[lg policy] Georgia: English-Language Program Faces Communication Obstacles

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 19 23:14:48 UTC 2011

Georgia: English-Language Program Faces Communication Obstacles
January 12, 2011 - 3:11pm, by Molly Corso

    * Georgia

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

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.”
Editor's note:
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.


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