At Cross-Purposes

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.

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17 Responses to At Cross-Purposes

  1. Billy Bob says:

    I’m a TLG volunteer here in Georgia, and I don’t necessarily share your pessimistic view. I don’t know about you, but i’ve heard every horror story imaginable about the school system during the end years of the Soviet system. As Georgians what, “kneeling in raw corn” means.

    That said, the mistakes in the national exams were pretty surprising. I could be wrong, but the exams used to be up on the internet as practice tests. Nothing is stopping you from finding the exams, grabbing some screen captures, and writing about them on the internet.

    Yes, I would agree that a major point of TLG is to reach students here in Georgia who want jobs that require English. But I also believe that another major benefit of having native English speakers in the classroom is that it is increasing Georgian language proficiency. Most of the spirited language debates i’ve heard during my time here in Georgia revolve around what’s Georgian and what’s Russian. English instruction here in Georgia might be having the unexpected outcome of increased Georgian and Russian proficiency among the population. Just a thought.

    Here’s another of my “two cents” – if you’re that motivated about organizational problems in the Georgian schools, why don’t you write down what’s wrong in English AND in Georgian. There’s at least one website that distributes Georgian language e-books in pdf form for free.

    Oh, and if you’re doubly motivated, why don’t you get a doctorate. You thesis could be about everything that you’ve seen.

    You wouldn’t be the first person to get a doctorate like this. I think that Newt Gingrich somehow got a PhD in History, his focus of study was reforms in the Kenyan school system as it transitioned between colonial rule and independence.

    You’re a Newt Gingrich fan, aren’t you?


    • Billy Bob says:

      Great example I set. I really need to learn to check for typos. I meant, “Ask Georgians what, “kneeling in raw corn” means”, above. Apologies.


    • panoptical says:

      First of all, I am not a Newt Gingrich fan.

      Even if I could get copies of the national exams, I’m not sure what you think it would accomplish if I posted screen caps on the internet. I’ve been writing about these issues on this blog, the TLG blog, facebook, and anywhere else I think people might listen for almost three years, in addition to trying to work within TLG, and nothing has ever come of it. If I haven’t been as vocal as you think I should be, it’s probably because I was told that public criticism of Georgian institutions would undermine my ability to work with Georgians to solve these problems. Now that I’m leaving TLG, that concern no longer applies and I might be a little more emphatic, but I’m not changing my story. And I’m not the only one who has been saying these things to TLG, to the Ministry, and to the public. It’s not that we’re not talking, it’s that the people in charge aren’t listening.

      “if you’re that motivated about organizational problems in the Georgian schools, why don’t you write down what’s wrong in English AND in Georgian”

      Again, to what end? So that my fifty educated, fluent-in-English Georgian readers can glance over it and nod their heads in agreement? How does that help someone with no internet access in a region somewhere? How does that reach a person in the Ministry who has the authority, motivation, and ability to make meaningful changes?

      When Shashkin fired Maia Miminoshvili, the head of the National Examinations Center, the public was up in arms, and he got shuffled off to defense within a month and replaced by an imbecile who, fortunately, was replaced again after the elections. Why did Shashkin fire Miminoshvili? I don’t know much about her other than that her department was not accountable for its mistakes and it put out shitty English-language materials. Maybe she was good at other stuff, who knows, but the point is, at the levels of the Ministry where any of this matters, it’s not about merit, it’s about patronage and public perception.

      If you doubt me, take note of the fact that our new Minister of Education is now in line to become President, despite having no measurable achievement in public office. Is this good for the Ministry of Education? Is this good for the country? Who knows – this guy won’t have been at the Ministry for even a year before the elections are held. He seems like a nice enough man and my wife says he’s smart, but it would be nice if the Ministry of Education took priority over politics.

      And look – it’s not like I’m the only person who knows how to speak English. There are books out there that contain information about the English language that any Georgian can find and read. What makes you think that writing one more will make any difference at all? The problem isn’t that Georgians don’t have access to information, the problem is that they are deliberately ignoring it to save face. My coteachers play the English World CDs at low volume and then talk over them in their thick Georgian accents – they’ve been doing it since I wrote this post – – and the students emulate the teacher rather than the CD. The teachers don’t want to use the resources they have.


