TLG-bashing

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.

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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.

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Apparently another word for “pioneer” is “renegade”…

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20 Responses to TLG-bashing

  1. Bruna says:

    I’ve never felt more famous in my life. Thank you. 😀

  2. Rezo says:

    You have very helpfull moto indeed;)

    i wonder, if there are some statistics avalable, about how meny of you guys have left before the time?

    p.s. i dont get either why they had such a high expectation in first place

  3. Keith Brinkmann says:

    I might get fired soon, and I agree 100% w/ this article!
    If this country were run by people as sensible and likable
    as the ones who run TLG–Maia, Tatia, etc.–I would have no complaints!

  4. Ilyk Eyaj says:

    As a former TLG employee who voluntarily quit the program due to a life threatening situation, I agree that the TLG bashing has gotten old, is annoying and counterproductive. Thank you Neal for addressing this! When I was living Georgia, I was weary from the extreme negativity from other TLG teachers. It’s draining and makes the experience very unpleasant. I actually stopped speaking to a few teachers by the end of my stay in Georgia because I was so fed up with the whining and complaining. Miserable expats….. I actually had a fellow TLG teacher get upset with me that I wasn’t negative like he was about Georgia. He even told me that I was ‘too happy’ and basically made it his mission to consistently tell me every day that I would eventually see the light and stop being such an optimist.

    I would like to say that one problem is that the recruitment agencies, Footprints Recruiting and Green Heart Travel don’t accurately describe Georgia during the interview process. The TLG website doesn’t either. It alludes to the impression that the Westerner/Occidental will be coming to a country that is like Spain or Italy. When it’s the opposite.
    That may be where some of the complaining is coming from…..false expectations.

    On the other hand, it’s also about doing the research. Before going to any country, the visitor should at least read up on the history and the culture. Many people didn’t do this before they signed up with TLG and were in/are still in for a very rude awakening. So I agree with you on that point too! People should learn as much about Georgia before going there.

    Another problem is that the TLG teachers coming from the US, UK, Australia, etc are too young. TLG should change the required age to 30 (I’m biased) at the very youngest 27 years old and everyone should have relevant work experience. Older age groups with more work experience might = less complaining. Well my hypothesis is that it would lead to less complaining.

    Besides there are worse places in the world to be right now….Libya anyone? Somalia?

    • Anonymous says:

      I disagree with the proposed age requirement. I’m currently a TLG volunteer and am only 21 years old. I have met a fair number of TLGers and know just as many immature 20-somethings as I know older people.

  5. Russ says:

    Once again, a great article. One comment–the individual who favorably compared EPIK to TLG must have a short memory. I worked for EPIK from ’96-’98 and it was a complete disaster in terms of lack of support. And, from what I’ve heard, it continues to be so. That’s the case in spite of the fact the program has all the financial/personnel resources in the world. From what you wrote, it seems at least TLG cares and tries to improve.

  6. avangundy says:

    “I expected to be in a village somewhere, to bathe once a week in maybe hot water”

    That cracked me up because I DO live in a village in the boonies and I DO only bathe once a week. But it’s all good. At least the water is warm.

    Georgia has been an experience and a half, but I certainly don’t regret it. I sort of like being a “pioneer” and I think, under the circumstances, TLG is doing the best job they can. I even got a call from Charlie the other day, just to check up on me. I was blown away.

    Whatever its possible faults, you can’t say they aren’t trying. Improvements are being made and weaknesses are being addressed everyday. People coming next year will certainly be getting a “new and improved” TLG.

  7. pasumonok says:

    hey, i am glad u’re being reasonable!
    i agree that people came with false expectations, but really, in this day and age, doing research is so easy…
    for example, i was doing a paper on mountain culture of georgia and found two related books in my university library, in boulder, colorado. in english.
    should i even mention internet?
    also, peace corp is a great source of info. i met about 6 different ex. georgian peace corps in denver, even made great friends. and finding them was super easy.
    i know we, georgians might be annoying. i am aware of the fact that people in marshrutka smell and that host mothers do not believe in privacy of ur rooms.
    but, when i went 2 states as an exchange student, i was prepared 4 many weird american things…for example, people brought little dogs to class…and even provided little water and food containers for them…and kept them close during presentations…to avoid separation anxiety…
    i never judged them until now 🙂 coz now i have started my own blog and became mean 🙂 🙂

    • panoptical says:

      People bringing dogs to class is definitely weird in America. Americans, back me up on this.

      Also – just out of curiosity – why do you spell it “marshrutka”?

      • loe says:

        Cause that word is falsely believed to exist at all. Linguists must have added the R after SH to make it sound more sophisticated to fool people into believing in the existence of a nonexistent word . Kidding aside, the official name of lovely marshutkas is “samarshruto taksi” ( itinerary taxi – სამარშრუტო ტაქსი).

        Ahh, what great feeling one gets when clearing up the question of great importance.

      • pasumonok says:

        neal,
        how should i spell marshrutka? that’s how we pronounce it.
        it is a russian word anyway, so i don’t think there is a correct english way of spelling it 🙂 🙂
        if u’re really curious, this is a short etymology: marshrut means route. “ka” is often added in russian, to give diminutive meaning. the right name for that mini bus in georgian is samarshruto taksi, meaning a route taxi. however, nobody uses it.
        so here u have an interesting georgian fact of the day:-)

      • Anonymous says:

        in 6 years of high education I never once saw a dog in class, I think they would be asked to leave at my schools

  8. --> says:

    -> Why do you spell it “marshrutka”

    In Russian ‘маршрутка’ (spelled as above in English) is formed from ‘маршрут’-bus/train line and suffix ‘ка’ which makes the word like a jargon/informal word.

