Zemo Alvani’s “First School” sits directly behind the Stalin monument in the very center of town. However, everyone knows which came first. The original school building, which now houses the first through fourth grades, just celebrated it’s 100th year. A museum on the ground floor of the main, newer building, displays the long history of the village and the school along with an impressive (for a village museum) collection of artifacts and ethnographic books.
Compared to other schools here I feel quite lucky. We always have chalk and blackboards that are relatively flat, there’s a cafeteria and school-supply shop, functioning computers which staff are eagerly learning to use, and unless it’s very cold the wood-stoves in every classroom generally keep the rooms warm enough to take of your hat (at least by the second lesson – the first is still too chilly). We even have a solar cell to ring the bell when the power is out!
Like many other rural schools, we don’t have running water, aside from a faucet in the courtyard. The bathrooms are reminiscent of the third world. Electricity works most days. But I often feel like the school works better than many in America. Except for perhaps the athletic program, which is described by the following picture.
Though teacher salaries are dismal (less than $200 a month, if that), infrastructure frustratingly poor, and motivation low, students still enjoy luxuries like music and art classes. They have sport class several times a week, and apparently there is even an eco-club.
I teach mostly in the lower grades, where students are still excited about school, and even want to learn English. We’re integrating more speaking and listening exercises, as language education in the post-soviet world tends to focus more on grammar and translation. Naturally, students appreciate things like games and a more communicative approach.
I’m trying to establish some routines, but in a culture where routines are relatively foreign it’s difficult to keep them going. Something always comes up that’s more urgent, whether it’s someone fighting at the back of the class or a star pupil interrupting to show off. Even training the students to have their materials on their desk is proving difficult when I’m the only teacher with such expectations. Calling on students who raise their hands quietly is an even bigger challenge when it’s not something the students have experienced before. Not being able to communicate with the students in their own language doesn’t really help either.
One of my goals for the year is to get the students out of their desks, or at least find a way for them to work in groups. But the unfamiliarity with such arrangements inspires chaos whenever I convince a co-teacher it might be a good idea to try something new, which doesn’t do wonders for my credibility.
In any case, I enjoy school mostly, when things aren’t falling apart. The kids are great and I think many teachers are genuinely interested in improving the quality of education. However, there seems to be quite a bit of confusion on how to do this. Though I think the TLG program does lots of good, I’m not sure exactly how they expect young and inexperienced teachers like me to advise our supervisors. I find myself slightly uncomfortable as the youngest staff member, and understand why my co-teachers might be skeptical of my ideas. Also, they often know their students and the school system far better than I do.
For example, today I learned that my first graders don’t actually need to learn what we are supposed to be teaching them, because they’ll be repeating the exact same curriculum next year, whether or not they master the content.
This fact, more than anything else I’ve learned here, reveals the reality of school in Georgia. Take from it what you will.