On Friday, TLG held a meeting in Tbilisi for local TLG volunteers where we were given information by the TLG staff and then given the opportunity to ask the Minister of Education, Dimitri Shashkin, some questions.
The ministry officials took the opportunity to address some concerns and criticisms of TLG that have surfaced over the last few months. Media outlets like the New York Times and Eurasianet reported on TLG’s progress through the first semester, and the reports they gave were mixed. One volunteer even questioned the rationale behind TLG itself, and was quoted as saying about TLG that “It’s like buying an espresso machine before you’ve built a kitchen.”
I personally disagree with this criticism. Material resources are, of course, important to education, but not as important as human resources. Think about the question logically. Which problem poses more of an impediment to a good education – substandard textbooks or teachers who lack expertise in the subjects that they are teaching? A teacher who has native-level fluency in English can at least potentially teach English to students regardless of the classroom materials available. We TLG volunteers can design our own lessons and materials, can access lesson plans from a vast global ESL community on the internet, and can draw on our own fluency to converse with and field questions from students. On the other hand, teachers who lack an adequate grasp of English would have trouble teaching good English to their students regardless of textbook quality or classroom environment.
But at a more basic level, if I didn’t believe in the validity of the TLG program I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think TLG could potentially meet its goals of educating Georgians in English and Western culture. So this “espresso machine” comparison just doesn’t hold water for me.
Shashkin took a different approach to answering this criticism. He pointed out that Georgian schools have come very far in the years since the Rose Revolution. He pointed out that English has already overtaken Russian as the language of choice on Georgian foreign language certification exams. He pointed out that TLG doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that it is far from the only program that the Ministry of Education is pursuing to improve the quality of education in Georgia.
The overall strategy of education reform in Georgia is to teach English language and computer skills to all Georgian students so that they can compete in a global marketplace driven by information technology. In other words, if Georgians can use the internet, in English, they’ll have access to the collected cultural and scientific knowledge of the entire Western world, and to the opportunities that come with that access. Hence TLG, and hence the new program to give away 400,000 netbooks by 2015 – the goal is for every Georgian student to have one from the first grade onwards.
Shashkin also addressed teacher salaries, teacher training, and school infrastructure improvements. As an example, all public schools in Tbilisi will have their restrooms renovated this summer, addressing a common complaint among TLG volunteers that students and teachers have no functional restrooms for many hours of the day. As regards teacher certification, all Georgian schoolteachers will have to pass certification exams by 2014 in both their field of education and in the methodology of teaching. Those who pass will be given a pay raise to a salary of 1000 lari per month – a salary that a family can easily live on in Georgia. Those who cannot pass the exams will be dismissed. Finally, regarding textbook quality, Shashkin announced that he had signed a deal with Macmillan Publishers to get textbooks for about 10 lari per book, along with free teachers’ books and other resources for teachers. 10 lari is dirt cheap, about $6 US.
When the floor opened for questions, I was shocked to hear that many of the TLG volunteers asked argumentative political questions such as “isn’t signing a deal with Macmillan anti-competitive” and “how do you decide which projects get priority when allocating your budget” and “where does the money come from for these improvements?” Shashkin handled these questions by giving direct, honest, intelligent answers that showed a nuanced grasp of economic issues and an ability to express that understanding extemporaneously in a foreign language. The only word I can use to describe it would be “impressive.” I wish US public officials could express and defend their ideas with half as much clarity and frankness.
When my turn came for a question, I asked the following: “A lot of times my students, and other people that I meet, ask me very frank and direct questions about issues such as race, sex, and sexuality. I often find myself, especially in a classroom, talking around these topics, avoiding certain questions, or just changing the subject entirely. So my question is, to what extent are we supposed to be cultural ambassadors and to what extent are we supposed to avoid subjects that are controversial in Georgia?”
The Minister responded, immediately, that we are cultural ambassadors. He said that Georgia is a very racially tolerant society (an issue that deserves some exploration, in a future post) but that many Georgians are curious about people of other races because the phenomenon of having foreigners here is relatively new to Georgia. In other words, we shouldn’t be afraid to discuss racial issues with Georgians. Regarding sex and other topics, the Minister said that free discussion is a value that Georgians hold to be very important and that while in class, we should obviously use discretion in what we say, but on the whole there will be no problems with Westerners expressing their opinions or answering questions. This is consistent with TLG’s policy of not firing me over certain posts that may have stirred up some sensation among Georgians.
Finally, the Minister said that no matter what we do, there will always be – and I quote – “morons” who will try to generate scandal and controversy, as in the Tomas Fletcher case. As I said in that post, TLG backed Fletcher and he was cleared of any wrongdoing, but of course the facts aren’t always as important as the perception.
This meeting helped to clear up a lot of the misperceptions about TLG, but aside from just this meeting, TLG has also become far more communicative and responsive in general. Just this month, they’ve sent around emails about weekly and monthly reports, social events, updated contact info for staff, notable events of interest to TLGers, holidays, and job opportunities for TLG volunteers. They’re also planning excursions for volunteers starting from when the weather starts to warm up again in March. They’re going to implement a TLG web forum. So overall I’d say that TLG took some of the more constructive criticism that we, the volunteers, had to offer from last semester, and has begun to implement improvements to address our concerns. It’s good to work for an organization that actually learns from its experience and responds to the concerns of its members. I can definitely recommend the program much more highly now than ever before, and if they keep at it I think that it has the potential to become not just successful, but a legitimately top-notch program, in the very near future.