Six months into Georgia’s much-touted initiative to make English the country’s second language, its Teach and Learn with Georgia program is getting middling grades from participating volunteer teachers.
Since September 2010, hundreds of native-English speakers have served as volunteer teachers in dozens of schools across Georgia as part of Teach and Learn with Georgia (TLG) -- a massive effort to bring 10,000 native English speakers to Georgia by 2014. The program is overseen by the Ministry of Education, and was heavily promoted by the multilingual President Mikheil Saakashvili, a graduate of Columbia University Law School in New York who has a Dutch-born wife.
Within Georgia, the program has been so heavily hyped that any English-speaking foreigner in Tbilisi is now often assumed to be a teacher.
While appreciative of the enthusiasm, American teachers serving in Tbilisi, Batumi and in the western region of Samegrelo told EurasiaNet.org that communication breakdowns and organizational hiccups have created obstacles.
Part of the problem appears to boil down to the discrepancy between overseas advertisements for the program and the reality of everyday life in Georgian villages, the initial focus for the program. YouTube video advertisements for TLG are rich in footage of Georgian food, folk dancing, a disco and views of Tbilisi by night. There are no clips of Georgian schools, host family houses or villages.
The first groups of volunteer teachers were sent to schools in regions far from Tbilisi, in predominately poor, farming communities with little access to western conveniences.
The contrast between the advertisements and reality has led at least one volunteer to leave the program prior to the start of the school year; several teachers have also been relocated from village assignments to Tbilisi, according to a network of blogs written by the TLG teachers.
TLG volunteers, who need have no teaching experience, received a free round trip ticket to Georgia, a 500 lari (approximately $270) monthly stipend and free accommodations with a host family. A 1,000-lari (about $540) incentive program to sign up friends and associates was also offered, but information was not available about whether or not bonuses have yet been paid.
The lack of a requirement for prior teaching experience abroad often means that the program receives volunteer teachers who are ill prepared for the vagaries of life in a post-Soviet country like Georgia, some volunteers say.
Jenny Holm, a volunteer from Minnesota who taught English to junior high and high school students in the Black Sea resort town of Batumi, commented to EurasiaNet.org that participants should have been given more information about the country’s relatively conservative society before they arrived -- in particular, about attitudes toward women. While TLG provides an orientation upon arrival, Georgia’s patriarchal culture and traditional social norms “can be frustrating” for people unprepared for life in a developing country, Holm commented. She described her semester, though, as “really great for what it was.”
“I think if they are able to re-brand themselves as an education development program and cater the program to the same category that would be interested in the Peace Corps, they will have a good chance of being successful,” she said.
A culture clash threatened to sink the program in November, when opposition political parties picked up on allegations that a volunteer inadvertently exposed his young students to sexually suggestive photographs when he friended them on Facebook.
The scandal, which erupted in Zugdidi, a regional center over 439 kilometers to the west of Tbilisi, eventually died down when Education Minister Dmitri Shashkin spoke in support of the volunteer.
Neal Zupancic, a volunteer from New York City teaching English at the Tbilisi Police Academy, said that the TLG staff is good at “putting out fires,” but appears to lack the resources -- and the planning -- to prevent problems ahead of time.
Zupancic, an avid blogger about his TLG experiences, noted that simple issues like whether or not volunteers are expected to pay host families for room and board -- or how many hours volunteers should spend tutoring host brothers and sisters -- have mushroomed into problems due to a lack of straight answers. “TLG staff really wants the program to be a success. They are really dedicated. They work hard. But I feel that there is not enough administrative support for them, and they are overworked,” Zupancic said.
Neither TLG nor Footprints Recruiting, a Vancouver, Canada-based agency that handles attracting native English speakers to the program, responded to numerous requests from EurasiaNet.org for comment.
Communication breakdowns also appear to extend sometimes to dialogue between TLG staff in Tbilisi and volunteers in the regions.
Marissa Needles, a volunteer from Texas teaching English in Samegrelo, said she has been “surprised” by the lack of communication and support from the central office. “[A]t times, I have become extremely frustrated at the breakdown in communication and lack of information provided to me,” Needles said in an email interview. Other volunteers complained that TLG had not yet given them textbooks or responded to questions about plane tickets.
But Needles noted that the TLG staff seems to be learning as the program develops. “This program is still in its infant year and there are growing pains,” Needles said. “I believe that with each group TLG brings [to Georgia], they learn something new.”
Postscript: In a January 21 email interview with EurasiaNet.org, Footprints Recruiting Chief Executive Officer Ben Glickman commented that his company has introduced a "comprehensive orientation manual" -- developed by TLG staff in Georgia -- to help new recruits prepare for their assignments. Online teacher forums already play a role in describing to volunteers what to expect, Glickman added.
The company, he said, is also organizing events so that potential volunteers can talk with returning volunteers about their experiences in Georgia.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.