goodbye to TLG

For those who have been wondering, I am still in Georgia.

However, I have left TLG, and not without some bitterness. I haven’t been telling my story because I haven’t wanted to slam my former employer – it’s just bad form – but now that I have some emotional distance from the events of last year, and have settled into my new job (teaching at a private school in Tbilisi) quite happily, I feel like it’s time to talk about what went down.

Last November and December, TLG began firing most of their volunteers. Due to budget cuts made by the new government, TLG had to be reduced from maybe 500-600 volunteers down to about 160. Many volunteers who had signed up for a full year were told they’d have to leave in December and would not be coming back. This caused a great deal of annoyance among those who were dismissed, and a great deal of speculation as to what the criteria were for volunteers who were offered extensions.

I was offered an extension, and accepted gladly, given that I had a newborn at home and didn’t want to have to change jobs abruptly in the middle of the school year, and that I had planned from the previous June to stay for the entirety of last year. Things seemed okay.

Then I got an email, just before school let out, from my regional representative. The email said that TLG volunteers would no longer be placed in “cities” (I guess Kutaisi, Batumi, and Tbilisi?) and that I would have to leave my school and go teach in a village outside the city. I bid a sad goodbye to my students and coteachers at my Kutaisi school and resigned myself to my situation – a new school, a new transition, and a new commute. I didn’t object at the time because they told me it was their policy and I didn’t want to ask for special treatment. Plus, I felt I was lucky just to have been given an extension.

Apparently others were not so scrupulous. I later found out that a bunch of volunteers actually stayed in Tbilisi, both living in and teaching in the capital city. I never received a coherent explanation of why exceptions were made for those volunteers to live and teach in Tbilisi but an exception was not made for me to teach in Kutaisi. Instead, I had to endure a semester with nearly an hour commute to the village on two marshutkas where people didn’t hesitate to light up a cigarette, which as you may know from reading this blog is a major point of stress for me. It was a major quality of life problem for me to spend nearly two more hours a day away from my family, especially with my son being just a few months old.

Compounding that was when I discovered that 400 lari was missing from my paycheck in January. That was the money I had previously received for both contributing to the TLG blog and managing our team of bloggers. I went to the TLG office and they explained that they had made a mistake with my contract and that in any case, they would have to reduce my blogging salary from 400 to 200 lari, assuming I agreed to stay on as blog manager under that condition. What could I do at that point? Again, middle of the school year, infant at home. I put aside my bad feelings and agreed to the new arrangement.

Then the blog began to suffer because the posts I sent in for approval were approved late or not at all. I found this very discouraging, as my posts and the posts of my team sat in limbo, and as you saw I ended up just posting some of the educational posts I had written for the TLG blog on this blog over the summer. I started to wonder if this didn’t presage the entire blog project being shut down. (I have since learned that this was actually just an issue of administrative incompetence/malfeasance and that the blog will be rejuvenated this year with a new team of administrators with increased authority and autonomy… a great development, but far too late to do me any good).

It was sad to see something I had worked so hard on be put on the back burner. It was stressful to be asked to take a nearly two-hour round trip every day to satisfy a new policy that other volunteers were exempt from for no apparent reason. It was difficult to live on my new, reduced salary, and I had to supplement my income with freelancing and tutoring rather than spending time with my wife and son. I reluctantly decided to start looking for other options.

It was not, however, until TLG failed to fly me home for the summer that I made the final decision to just cut ties with them altogether. As I’ve said before, the problem was that TLG has certain bureaucratic procedures that it follows when booking flights, and the administration was unwilling to deviate from those procedures to accommodate my family. Even though I had not taken my previous two vacation flights, even though I was going to pay for the cost of my wife’s ticket and my son’s ticket, they just wouldn’t book the flights we needed. It felt like the final insult.

So yeah, I’m still a little angry, but maybe the fact that TLG ended up falling so short of my expectations is ultimately a good thing, in that it pushed me to find a job that suits me better both financially and professionally. TLG is a good program for someone looking for an experience, but it’s not a career and it was never meant to be. Three years is already a year longer than I had initially imagined I’d ever stay with TLG. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity TLG provided me with, even as I am very disappointed in how it ended.

