I’ve now promised several people several times that I would write about my new school. Of course, having been there for under two weeks, it’s hard to have a real impression beyond the honeymoon phase. However, I might as well go ahead and jot down some first impressions.
First of all, the school’s reputation precedes it. People know – it’s the school near the Philarmonia. They tell me it’s the most prestigious school in Tbilisi. They tell me it’s going to have none of the problems that other TLGers talk about in their schools.
My initial impression of PS 51 is that its reputation is very well-deserved. As I’ve said already, the students that I teach tend to have fairly good English all-around – to be more precise, they’re generally at the A2 level by grade seven, although after that there seems to be some stagnation, and the eleventh graders don’t seem much more advanced than the seventh graders. There are many possible explanations for this – the older students might be more distracted, more self-conscious about their speaking skills; alternately there could have been relatively recent improvements in the quality of education overall, or the curriculum from grades 8-10 could be less ambitious… this seems like something that merits further consideration once I have more information to work with.
In any case, even the younger students – I’ve sat in on a few elementary school classes, where the children were aged five to eight, and the lessons focused on things like songs, learning the letters, colors, etc – even the younger students seem to be learning English well, and I haven’t seen anything like what has been described by my fellow TLGers, whose students have been studying for years but don’t speak a word. They’re definitely doing something right at this school.
The students are also relatively well-behaved. All of the students are respectful; even the trouble-makers are fairly easy to deal with; there are the normal play-fights and rowdiness that you’d expect in the halls, but I rarely see anything that looks like bullying, and students are fairly good at settling down in the classroom – basically, the students from grades 5-8 are better-behaved than my classmates from those grades were, pretty much across the board. There was one day when some of the students were extra antsy, but I suspect they had a case of the Fridays, and I spoke to my coteacher about strategies for dealing with this.
My coteachers all speak English very well. I feel like that’s important to mention because I’ve heard stories from rural TLGers that their coteachers sometimes barely know any English. Although none of my coteachers have native-level fluency – they each have a distinctive accent, a few minor syntactic quirks (mostly involving things like articles, particles, and pronouns that don’t affect meaning), and are generally limited to a single dialect and register of English (which I would call an academic register of British English) – they can all understand my speech easily, they all know the material that they are teaching very well, and they all make very few mistakes in class.
They are also very pleasant and easy to work with. I work with three coteachers, each with their own style of teaching, and I find myself fitting into each style differently. But I think that they all respect and appreciate my presence, which, again, is something that I wasn’t necessarily expecting, since even at the Police Academy I felt that it took me a while to earn the trust of some of the coteachers, and I’m told that many TLGers have trouble because their coteachers don’t feel entirely comfortable with having to share their classroom with another teacher.
So I would rate the students and the teachers highly. The facilities are also good – there’s always heat, there is generally chalk available for the blackboards, the students generally have textbooks (generally good-quality, new textbooks), the bathrooms are not great but not horrifying either, and there are even a few computer labs for students, although I’m not certain how they are utilized in practice.
There are things I would ask for in a perfect universe – CD players for the listening sections of lessons, for instance – but these are luxuries, and as it is, some of the teachers just bring their own. I’m well aware that language instruction commenced for thousands of years without a multimedia component, and that the priority is getting things like heat and electricity to rural schools before the flagship schools like 51 get another round of bells and whistles.
Speaking of flagship schools, I want to say a little bit about why I think they are important, and why I think I personally am in one of them. There is obvious inequality here, and for many people inequality always seems unfair whatever the reasons, but I would just like to offer my take on the situation before people jump to conclusions or judge me, TLG, or Georgia.
The high school that I went to – Stuyvesant High School – was extremely prestigious. At times it has been considered the best public high school in the city of New York, although I have no idea where its reputation stands now. You had to take a test to be admitted – the test was similar to the SATs and covered admission to three schools, of which Stuy had the highest cutoff for admission. The school was very well-funded and, in 1991, a new building was built to house the school in Battery Park City. The building had ten floors, a swimming pool, escalators, two gyms, and god knows what else.
At the time that I went there, there was controversy over the supposed “elitism” of the school. Most high schools in New York City are zoned – that is, your children can go there if you live close by. Only three schools had entrance exams; there were also a few schools that had an interview or portfolio process, and a few magnet high schools like Cardozo and Townsend Harris that offered admission based on college admission practices; but overall most high school students in New York went to a school near where they lived. The “elitism” charges were bogus because only fabulously wealthy or fabulously lucky people could afford to live in TriBeCa or Battery Park City in the 1990s so if Stuy had been a zoned school, it would have been a zoned school for spoiled rich kids; as it was, poor kids like myself could go to the school as long as we could pass the entrance exam, so it worked out well for me.