      • Billy Bob says:

        This comment: “I was told that public criticism of Georgian institutions would undermine my ability to work with Georgians to solve these problems.” is in a nutshell why I disagree with you.

        Bring some free market principles, brother. It’s amazing, i’ve talked to numerous Georgians who now live in Europe or the United States. Each and every one of these Georgians who reside in either Europe or the United States are alike. All of them have indicated to me, that if the average Georgian were to go and live overseas, they would not persist in holding onto this Soviet-esque approach of never criticizing an institution.

        I know it’s a big cultural difference. But I grew up in the Western United States, where if you’re not criticizing the government people look at you strange.

        It’s a two-way street, also. Do you know how many times a 50 year old Georgian has asked me, “why does the US Government keep the American Indian as SLAVES on the reservations!?!?” or “Shevardnadze worked with the Americans and the international bankers to STEAL the riches of the Soviet Union!”. I heard weird stuff like this all the time, I don’t take offense, I just try to plainly explain my perspective.

        If my complaining about the lack of gas stoves or windows in stairwells so offended delicate Georgian sensibilities that it “undermines my ability to work with Georgians” – well, then, Tallinn’s calling.

        You’re far too much of a pessimist. I


        • panoptical says:

          Sorry, but calling someone a pessimist is bullshit. I know you don’t mean it this way, but it’s basically an ad hominem argument in a very thin disguise.

          The fact that I don’t believe I can solve this particular problem with continued effort is not due to some kind of fundamental defect in my personality. It’s due to the fact that in the past three years of trying, I have not made enough progress to feel that it merits my further struggle.

          Now, you could have a point about criticizing the institutions – it could be that the balance I’ve tried to strike between being honest about the shortcomings of Georgian English qualifications and seeming like a positive and earnest person who someone might like to work with has been misguided. I could have posted every day that every Georgian English teacher is incompetent and less than useless and that 96% of them should be fired on the spot and the rest retrained extensively before being let anywhere near kids again and that the Ministry of Education was doing less than nothing to actually ensure that their English teachers knew the first thing about their subject, which 96% of them literally don’t, if you take, for example, “how to pronounce the first letter of the English alphabet” to be a reasonable proxy for “the first thing about English”. Do you think that would have helped? Do you think it would help now?

          So yes, I could criticize TLG, or the MES, or Georgia, even more than I do already. I don’t think it will help. I think that I personally am constantly at or above the limit of the amount I can criticize Georgia without it just pissing everybody off, but maybe I’m wrong and I could get away with more. I don’t think it would help. Once again, the problem is not that we aren’t issuing the criticisms – the problem is that the people we are criticizing are flatly refusing to listen.

          Georgians have to actually want help with their English in order for us to teach them. The Georgians who run the educational institutions in Georgia don’t want help with their English – they want to guard their position and power against intrusion from outside. Shashkin once told us he wished he could fire the teachers the way Misha fired the police, and start over from scratch, but even the Minister of Education himself couldn’t do what he thought needed to be done to fix the education system in Georgia. But I guess he was just too much of a pessimist.


  2. Talleyrand says:

    Your frustrations with The System remind me of the primary theme of HBO’s The Wire. You’ll find many similarities between Georgia’s educational system and the broken, corrupt institutions of Baltimore portrayed throughout the series. And one thing that The Wire taught us is that The System is bigger and more powerful than any single individual, and that any attempts to reform it or streamline it will only result in that individual’s perpetual failure. It’s a one step forward, two steps backward situation.

    Perhaps this is too pessimistic. But then again I’m only matching your pessimism with mine. You sound defeated and there’s no sense banging your head against a wall and expecting it to eventually crumble. No shame in giving up when you clearly harbor bitterness and resentment for the overall possibility of achieving any success. Georgian culture simply doesn’t contain the same values as that of American, British, German, etc. There’s no overriding sense for efficiency and fairness which permeates Anglo-Saxon/Protestant/Northern European societies.