And that’s the last thing I’ll say about it. It’s time to look forward, not backward. This year is going to be exciting, and while my new job keeps me very busy, I’ll try to find more time to talk about some of my projects and some of what’s going on in Georgia. After all, we have an election soon…

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7 Responses to Goodbye to TLG

  1. raughley says:

    Interesting post, Neal. I’m not sure if I should, but I’d kind of like to write a companion piece to explain the decision making processes in September-December 2012. They were terrible and ignorant and basically undid everything that TLG had improved in its first two years. Professional discretion dictates that I should keep mum about the whole thing, but perhaps people would benefit from hearing about how it all went down over at the Ministry…

  2. Anonymous says:

    Sadly history repeat itself in Georgia over and over again. The country is in need of knowledge that can be provided from abroad on so many levels in society and foreigners are coming and provide the knowledge, doing a great job and in the end they end up beeing treated very badly. I have seen it so many times by now, over and over again.

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  4. Mike Mannion says:

    I’ve read excerpts of your blog now and again in relation to other topics, but haven’t really followed it until somebody sent me the link for this particular entry. Certainly some interesting and heated points form both sides…

    Namecalling and insults aside, a few things do stand out that are worth mentioning.

    1. You say that your supplementary salary was cut by 200 GEL. Another way of looking at things is that you are *still* 200 GEL better off than the majority of volunteers that were part of the TLG program, and at one stage was getting twice the TLG stipend for a minimal of online work.

    I took a quick read of the email sent out by TLG when the official blog was started up and it says “As a member of the Official TLG Blogging team, you would be asked to work with our editorial staff to produce at least one blog post per month for the TLG Blog. Your participation in this project would be reflected in your official Letter of Recommendation from the Ministry of Education and Science.” Yay – a mention in my letter of recommendation if I take part. No mention of the blogger approving their work getting their salary doubled, And I’m personally glad that I chose not to contribute to the TLG blog after finding out this – I’d certainly not be happy to find out that another volunteer was making money off the back of my work.

    Should you have been reimbursed for the work you put in – sure. Double salary… probably not. But easy money, fun while it lasted, but when TLG decided to implement cutbacks, it’s not overly unreasonable that someone in the office saw this as being a bit excessive and decided to pull the plug. Other volunteers (see Parker Kelly’s earlier post) were putting a hell of a lot of their own time into community projects without so much as a thank you, so overall you came out of this pretty okay.

    2. “I never received a coherent explanation of why exceptions were made for those volunteers to live and teach in Tbilisi but an exception was not made for me to teach in Kutaisi.”

    I’m not sure why you feel that your employer needs to explain why they didn’t make an exception for you.

    I was told when I started that all of my group would be in the Shida Kartli region, which in the space of a week evolved into 15 or so being based in Tbilisi, some because they basically demanded to be put there or else, three or four in Shida Kartli, and the rest scattered throughout the country. Other groups had similar experiences, and always have, from day one. And according to the FAQ on the TLG website…

    1. Can I decide where I want to live?

    TLG is a nationwide program and due to the needs of each region we reserve the exclusive right to determine TLG Volunteer placement. Applicant placement preferences will only be taken into account when they are absolutely necessary (i.e. medical).

    You signed an extension, TLG gets to decide where to put you. Sure, some got to stay in Tbilisi, other volunteers were placed in the mountains where they were snowed in for three months of the winter. Commutable distance from Kutaisi – where you wanted to live – seems like a fair compromise.

    3. It was stressful to be asked to take a nearly two-hour round trip every day to satisfy a new policy that other volunteers were exempt from for no apparent reason.”

    It’s not a new policy – TLG have chosen where to place volunteers from the beginning – it sounds like they chose to apply it a bit more stringently as of late. It’s just that now you got handed the shit end of the stick that other volunteers were handed a few years ago. You wonder why some people took issue with you being placed in the police academy in Tbilisi while they were stuck on a mountain in Svaneti? Now you know why….

    4. “TLG has certain bureaucratic procedures that it follows when booking flights, and the administration was unwilling to deviate from those procedures to accommodate my family.”

    Your personal situation re: family and child, be it by accident or design, is ultimately your responsibility and not TLG’s, and yes while it’s a letdown that they wouldn’t do you the favour of arranging your family’s flights too, thats ultimately what it would have been – a favour. There could be a multitude of reasons they didn’t want to do this – maybe they didn’t want to get involved with the issues associated with sending a Georgian woman and child overseas to the USA, even if it is just booking the ticket, or maybe they just didn’t want to take on the extra workload – after all, based on what I’ve read above, you weren’t willing to offer your services for free. In short, it sucks that they didn’t help, sure, but they’re not indebted to you to do so either. They brought one person into the country – their responsibility begins and ends with getting that one person back home again.

