First Day

The vocational school turns out to be quite a bit different than what I had expected it to be. It isn’t really part of the public school system; it’s not a K-12 school like the other volunteers are placed in. It still is a public school (and there are also USAID signs outside the school), but it’s still not a traditional public school. It’s a vocational college, a one year training program for various professions. The classes are not by age or grade, but by profession. So there are the cooks, auto-mechanics, computer programmers, hairdressers, waitresses, plumbers, etc. It’s a skills center, as we’d refer to it in the states.

I had been warned about the state of the Georgian public schools. Very little discipline, students talk loudly throughout the whole class, teachers yell over the students, students yell over the teacher… no classroom control. The teaching methods are a bit… well, behind. After the Soviets left in ’91, they took much of the infrastructure and industry with them. Georgia had independence, but there was no real motivation to change the way things were done, so no efforts were made to really change things.

There was a discussion a few days ago, where an American woman asked a Georgian woman to describe the Georgians in one word. She said Lazy. I think I would throw complacency in there too (I think the discussion up until that point was about how I should never expect things to be on time, and if I have a deadline or timetable, I have to be vigilant in order to stick to it). I think the best way to say it is with the lovely German word that works so well across Eastern Europe. Schlamperei. That sense of: Why work hard when there are no consequences if I don’t work hard? Or: Why be helpful to customers if my job doesn’t depend on it? That sense of complacency to change the way things run. That if things sort of work now, what’s the point in going out of your way to try to make things work a little bit better? Someone else can take care of it. You get this with the post office (shudder), bank, grocery stores, all over the place. Employees in stores who glare at you as you approach them with a question…

All of this talk of Schlamperei, I think, relates to the school system as well. From what I gather, all the students pass. Apparently failure is extremely difficult. Cheating is rampant, kids don’t pay attention, don’t come to class, don’t do their work – and still pass. Nothing’s required, nothing’s expected, it seems. Teacher’s don’t seem to be too concerned, either. Everyone’s just going through the motions. Education in and of itself isn’t an end, but rather a means. A job for teachers, and a way to pass time for students. I’m harsh, I know, and I generalize. I know there are passionate teachers and there are eager students, but for the most part, this is the picture I’ve been shown from many sources.

But all that’s the public schools! The vocational school I teach at is for the kids who dropped out of high school. It’s compulsory until 10th grade, but then students can drop out. Those are my students. Oh, it was chaos! I went in to the first lesson figuring I’d just sit in on a few days’ lessons to see what level the students were at, what went on in the classroom, and what teaching materials were available to me. Chaos! Yelling, laughing, joking, flirting with the teacher, asking me how I like Georgian wine and Tcha-Tcha, etc. The lesson was vocabulary related to professions. The students weren’t copying anything in their books, so I made up a lesson on the spot. Vocab for professions, workplaces, various verbs for working, and sentence formation. “A teacher teaches in a school” and others.

I recycled the lesson in the next class. In my third session, the students had more basic English levels. Meaning, they had extremely little knowledge of English. We practiced the alphabet and played an alphabet game. Chaos. My co-teacher warned me that the lessons with all boys are usually loud and uncontrollable. If at all possible, I should come prepared with some sort of game to keep them tame and maybe they can learn something too. I explained the term “Lion tamer” to my co-teacher.

The next two sessions didn’t take place, because the students weren’t at school. The whole class was missing. “Oh, where are my pupils?” asked my co-teacher. I took advantage of the silence and downtime to do my favorite ESL classroom activity: puns! Man, I had this one teacher back in grade school who was so bad… he was cross-eyed. He couldn’t control his pupils at all!

As this school is less about education than professional training experience, there are no tests and no grades. Students graduate at the end of the year, and whatever English they pick up along the way is a bonus, I guess. But there’s no immediate incentive to learn, to study the language. My hope is that the students who are interested, excited, and eager to learn will use the presence of a native speaker as incentive enough to learn.

It’s going to be an interesting, difficult experience teaching here. It’s doubly difficult because not only am I teaching the class English, I am also teaching my co-teachers English, as well as more practical teaching methods. I hope I can make some impact…

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