  3. tcjogden69 says:

    Georgian stubbornness when it comes to the English language is something that irritates and amuses me in equal measures. Take something as simple as when I’m talking to a Georgian on Facebook, and we type the same word, such as ‘England’, ‘understand’ or ‘right’. If I type the word first and they also use it in their reply, you can bet your bottom dollar they will reply with ‘Inglend, ‘anderstind’ and ‘wright’, all of which I’ve had this week. I’d have thought that they’d see how I spell it and then imitate, but there you go.

    I also had a ridiculous argument with a Georgian language teacher at one of the universities here. She told me she couldn’t understand me because of my accent, and apparently British people talk marginally faster than Americans. ‘Well then,’ says I, ‘we’ll have to teach you how to talk proper Queen’s English, won’t we?’. Seeing as she’d already shown that she was unfamiliar with my accent, it was perhaps a bit foolish to think she’d understand our sense of humour, and it turned out I’d pissed her off big time. ‘I learned American English! So don’t blame me that I can’t understand how you talk!’. Oh, Georgia. I need a holiday. Like you, apparently. Are you coming back after you go to New York or is this the end?


    • panoptical says:

      It’s funny because as an American I get that attitude all the time from Georgians who claim to have learned British English. We should get together and try explaining that the differences between British and American English are really nowhere near as vast as the differences between British and American English and Georgian English.


    • Talleyrand says:

      It’s funny how Georgians think that American and British English are radically different, as if they’re different dialects to the degree of Parisian French and Louisiana Creole. Other than a limited number of different vocabulary terms (boot vs. trunk, lorry vs. truck) and a slightly different accent, it’s the exact same language. In fact, I’d say the regional accents of American English and the regional accents in Great Britain vary more widely than the overall average accents between the two countries. And a strong case could be made that the vocabulary between different regional zones within the two countries varies more widely, too. I’d say there’s a bigger difference between a strong New York accent and a strong Ozarks accent than a typical American accent versus a typical British accent. And in Great Britain the difference between a posh London accent and a thick Scottish accent is a similar example.

      Claiming to only know British English is a crutch used by inadequate or lazy teachers. In reality, any educated American or British person can perfectly understand someone from across the pond, albeit with occasional amusement. If you know English fluently, you shouldn’t have any problem understanding someone with any average accent, whether it be Australian, British, Indian, Chinese, Southern American, etc. That’s not to say there might be some difficulties. But if the pronunciation is within the ballpark then an English speaker should be able to follow.


  4. Ugh I wrote a really long and congratulatory comment which my shit internet dumped in a tube somewhere. The thrust was something like YOUR STUDENTS will never forget their lunatic teacher ნილ from NEW YORK, which, as we know, is every Georgian child’s Mecca. They all see you taking waaaay more time on things (pronunciation, persnickety grammar) which fly in peripheral orbit above the government’s standardized tests. For me, teaching’s about that relationship: students see what you care about, and you’re someone from outside their normal universe who’s showing an interest in their lives. The best we can hope for, as foreigners forever navigating a system whose rules seem fortified against productive change, is to expose our students and coteachers to aaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAA WHOOOOOLLLLLLLEE NEWWWWWW WORRRRRRRRRRLDDDDD and one hopes that through that relationship we promote a desire to learn, and a willingness to engage in the critical process.

    But really. Have you talked to the students about your frustrations with the system? They’ll probably disagree with you, but disagreement is healthy. They’re the ones who will be making decisions about their own communities twenty years down the line. (hopefully).

    Anyways keep fightin’ the good fight and all. I just got a job in Istanbul so maybe I’ll actually see you again in the coming year.


  5. Pingback: Into the fire- that first class | ehhamakita

  6. Rita says:

    I’ve been following your blog from time to time. Someone asked but there was no reply as to whether or not you will be heading back to Georgia after vacation. The Georgia to New York post said you would return in August but will you still be teaching English? Will you keep this blog going? (I hope so). At the least I hope you do something like tour guide with translation…


    • panoptical says:

      Yup, the blog goes on, as do my adventures in Georgia. I believe I will be teaching a bit of English and a bit of Technology.


  7. Rita says:

    Sorry, you did answer my question in another post.
    Found it after posting here.


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