In the past I’ve made fun of the idea that TLG volunteers are “volunteers”, given that we were being paid more than the local teachers who were carrying the weight of our students’ education. Still, there was something of the volunteer spirit to be found in TLG – whatever our reasons for being here, it certainly wasn’t for love of money. And one thing I noticed for sure is that our students often responded to us as if we were giving them a gift by being here. Especially in the village schools, there was a palpable sense of appreciation that students, parents, and teachers showed us. We were setting out to help their children have contact with outside cultures and learn about the world, and that was considered to have value.
Teaching in a private school has its perks – and making a lot more money is right up there – but this winter break, as I’ve had time to relax and reflect on my crazy and hectic and incredibly challenging first semester at a private school, I’ve realized that I really, really miss that sense of appreciation.
I went from teaching students who had never met a foreigner to teaching classes with significant minorities of students from foreign countries. I somehow got used to feeling special in a classroom of Georgian students who wanted to learn my songs and rhymes and how to talk in my funny accent, and it’s a stark contrast when you’re teaching a group of 8-year-olds with a world-weary “seen it” attitude towards the new and foreign and different. It’s been, like I said, an incredible challenge to try to break through that and give these kids something that induces the same sense of wonder that just showing up brought to kids in Kutaisi or Kvitiri.
I also started to take for granted how fulfilling working for TLG was. I touched on this in some of my earlier posts – that teaching these students, in many ways, helped me to understand and contextualize my own childhood experiences. Even when I questioned the benefits we brought, or how much of a difference we could really make in the face of the institutional inertia that was our biggest obstacle, there was still a sense that we were fighting the good fight in TLG – that at the end of the day, our success and our students’ success were intertwined. It’s been tough to fill that void in a situation where you get the distinct feeling that your students are destined to do well in life pretty much no matter how they do in school.
Tough, but not impossible. As I read in a blog post somewhere, rich kids need good teachers too. One of the explicit missions of the IBO (I’m teaching at an IB school) is to promote international-minded students who are lifelong learners. It’s possible that the students we teach could become the politicians, the philanthropists, the NGO founders and UN delegates and peacemakers of the next generation. Our world needs international-minded problem solvers, and given the realities of our world as they are today, being an international-minded problem solver is mostly a luxury that poor kids – be they from Queens or Kvitiri – can’t afford.
Our challenge as private school teachers is to engage and motivate these kids so that they get in the habit of using their resources to serve their community and their world. It’s a very different challenge from preparing kids in Georgia’s poor regions for the kinds of jobs that could bring them up into the middle class. I think there’s a need for good people doing both of these jobs, but it’s not without a bit of guilt that I observe that teaching the upper classes also happens to come with a lot more money.
Please don’t interpret this as a complaint. I am happy to have a job where I can make a better future for my family, and I am happy to have another learning experience where I can become a better teacher and a better global citizen. This is just an observation that adjusting my outlook on what I do has been a much bigger part of teaching at private school than I could have anticipated.
I’m visiting family in Kutaisi this winter break. Maybe that’s why I’m struck with this bit of nostalgia – seeing some of my former students in the yard or running into English-speaking children in the store. Or maybe I just didn’t realize how important the sense of doing good in the world actually was to me until I found myself in a job where I don’t get near-constant reinforcement of the idea that what I am doing is important and appreciated.