at cross-purposes, in a way that involves mutual misunderstanding or produces mutual frustrations, usu. unintentionally.
This is the perfect way to describe my three years working with Georgians to teach English to other Georgians.
I know that’s sort of a sad indictment of my time here. I would like to believe that despite the frustrations, my presence here actually has been, at the very least, worth the Georgian taxpayers’ money. I would like to believe that, but I’m not sure that I can.
There are moments when I do believe it. When TLG monitors came to evaluate one of my lessons, my coteacher asked a question with a grammatical mistake – something like “what color are umbrellas?” – and the kids answered correctly: “the umbrellas are orange and red”. I was so proud, right at that moment, that I had allowed my students to exceed, at least in one small way, the limitations of being taught English by people with very, very limited experience in English.
But then there are moments that crush my dreams. When I worked so long and so hard on short vowels in English, and finally got the kids recognizing and producing them with reasonable accuracy, and then watched as my coteacher refused to correct her own pronunciation and slowly but inexorably led the kids back towards the Georgian model.
At times like that I question what I am even doing here. Is it really important, I ask myself, that Georgians pronounce English words correctly, or am I just wasting time by trying? Most of the academic tests Georgians will need to take to get out of Georgia – tests like the TOEFL, IELTS, FC, or even the SATs – either don’t test pronunciation, or grade it as a very tiny fraction of the communication score, which itself is dwarfed by the written sections of the exam. And once a Georgian English speaker leaves the country, he or she will get language immersion in some other country, which will be a much more powerful teaching tool than anything I could bring to the classroom.
And yet if I just try to teach Georgians what they need to pass an exam, I’m catering to the elite. Most of these students will never leave Georgia. What about them – don’t they deserve a competitive shot at the growing number of jobs – bank tellers, restaurant staff, etc. – that have English proficiency as a requirement? Isn’t the whole point of TLG to reach those students?
It’s a dilemma. And the reason for the dilemma is that while I may be here for one year, or even three, most students will study English for, maybe, ten years, or twelve, or fifteen. What I teach them is overwhelmingly dwarfed by what Georgians teach them – and the frustrating thing is that I spend almost all of my time correcting the mistakes that they have been taught, which they are virtually guaranteed to relearn once I am gone.
So perhaps the best thing I can do is try to inspire my students to look outside the classroom for examples of good English – because they won’t find those examples in the classroom – and of course the original mission of TLG took that into account. We are here, we were told, not just to teach English, but to exchange cultural knowledge and values in a way that would tempt our students towards looking more closely at materials in English. The problem is that that goal is largely invisible to me – I will never really know whether, or how much, I inspired or enabled my students to consume English-language materials outside the classroom, and even if my students do consume those materials, there’s a broader cultural shift that also has to get some of that credit. I can tell myself that I am part of that shift, but like I said before, I can’t always make myself believe it.
The other half of the problem is the Ministry of Education, and TLG itself. Recognizing that all of our work in the classroom can and will be undone by Georgian teachers who can’t even recognize, let alone teach, good English is frustrating – but having all of our attempts to address that larger problem either shot down or ignored is at least as frustrating in itself.
I could recount the numerous attempts I’ve personally made to at least get the ball rolling on fixing some of the systemic problems in Georgian English education. In my first semester in a Georgian public school, I spoke to the head of TLG about having TLG volunteers proofread the national exams in English before the students took them. She told me that this would be impossible, because the people who made and administered the exams were not under the direct control of the Ministry, or something, and couldn’t be forced to allow a third party to have access or input into their process. So, instead, Georgian students – to this day, over two years later – continue to take exams that are full of spelling and grammar errors.
Another one that seems notable to me is that in late 2011 I proposed a plan to have TLG volunteers teach English to Georgian English teachers over the summer. The idea would have been to have conversation classes, lots of example texts (poetry, short stories, songs), and to focus on common mistakes and weaknesses in Georgian grammar and pronunciation. And when I say “plan”, I mean logistics, cost estimates, example focus areas, etc. I was told the plan would not work because Georgian English teachers would never agree to come learn English voluntarily and the Ministry was not willing to demand that they do so. Instead, the Ministry offered pay increases to teachers who passed an English exam – and guess who designed and administered the exam?
The general attitude that we face from the Ministry is that Georgian English teachers know English well enough, and all they need is a little bit of modern methodology and a conversation partner to model dialogues and demonstrate the native accent. That is not the case. As I have said numerous times and in numerous forums, no teacher that I have worked with in Georgia can even come close to accurately pronouncing the vocabulary words that we teach to first graders – and it’s not because they’re stupid, or lazy. It’s because they’ve been taught a system for speaking English that is grossly inaccurate. Every last Georgian English teacher needs retraining in the actual pronunciation system used by English speakers, just to start off. Most Georgian English teachers can teach grammar at about the seventh grade level, but if I had my druthers I’d retrain a lot of the grammar too. Finally, no Georgian teacher I have worked with or heard about can accurately sort good English from bad English, meaning that students never get good feedback on their production of English speech or text. At best what they get is sporadically accurate, and at worst the feedback is totally wrong and destroys both their speaking ability and their confidence, for no reason.
But unfortunately, it is not the place of a foreigner to tell Georgians how to do anything – even if it’s an English speaker telling Georgians how to speak English – and it is not the place of a lowly TLG volunteer to make any kinds of suggestions about how to deal with the systemic problems in Georgian English education, or even to tell TLG that there are such systemic problems. Go look at the MES website and see how long it takes you to find a grammar mistake. Do you know how many times me and other TLG volunteers and native-speaking office staff offered to copyedit those pages, to proofread the Ministry’s English-language publications? Countless. At this point, I say leave it. If having English mistakes on your country’s national Education website says something about the quality of English language education in that country, then what the MES website says is one hundred percent accurate.
Excuse the slight bitterness of that rant.
In any case, I know that what was expected of me was to come here and do my best to engage the students I was assigned to work with, and I know that I have been able to do that increasingly well over the last three years, and I know that some of my public school students must have learned something from me because of it. I even know that some of my coteachers have improved their English through working with me, and I hope that that effect lasts and I hope even more that they have now begun to question what they know about English and that they will seek out self-improvement independently, without prompting from a native speaker.
However, all that just doesn’t feel like enough, when the whole education system is stacked against change, when students spend 11 out of their 12 years learning English learning mistakes, when the Ministry of Education aggressively ignores the qualification problem of the people it hires as English language professionals, and when it seems like we were brought here to teach English and then fought and countered and thwarted at every turn.
I feel like I could have done so much more, if we weren’t all working at cross-purposes.