I recently met a bitter ex-TLG volunteer who told me a number of times, in no uncertain terms, that TLG is a poorly-run program and that no one in their right mind should work for them. If it were just that person, maybe it wouldn’t merit a post, but I hear this stuff a lot. Of course, people who have quit, or been fired, or think they are about to be fired, are prone to being more vociferous and more strident in their criticisms of their job, but even TLG volunteers whose jobs are secure can sometimes be really unforgiving in their assessment of TLG.
I guess I should admit that I’ve become friends with several of the current and former TLG staff members, so maybe I’m biased, but it seems to me that they’re actually doing a very difficult job very well. I don’t always agree with every decision that they make, but I would say that far from being poorly-run, the program as a whole has far exceeded my expectations.
If I’m being honest, maybe I didn’t know as much as I should have before coming to Georgia.
I mean, in some ways, I was overprepared. I showed up in the country with the alphabet memorized cold – I could read and write all 33 Georgian letters and pronounce all but the თ,ფ, კ, ყ, წ, and ჭ – which don’t really have accurate IPA transcriptions that one could learn from without hearing the letters repeatedly pronounced. I knew a few common words and phrases, including nominative personal pronouns, hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and the phrase “I want some beer.”
I knew Georgia’s climate. I knew some geography – where Kutaisi was, where Tbilisi was, the names of some of the regions, where Turkey, Russia, and the Black Sea were, what areas to avoid, and how far Georgia was from some other locations I might want to visit. I knew which diseases were endemic to the area and what vaccinations to get. I knew a bit about politics and history and a whole bunch about food and drink. I had read some of the Peace Corps blogs – of which I could find maybe three or four, tops – and was an avid follower of the Footprints forum.
And yet I also knew that I would be in Group 3 – which means that TLG was a new program. I knew that they did not yet have a reputation, and that Georgia has hardly been a stable country in recent history. I knew that there was a chance that Russia could invade again, that TLG could randomly shut down, that the government could collapse or be overthrown, or that regional stability could be threatened in any number of ways. Some of my friends who were familiar with geopolitics suggested that I not go, that I choose someplace with a long history of having foreigners in and out of the country safely.
Of course, it seemed to me that I would be perfectly fine here – and I am – but from the perspective of someone deciding to go to Georgia before Group 1 even landed, I was taking a big chance. I really didn’t know what I was getting into before coming here, because in a big way, there was no way to know. I was a pioneer.
And I may or may not have been clear about this, but my expectations of Georgia were between low and nonexistent. I thought that there might be high crime and that I might not be able to bring electronics safely. I thought that I might not have access to water and power regularly. I thought that I might live in close proximity to farm animals in a house without the luxuries and conveniences that I am used to with a family who did not speak my language and who had strange customs that might shock or disturb me. The biggest effect of setting my expectations so low is that I have received one pleasant surprise after another, because nothing has been remotely as bad as I thought it might.
For TLG, it was the same. I basically expected TLG to drop me off in a village and then forget about me. I assumed that TLG was an administrative body whose job was to bring in teachers, and that they would not be doing any hand-holding or molly-coddling. I imagined that if I had some sort of problem I could go to TLG and they’d try to help if they could, but I realized that there were going to be hundreds and eventually thousands of us and that if TLG was anything like any of the government agencies I’ve dealt with in America I’d be better off if I could find ways of solving my own problems, which of course I am used to because I am a functioning adult.
Instead, it turns out that TLG does things like take us on periodic excursions around Georgia – I’ve gone to Gelati Monastery, Kakheti, Gori, Uplistsikhe, and some random churches with TLG. TLG staff members personally help us with medical issues, personally investigate any complains we have, and (in spite of promises to the contrary) personally help us find alternative arrangements if we choose not to live in a host family.
Not only that, but TLG has been incredibly accommodating with special requests. If I were to form a general expectation of how an organization such as this would handle requests to change host families, I would expect that there would be a great burden on volunteers to try to get along with their host families, that host families would not be changed without a really good reason, and that there would be some sort of limit on the number of host family changes a person could have before they were asked to find their own arrangements or leave the program. Instead, I have met and heard of TLG volunteers changing host families not just once, but two or three or even more times.