    In Georgian there are a lot of loan words from Russian, but some of them got adopted to the language by dropping one or two consonants. In this case, middle ‘r’ was dropped and ‘marshrutka’ become ‘marshutka’.

    But if one decided to stick with the original (me included) they use ‘r’ in the word.

  9. Robin Carlisle says:

    Thumbs up and a big High-Five to you, your blog, the ministry, TLG employees, school administrators, Georgian teachers, and TLG teachers. What they accomplish everyday with the limited resources they have is utterly amazing! So proud to have been a Grøup #3 volunteer and part of TLG’s pioneer mission. One day history will look back on TLG and all its participants and smile. And, hopefully, that will happen sometime before Maia becomes the president Georgia deserves. The girl’s got some powerful leadership and mediation skills for sure! Hope she continues to be recognized in positive ways. That can only be good for everyone in TLG, Georgia, and the region. No kidding.

  10. some complaining is justified says:

    Said the blogger that TLG put up in an apt in Tbilisi upon arrival & was given a unique job from the rest of the group teaching at the police academy, then was later moved to a nice & central neighborhood in Tbilisi with an English speaking host family & works at one of the top public schools in the country.
    Your views are very skewed Neil.
    Will TLG please put this boy in a village hours from Tbilisi in a home with no heat or hot water and where no one speaks English… ya know, like the rest of the volunteers? lol

    I agree, the TLG bashing is exhausting when its coming from volunteers who are whiney, high-maintenance & immature individuals. On the other hand, a good amount of the complaining is justified.

    Yes, TLG staff is making strides. Yes, TLG has an admirable mission that attracted myself and many others to sign up. Yes the TLG staff is lovely & I could never say anything bad about them personally.

    So what complaints are justified?
    A volunteer was sexually assaulted by 2 cab drivers & her employer did nothing to help her. She has left Georgia, so I am told. A volunteer’s host father grabbed her boobs & TLG apologized and was quick to move her to a new host family, but she was so disturbed, she returned home after being in Georgia only 2 weeks. A volunteer was given a ride home by a well-known male neighbor after a supra at school… but the neighbor instead takes her to a bath house and tries to get her naked. A volunteer has all of her belongings stolen by her host family while she is out of town for a weekend. A volunteer is placed in a host family with one bedroom, and is expected to sleep in the same room. A volunteer is placed in a host family that never feeds her. A volunteer is placed in a host family that demands money for rent. A volunteer is placed in a host family and has to shower in a river because they don’t have indoor plumbing. A volunteer is told by her host family that they can’ afford to keep her anymore, so she’ll have to move out in 1 week. So the volunteer is placed in a hotel by TLG for 2 weeks until they find her a new family. Those are only a few incidents that first come to my mind. I am sure there are many more stories out there.
    Of all the horror stories mentioned, one is absolutely inexcusable.
    Sexual assault is no joke. Do the host families provide criminal background checks to TLG?
    I feel great concern for many of the volunteers who have truly gone through unacceptable struggles.

  11. Pingback: Tips for prospective TLGers « ბაყაყი წყალში ყიყინებს

  12. Yes, Villages are so Different! says:

    While I like TLG for the most part (except for a certain someone not ever answering emails) I think most people can agree that one thing TLG needs to do at future orientation sessions is really explain the differences between living in village, town, and city. Four months in, I can say living in a Georgian village is so different from living in Tbilisi in your own place. Hell, even being a man in a village is so different from being a woman. (I could write an entire book on being a Foreign Volunteer in an Overprotective Village Home.) TLG really needs to be honest and tell it how it is –the village is drastically different from the city. In village living, I can deal with occasional showers and outhouses. But there are some I have experienced are things which are unacceptable. Lack of privacy is one. TLG told us our doors would lock. Mine doesn’t even CLOSE and my host mother rifles through my things. The host father drunk driving a car with no seat belts and me not being “allowed” to walk home is probably the most unacceptable one. I don’t care if everyone does it. No one’s driving skills improve with chacha shots! This scares me every time and I hate to so much. TLG should give us advice in training on how to deal with it. Can you refuse to get in? What?
    I can only hope that that this experience makes me more patient and that I can make some changes in the lives of the kids. Im moving to a city next term but I think TLG needs to do some serious re-evalution of the host families in villages.

  13. Gwen says:

    I could not agree more! In my experience, TLG has been nothing but accommodating. They truly care about making the transition into this new country and way of life as smooth as possible for their volunteers. I only hope TLG receives more positive feedback like this to balance out the constant unwarranted criticism. Great post.

  14. lonchies says:

    hi I am a black South African and I am seriously considering teaching in Geogia this coming September how is the racism? *scared :)*

    • panoptical says:

      Well don’t be scared, I’ve never heard of any kind of racial violence here. They’ll just stare and point and some will try to touch you to see if you’re real. Sometimes they accidentally say racist things because they hear them on Western TV. Some people (very few, I think) actually are racist but most are too polite to insult a guest even if they secretly don’t like you. Some people really like and are fascinated with Africans. Other black Africans who have come here seem to enjoy the country overall.

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