    You may not like this response, or the responses of others here, but by posting your grievances online in a blog, it invites others to counter them. Home are pretty harsh, though they do raise a few valid points. Personally I think that you got treated extremely well by TLG compared to other volunteers in terms of opportunities presented to you, locations in which you were placed, supplementary sources of income and so on, and I find it hard to fathom some of the complaints that you’re making. I have my own list of issues with TLG and I disagree with lot of their policies, but I think that you should recognise that other volunteers got a far shittier deal than you did.

    That’s just me. Opinions may vary. Good luck with the new gig – I hope that it lives up to your expectations.

    • panoptical says:

      I’ll address your points in order. I actually agree with most of what you are saying, and so I think maybe you’ve misunderstood where I’m coming from.

      1. Yeah, actually, I agree with this one, and whenever I found myself feeling angry about the pay cut I reminded myself that overall I came out ahead. That doesn’t change the fact that they should have given me notice rather than just failing to pay me one month. It also doesn’t change the fact that the reduction was part of the reason why I left.

      2. I never said TLG needed to explain. However, you have to admit that it is underhanded to ask people to extend their contracts with the implicit understanding that they will get to finish the school year in the schools they are in, and then, once their plans are set in stone and the opportunity to book a flight has passed, to spring the news on them that there is a new policy barring them from teaching in cities. It is also unfair to institute such a policy and then make exceptions for some volunteers and not others.

      And yes, it was also unfair when they said they would not accommodate placement requests, and then instead they accommodated placement requests from some volunteers and not others. The one does not negate the other.

      3. TLG has always chosen where to place volunteers, but TLG has never before arbitrarily moved some volunteers out of schools and communities, where they were teaching successfully and receiving good reports, in the middle of the school year.

      “You wonder why some people took issue with you being placed in the police academy in Tbilisi while they were stuck on a mountain in Svaneti?”

      No, I don’t wonder that. I understand jealousy and resentment. I am also capable of seeing the parallel between the two scenarios. And you know what? If one of those volunteers had left TLG and then wrote “I left partly because I didn’t like the fact that I was in a village while others lived and taught in the capital”, I would never for a second have thought to argue with them. They are totally entitled to that feeling.

      4. “it sucks that they didn’t help, sure, but they’re not indebted to you to do so either.”

      Agreed. That’s why instead of asking them for money or saying they are indebted to me, I am not doing that. I am saying it sucks and I felt insulted.

      “You may not like this response, or the responses of others here”

      Honestly, I don’t. I don’t go on other people’s blogs and tell them they don’t have a right to feel whatever it is they’re feeling. I consider it petty and unproductive.

      If someone felt the need to defend TLG in this scenario, I could at least understand that, having once been in the position of being TLG’s principal online defender. But people who come on here to tell me that I don’t have the right to complain because I never deserved what I had in the first place? Sorry to be crass, but fuck those people.

      • Mike Mannion says:

        Fair responses for the most part. I agree with some of them, and will agree to disagree on others. To be clear, I didn’t come on here “tell (you) (you) don’t have a right to feel whatever it is (you)’re feeling” – that’s everyone’s entitlement by default. But compared to other blog entries, this one encompasses more than just yourself and your feelings, but other volunteers too, and our former employer. Somebody sent me a link, I read, felt that the opinions expressed should have been illustrated as part of the bigger picture, as per the “constructive comments, including constructive criticism, are welcome” clause in your Comments policy. No personal grievances, no, “you didn’t deserve it to begin with”. I don’t agree with *how* many people expressed their opinions in earlier comments, but if you cut away the personal attacks, there was a thread of truth running through them that I tried to consolidate into one response as passively as I could.

    • I do not wish to “grave dig” this conversation, so I apologize if this comment seems random or even inappropriate. However, I am searching far and wide (aka all over google) for Parker Kelly. I am his successor in Zovreti. However, all I can find is your reference to his earlier post, which I cannot seem to find. Could you (or anyone who sees this) direct me to his blog and/or Facebook?

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