So look – we all know that there are volunteers (past and present) out there who can barely shut up about how much they hate TLG. And honestly, I don’t get it. As fellow blogger Bruna points out, some amount of complaining is healthy. People need to complain so they don’t blow a gasket at an inappropriate time. Believe me, I understand. But there’s a difference between complaining and bashing. Complaining is meant to get something off your chest and maybe to start toward a solution. Bashing is mean-spirited and intended to discredit or destroy something.
I expected to come here and be a member of a new project. I expected to be in a village somewhere, to bathe once a week in maybe hot water, to belong to a project that had never been tried before in Georgia, to make my own way and live in ways that I have never lived before. I expected a certain level of chaos and disorganization and trial and error. And of course I expected that, working for a government agency, there would be an amazing level of inefficiency that we would have to just cope with.
None of those expectations really came true. Things were much easier and much more organized than I could have imagined. But there are people here who – no shit – literally bash TLG because the TLG staff have accents.
I mean, sit and let the fucking enormity of that statement sink in for a minute. Someone literally posted (in an anonymous comment that did not make it through moderation, but I have reason to believe they were in group 2) that the TLG staff was unqualified and cited their non-native accents as one of the reasons. Seriously – someone who was hired as an ESL teacher said that. Words fail me.
TLG organizes a very large number of people – foreign people – and makes very few mistakes. They are very receptive to suggestions and they go out of their way to accommodate volunteers. And as I’ve said before they have been steadily improving at things like communication and organization (again, check out the new forums). I think that we should give them a break.
So, bringing it back, I think that the real problem is expectation management. Almost everyone that ends up having a problem with TLG explicitly says at some point that TLG isn’t like their previous jobs. It’s not like EPIK, it’s not like the doctor they used to work for or the public school they used to teach at, it’s not like college, and worst of all, mommy and daddy aren’t here to hold our hands and give us hugs when we are sad. Okay, maybe that was a little snarky.
I don’t want to give TLG a pass because they’re in Georgia – I get tired of the “Georgia is a developing country” rigamarole – but you do have to remember that Georgia’s infrastructure is not really comparable to that of a “developed” country in terms of roads, electricity, available of goods in rural areas, etc. Georgia’s education system needs a lot of work, and unlike in America, a lot of it is easily solved by throwing money at the problem – things like textbooks, electricity, heat in the winter, chalk and chalkboards, etc. – but of course money is another one of the things that Georgia does not currently have in abundance.
And furthermore, TLG is not only new, but fairly unique. In Korea – one of the most popular destinations for ESL teachers – teachers teach classes by themselves, and are generally put up in apartments by themselves. In Georgia, teachers coteach and live with host families. Both of these things present added challenges. TLG is taking place on a huge scale and aims at complete penetration of foreign language instruction by natives throughout the country. The program is particularly ambitious and particularly challenging.
If I’m coming around to a point, it would be this: TLG is not your previous job. Even now, TLG is still having its growing pains, still aiming for that 1000 teacher target at which there might be some kind of plateau for TLG to get used to how things work with that many people. Taking a position in Georgia still means that you might be the first foreigner that the people you meet have ever spoken to. You will probably be the first foreigner to live with the family you live with and teach at the school you teach at. You might still come across a problem TLG hasn’t seen before and hasn’t anticipated.
At TLG we are all pioneers. For me, that’s exciting, because that means that we get to build something. That’s why I write this blog. Sure, I could have taught in Korea and been the thousand and first Korea blogger and it would have been totally unimportant and meaningless. Instead I am in Georgia where the tradeoff for getting to do something truly creative is that I get to be here for TLG’s labor pains.
I guess that’s not for everyone.
So if you’re going to come to Georgia, do your research. Know what you’re getting into, and if you can’t find the answer to a specific question you should assume that the answer is whatever would be most annoying and inconvenient. Plan for the worst and hope for the best is a good motto.
If you’re not good with patience, tolerance, and dealing with a very large number of very minor-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things types of inconveniences, then Georgia probably isn’t the place for you (and teaching may not be your best career choice, for that matter.)
And for those TLGers who are already here (or who have already been here…) – before you condemn TLG completely, just ask yourself what your expectations were and honestly try to assess whether they were realistic expectations in the first place. Don’t throw TLG under the bus because you weren’t prepared for problems that you should have known were likely to come up.
Apparently another word for “pioneer” is “renegade”…