Educating A Post-Soviet Nation

I never liked C-SPAN. The Weather Channel, painful as it was to endure, at least provided background noise. But C-SPAN? I had to be in a certain, deep philosophic mood to subject myself to that. I would wonder, ‘What’s the point? What’s the fuss about? – This droning can’t even be considered “fuss”.’ I would get lost somewhere amongst their stale water glasses and maze of desks only to reason that these men in such serious attire carried empty agendas. But subconsciously I knew this was unfair because I never actually paid attention, never really contemplated. I only formed an opinion for the sake of having one.

Today I found myself contemplating in a meeting room not unlike those featured on C-SPAN. First I imagined myself on the outside looking in: If I were at home, would I flip the channel? Maybe. After all, there wasn’t much to it. For all the liveliness present – the blues and reds of the Georgian and EU flags, the girls’ bright scarves, the rich accent of  TLG’s director – the scene could be perceived as very dull. Only when I brought myself back to the reality of an involved insider did the meeting take on new life.

I come from a much different environment where people are accustomed to being fed information; in most debates, attendees don’t actively participate. Yes, perhaps some are lazy or uninterested and others are ignorant, but whatever the reason, we’re all wired to perform this way from birth. Many of us don’t realize it and would probably deny it, but Americans celebrate our victories quietly (if we notice them) and take the beatings while laying down. Reform is the responsibility of a select few in Washington; their job is to sign the papers, then it’s CNN’s job to tell us the next day. Sadly, this is where the process usually ends, and those papers are soon lost to the shuffle and hustle of a massive nation which suffers from information overload.

Though Saqartvelo is tiny in comparison to America, its political paper trail is just as long – if not longer. The difference is that these people follow their trail; my seventh graders can tell me (and have told me) all about Libya’s influence on Georgian imports, which new environmental legislation matters, and why building that airport in Svaneti might or might not have been a good idea. Granted, they get almost all their news from TV, but this compressed outlet is better than no outlet at all. No, Georgia does not have the world/keyboard at their fingertips like the US does, and this will definitely change their scope on news. But for now they’re saved from knowing this disadvantage.

I had questioned basically all reasoning behind Georgia’s approach to educational reform. When I arrived in September, I saw chaos. Two days ago, I chaos. It seemed like the different problems were being randomly attacked without any strategy. Like the majority of Shashkini’s efforts were nothing more but good publicity. I was beginning to agree with a good friend of mine who said, “Georgia is passing all these reforms. No one knows if they’re bad or good. No one knows if they’re working. But they know they’re reforms.” Falling into this trap of dogmatic thinking mentally ruins us, so I resisted assumption as much as possible, and decided to give Shashkini the benefit of the doubt until today when I had a proper chance to judge for myself.

His speech was genuine. He fully and directly answered 90% of our questions. When it came time to admit past mistakes, he spoke with feeling and from experience; he didn’t try to spin shortfalls into opportunities to highlight minor successes, and he didn’t beat around the bush. When fellow teachers brought ridiculous examples to his attention, he had their case written down so they could be resolved post-meeting. In one instance a TLGer talked about his English teacher’s need for one of the Georgian laptops (under contract with Intel), the dedication she showed toward her students, and the difference technology would make in her academic contributions. “What is her name? Where does she live? Ok, we’ll make sure she gets a laptop,” the Minister replied.

All us volunteers are aware that Georgia is indeed a post-Soviet country in transition. But it didn’t really hit home, with me at least, until he touched on specific examples of Soviet teaching remnants which are still evident in many Georgian schools: harsh discipline, not “forcing” children to learn, showing strong preference toward the best students, permitting cheating, etc. Luckily, our Minister is not of this mindset and realizes Western methods can and should be implemented; he pointed out the importance of not only serving as a teacher but as a catalyst for behavior change.

So what exactly is Georgia doing to tackle the education sector? Here’s a breakdown of the Minister’s remarks from memory:

  • Starting next school year, English will be compulsory from first class. Russian will be optional.
  • In the past, the government decided to let the market regulate textbooks. As a result, there are 900 different English books used by Georgian schools today – many of poor quality. But now English textbooks will be streamlined for the first time. McMillan is developing and donating books for first through sixth class. Every English teacher will receive a teacher’s edition complete with CDs and a dictionary. The following year they will replace seventh through twelfth class books. The price of books will drop from about 15 GEL to 6 or 7 GEL.
  • Schools directors who don’t pay their heating and electricity bills (eventually resulting in no heat/electricity) will go to prison; the Minister recently discovered that 60 out of Tbilisi’s 200 schools didn’t pay these utilities. They were given a few days to pay under the threat of being jailed, and the utility companies announced record payment numbers.
  • The voucher system is being modified. As of this year, the school’s budget is no longer wholly determined by how many students attend (which encourages social promotion). Though this will still be a factor, schools will receive a base amount for utilities and salaries which should lessen the pressure on passing undeserving students.
  • By 2014, every teacher must pass an exam to become certified in his or her subject, and their monthly salary will be raised from 150-300 GEL to 1,000 GEL.  Those who don’t pass will be fired. Currently there is no required teacher certification, so many English teachers don’t actually know English.
  • As of last semester, a new absence policy was instituted which says students who miss more than the allotted number of classes will fail that subject.
  • 75% of schools currently have Internet access. By the start of next school year, 100% should have access. A new Internet provider is currently installing cables across the country; the new servers will be the fastest in Georgia.

… There are a number of others, but I can’t recall them right now.

When you imagine a country that didn’t have any electricity just six years ago, these plans are pretty ambitious. The Georgian education system has a long, long way to go before it achieves status parallel to that of its EU counterparts, but there’s no doubt the conversation is very much alive. Only time will tell.

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One response to “Educating A Post-Soviet Nation

  1. I do not really want to use word ‘believe’ because its religious connotation but do you actually believe that it is doable and if yes, what is required from all participants to make it happen?

    Since the moment you’ve arrived have you witnessed any positive changes resulting from your teaching/influence which would give you some assurance that reforms will prevail by modifying behavior and mindset of already grown up people (read: teachers/principals)?

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