My point is simply that I am very familiar with the issues and questions around things like zoning, funding, and admissions for public educational institutions. There is always a question of who should get priority. Should we focus on students who have demonstrated talent, like Stuy? Or should we focus on students who have demonstrated hard work and high achievement, like Townsend Harris? These approaches suggest that training those who seem most likely to succeed will pay off the greatest dividends to society – that society needs these future leaders of politics and business and culture.
On the other hand many would say that we should focus instead on those who need our help. We should focus on the poor, the underprivileged – the students who have the least opportunity to succeed should receive the highest priority. We should try to level the playing field out of fairness, but also because if people stay poor and uneducated, they soon become a great burden on society.
I strongly believe that both of these arguments have merit. Ideally a country should strive to give every student a first-class education – but if it can’t reach every student, then it needs to have at least a few well-funded public schools that can offer a first-class education to students who could not afford private schools, because even if it’s not fair, at least some group of people in society should be well-educated. At the same time the country should be trying to incrementally improve all schools and reach all students.
There are a few public schools in Tbilisi – like PS 1 and PS 51 – that seem to produce a large number of leaders in Georgia – famous statesmen, artists, architects, poets, etc. It makes sense to spend the money needed to continue these schools’ tradition of excellence, because Georgia needs these leaders. I know it doesn’t seem fair, but to me, it seems necessary.
Meanwhile, as I have said in the past, Georgia is devoting resources to improving education throughout the country. TLG itself is a prime example of this – TLG volunteers are expensive assets, and many of us are going to rural schools in high-need areas.
As for why I personally have been placed in such a prestigious school – as opposed to a rural school with no lights, no textbooks, no heat, etc. – I know it sounds mundane, but the school had an opening when I became available. The TLG volunteer who was at the school before me moved (I haven’t had a chance to ask why just yet) and so the school needed someone new.
Sure, they could have picked someone from one of the new groups, but they would have been a wild card, whereas I am more of a known quantity. My supervisor at the Police Academy gave TLG a good review of my work performance – which must have carried a lot of weight, given that we had been at odds over a number of issues – and so TLG felt confident in my abilities from a professional standpoint. I have been in this country for six months, I am comfortable with the culture, I have developed reasonable language skills, and so there’s little chance of problems related to culture shock cropping up. Basically, aside from the fact that I occasionally cause trouble by opening up my mouth when I should have kept it closed, I’m actually a pretty good candidate for a position in one of the prestigious Tbilisi schools. But mostly I think it was just a matter of timing.
It’s easy to be cynical – especially for those of us whose background is in the US educational system – about educational policy, about funding, about how decisions get made, and about whether anyone really cares. That cynicism was very apparent when TLG volunteers got to question the Minister of Education – a lot of their questions focused on things like where the money comes from and where it goes and why, and wouldn’t it be better/fairer/more democratic to do it some other way.
And yet it strikes me that cynicism may not be the right approach here. Georgia is undertaking broad educational reforms using a sort of hybrid model that I affectionately call “libertarian socialism.” How well the model will end up working is yet to be determined – personally I think it will do just fine – but what’s important to me is that the issue isn’t politicized here the way it is in the US. No one at the Ministry seems the least bit concerned about pissing off special interests, like teachers’ unions or textbook manufacturers or the various other corporate interests that retard educational reform in the US. The Georgian policy-makers seem to really want to fix the system in the best way possible, and they seem to have been empowered to do so. And so while we can second-guess the effectiveness of the voucher program or the decision to put new bathrooms in Tbilisi schools when some rural students can’t even afford the marshutka fare to get to school, we should at least step back and recognize that incremental change in the right direction is better than no change at all, and much better than change in the wrong direction.
So yes – it is sad that not all Georgian students benefit from the kind of school environment that exists in PS 51 and other prestigious Tbilisi schools. Yes, it is hard for TLG volunteers to teach at rural or otherwise underprivileged schools where they feel like the systemic problems are way too big for them to handle. But it’s clear to me that the Ministry of Education is actually working on substantial solutions to all of these problems, and I think that PS 51 serves as a model of the success that all Georgian schools can strive towards. I think the school offers proof that the so-called “Soviet mentality” can be overcome and that the challenges Georgians face in education can be surmounted.
Plus, the Teachers’ Room at the school is just within range of Elvis Diner’s free wireless internet! How awesome is that?
Speaking of the internet and my high school: