In many ways, Georgians seem to idolize America. I benefit directly from the perception that America is great – after all, it’s one of the main reasons why we’ve all been invited here to teach English – however, I do not necessarily share this perspective, especially when it comes to education. The American educational system sucks, and if you pay attention to the news, you probably have some idea of how bad the problem is.
But bizarrely, it often seems that everyone here in Georgia has implicitly accepted the idea that Americans know better when it comes to things like educational policy. I personally have said that we are here partially to bring Western ideas and attitudes to Georgian education, and I stand by that statement, but it’s important to draw the distinction between Americans as possessing valuable outside perspectives and Americans as possessing some kind of special education expertise. It’s always beneficial to exchange ideas with people from different backgrounds, but the benefits are lessened when one or both sides approach the exchange with preconceptions about which perspective is superior.
One of the first things I realized about talking to Georgians about America is that they don’t respond well to my criticizing America in any way. It’s hard to describe exactly what the reaction is, but I think the closest is embarrassment. I think that by complaining about my own country to foreigners, I am (according to the rules of Georgian culture) shaming myself and most Georgians would never dream of participating in my shame by agreeing with me or even really acknowledging what I’ve just said. For the most part if I have anything negative to say about America, Georgians seem nervous, or confused, or embarrassed, and do everything they can to allow me to rethink my statement and correct my enormous faux pas before it gets tacitly acknowledged and reified.
Still, when I got to Georgia, the flaws in the USA stood out for me much more than the merits, and so I found myself avoiding talking about America. For the first time in my life, actually, I began to observe the “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” rule, which I had previously despised and ignored but which has since served me very well. And the peculiar thing is that most of the TLG people that I met here basically agreed with me about the problems in America – that the economy and job market were both terrible, and that the existence of a tiny class of people who profited from making the economy terrible in an enragingly unfair aspect of American society; that political discourse in the US is designed to appeal to the basest elements of the psyche and has thus become basically a giant room full of idiots shouting nonsense at each other for no real purpose; and that our politicians and our political system itself seemed to be failing us – whereas most Georgians that I’ve met here basically idealize America to the extent that I don’t even recognize the country that they are describing when they talk about America.
At School 51, the focus tends to be on education, rather than on politics or economics. My coteachers like to ask me what education is like in America. I think they want me to say that the students are all disciplined and smart and respectful (they aren’t) so that the students will believe that if they are disciplined and smart and respectful enough, Georgia can become modernized like America.
It’s nice to have something to aspire to, I guess. In Georgia, America is perceived as a rich and modern country. Most of what the Georgian people know about America is from movies and television, and, I suspect, from a certain subset of movies and television. And in many ways, America is rich and modern, but as I’ve complained about above, the wealth is mostly concentrated at the top.
I went to school in New York City – a city with roughly twice the population of the entire country of Georgia. There were poor neighborhoods and rich neighborhoods, and schools tended to vary in quality with the affluence of the neighborhoods they were in. So-called “inner-city” schools in poor neighborhoods were chronically underfunded, couldn’t retain teachers, had no textbooks, and suffered from serious social problems like drugs, violence, teen pregnancy, lack of parental involvement, and a general overall sense of futility. There were apparently also good schools in good neighborhoods, but for the most part, I don’t know anything about these. Then there were the specialized schools – the charter schools, magnet schools, and the elite public high schools that you had to apply to like a college to get into. These tended to be very well-funded, but in my experience, even these had their share of problems.
When I was in elementary school – in a solidly middle-class neighborhood in Queens – we had asbestos removal teams going through the school pulling out insulation that had been demonstrated to cause a number of severe lung diseases. We had two types of emergency drills: fire drills, in which an alarm went off and we all had to evacuate the school via the nearest exit in an orderly fashion; and air-raid drills, in which a different alarm went off and we all had to get under our desks and sit in the fetal position with our arms over our heads. Students were divided into two classes: the “smart” class and the “dumb” class. The “dumb” class had severe discipline problems and the teachers generally had no control over the class whatsoever, so basically students who had performed poorly on an IQ test – a measure of questionable merit – never really ended up learning anything.
In Junior High School – grades 6-8 – I went to a special magnet school (The Louis Armstrong Middle School) that was created to promote diversity by bringing students from all over Queens – the most diverse county in America – to study together. Apparently it is considered one of the best public middle schools in New York. What I remember is being bullied relentlessly because, again, the school had absolutely no mechanism for providing meaningful student discipline, and a large percentage of the teachers were incompetent or desensitized or apathetic. There was a sharp contrast between teachers would could control a classroom and teachers who either could not or chose not to.
Finally, my High School was like a fairyland. One of the top schools in New York, you had to test to get into it, etc. It was well-funded and had a new modern building to house it, with ten floors, escalators to move students, modern biology, chemistry, physics, electronics, robotics, ceramics, and photography labs, a swimming pool, two gyms, a dance studio, and god knows what else.
Still, like every high school in America, mine had some problems with things like drugs and alcohol and there was a subset of the school population – a solid two to four percent – who were just serious hardcore stoners, who experimented with harder drugs, who went to school basically as a way to hang out with their stoner friends in a warm, friendly environment. The school administration had a tendency to look the other way, and we always suspected that it was because they didn’t want to damage the school’s reputation. I watched a number of my friends fall prey to drug addiction. Some got past it. Some did not. My point is that American society can’t protect its children from drugs, that there are people who are perfectly willing to sell heroin and LSD to thirteen and fourteen year olds, and that this is a systemic problem that I witnessed as a teenager in the best public school in New York.
I’ve been very privileged to go to these schools – LAMS and Stuy – that offered a top-notch education, for free. I was privileged to be exposed to the diversity of ideas and people, privileged to have classes available at higher levels, so that I could, for example, complete my college-level math requirements by 11th grade. And despite my privilege, I still feel like the problems that I encountered at these schools left me deeply scarred.
Most Americans are not nearly as privileged as I was. Most Americans went to schools that did not offer top-notch education. By the time I got to college, I already knew enough math (everything up through integral calculus with analytic geometry) that I’d never have to take another math class again if I didn’t want to. My college, though, offered classes like “Algebra for College Students” which was for students who managed to graduate from high school and get accepted into college while somehow managing to have never learned basic algebra.
I won’t recount every single failure of the American educational system. It’s been all over the news this year that American students are performing badly on math, reading, and science tests when compared to the rest of the developed world. When I think about my experience going through the public school system, and then realize that I was one of the luckiest students in that system, it seems to me that American education is failing on a massive scale.
There’s no way to sort good teachers from bad teachers. Student discipline is a joke. There are metal detectors in many public schools to keep students from bringing knives and guns to school. Drug dealers target kids who are barely through puberty. Bullying goes completely unchecked and results in teen suicides and shooting sprees. It’s not just about test scores – for many students, just surviving public education is a dangerous and painful daily struggle.
And so when my coteachers ask me to tell my classes about America, I try to be honest – School 51 seems roughly comparable to the schools I went to in the US, which means that to me it seems like it’s better than the average American public school. I know the grass is always greener on the other side, and I know that as an outsider and a newcomer I haven’t seen everything yet, and certainly not from a student’s perspective – but it seems to me that while School 51 has fewer resources and academic opportunities than the schools I went to as a teenager, it also has fewer social problems that interfere with the learning process.
And generally, my coteachers seem not to believe me. The Hollywood factor is too strong. I wish I could explain that my high school was more like MTV’s Skins than Saved by the Bell. Like I said, to Georgians, America seems like a magical ivory tower of goodness.
I don’t have all the answers. I doubt that I could fix the American education system. So, I try to approach the Georgian education system with a little bit of humility. Yes, I work with coteachers who run their classrooms differently than I would run mine. Yes, it is occasionally frustrating that the process of disciplining students, choosing course materials, or evaluating students is obscure rather than transparent to me. And yet, I also know that successful education is tricky. It’s a combination of factors inside and outside of the classroom, and as an outsider and a newcomer I’m only really connected to very few of those factors. I have a lot to contribute – especially as one of the rare people who managed to actually get a really good education out of the American education system – but I also have a lot to learn.
I guess that’s why frustrates me a little when TLG volunteers think they have all the answers, or think that they know better than their Georgian counterparts, or are overly critical of Georgian education in general. If it’s frustrating for you to teach without modern textbooks, without chalk, without heat, for one or two semesters, how do you think it feels to teach that way for twenty or thirty years? Georgian teachers have been providing Georgians with education for decades and have developed methods of teaching – and coping – that are adapted to the realities of teaching in Georgia. We come here from the Western world with teaching methods adapted to having the resources available in America and other modernized nations, and then we complain because we can’t (and Georgians don’t) teach the way we are accustomed to. It just seems so arrogant and shortsighted.
And I guess part of the problem is that people didn’t necessarily know what to expect. TLG occupies this weird in-between space which is actually very typical of Georgia. Georgia is in between Asia and Europe, Russia and the Middle East. Georgia is in between ancient traditions and modern aspirations, between third-world style subsistence agriculture and first-world trade and financial developments. So it’s only fitting that TLG is somewhere in between a volunteer teaching position like you’d find in Latin America and a paid ESL teaching position like the ones in Korea. Volunteers are in between helping to develop new educational techniques and build new community structures for education, and trying to integrate into existing teaching structures and defer to coteachers and school administrators.
But now the information is out there. It’s here, it’s on the recruiting agency forums, and I expect soon it will make it to the new TLG forums. Now people should know what to expect – Georgia is a developing country, and you’re going to teach English in an environment that is potentially resource-poor with teachers and students who potentially have never met a native speaker.
I’ve let this post get really, really long, and a little preachy. I apologize for that. I guess my point is that nearly everyone I speak to here – whether it’s Georgians who long for the resources that they think all American schools have, or Americans who wish that their job was a little more like what they were used to in the US – seems to have the opinion that if only schools in Georgia were more like schools in America, everything would be better. I disagree.
The American model, simply put, fails most of its students. Whether it’s the students whose families can’t afford to live in neighborhoods near good schools, the students who go to good schools but fall prey to the social problems that run rampant in these largely unsupervised environments, or the students who go to average schools and get average grades and grow up to find that students in most of the rest of the modern world consistently outperform them on every measure of educational quality, most of the people who go to school in America end up basically getting screwed. American education basically needs to be completely rethought if American students are going to catch up to the rest of the world, but that will probably never happen, which is tragic, but then we all know that it’s military power and not education that keeps America running, so if Americans really want to succeed in the new world they’re probably better off turning out increasingly stupid and brutally violent youngsters anyway. After all, people with a real education are far less likely to sign up to go kill strangers in countries they’ve never heard of. I hear the US is going to war in Libya next…
So if not America, what should Georgians aspire to? Like I said, I don’t have all the answers. Like I said, education is a tricky formula that involves a lot more than just what happens in the classroom. The countries that beat America at education may have cultural or socioeconomic factors at work that neither America nor Georgia have, and in terms of overall attitude towards education, maybe America and Georgia are a better match than, for example, China and Georgia.
But right now, it seems like Georgia – with its massive educational reforms, its libertarian socialist model of school funding, and the political capital to continue to effect meaningful and substantive changes – is doing its own thing. Georgia isn’t trying to copy America or anyone else. To me, that’s really cool, and if it works, in twenty years other countries could be aspiring to have an educational system like Georgia’s.