Georgia looks to replace Russian with English

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The World

Photo caption: Children learn English on April 19, 2010, at a high school in central Tbilisi. (Zviad Nikolashvili/AFP/Getty Images)

TBILISI, Georgia — As part of a new nationwide initiative, 350 foreigners will descend this week on rural and impoverished Georgian public schools to teach English.

The initiative, "Teach and Learn with Georgia," is the brainchild of Georgia’s staunchly pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who announced in August an ambitious program to have every Georgian schoolchild speaking English in the next four years. English language and computer skills are essential to Georgia’s economic and technological development, he said.

While few in Georgia disagree with the abstract goals of "Teach and Learn with Georgia" — which, according to Saakashvili’s ambitious plans, will bring thousands of foreign English speakers to Georgian public schools in the next four years — the implementation of the program has been controversial since its inception last spring.

Many say the planning of the program, condensed to less than five months, was unnecessarily rushed and poorly executed. Others worry the program will be a catastrophic misuse of Georgia’s already limited educational funds.

When Saakashvili first announced the program in April, he promised, like a modern day Herbert Hoover, not to put "a chicken in every pot," but to put an American in every classroom. The original goal was to place 1,000 Americans in public schools across Georgia by mid-September, where they would both teach students and help Georgian-born English teachers improve their own language skills. 

With the start of school, the program appears to be off to a slightly more modest start. Only 350 foreign teachers have been placed in Georgian classrooms so far — and they won’t all be American. Still, Maia Siprashvili-Lee, coordinator for "Teach and Learn with Georgia," says the program is already a success.

"We are still accepting applications and training new teachers every week, even after school starts," she said. Her office expects to admit more than 100 teachers per month through December. "We’re just getting started."

"Teach and Learn with Georgia" is modeled after other government-funded English-language programs in Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, where the goal is to “improve people-to-people communication, which aids in business and development,” Siprashvili-Lee said. “English language is vital for our country.”

Similar initiatives that prioritize learning English — like Chile’s 2003 program, “English Opens Doors,” which made learning English mandatory for schoolchildren — have been successful models for Georgia. Saakashvili has called Georgia’s “Teach and Learn with Georgia” program “a real educational revolution.”

"It will give us an opportunity to make major progress and to make the largest breakthrough in next decades in the entire post-Soviet space and that's the greatest contribution we will make to the future development of our country," he said during a speech Aug. 15.

"Teach and Learn with Georgia" teachers are mostly in their 20s and hail from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, western and eastern Europe, Scandinavia — and in one instance — the Philippines. While a handful are retired or out-of-work educators in their home countries, most have never taught in a classroom. Each will be placed with a teaching partner at a public school, mostly in remote rural villages, Siprashvili-Lee said. 

Is learning English the best way forward for Georgian children? Join the conversation in the comment section below.

Chris Walters, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Georgia and the current director of IREX, a Tbilisi-based international nonprofit that works on educational issues, said he thinks the program is a good idea, but emphasizes the importance of managing expectations, especially for idealistic young teachers who have never lived abroad and have no experience in often chaotic public schools.

“It can be like living in a fish bowl,” he said. “You have to be 'on' all the time, and nothing happens like you expect it to.”

Hannah Mintek, a former private English teacher in Tbilisi and a former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in rural Georgia, worried that “Teach and Learn with Georgia” teachers have not receive adequate training.

“I’m afraid it will be much more difficult, psychologically and emotionally, than they expect,” she said. 

The U.S. Peace Corps, the U.S. State Department's international service program, brings about 40 new volunteers to Georgia each year, many of whom teach English in rural public schools. It provides its volunteers with two and a half months of language, cultural, safety and pedagogical training before placing them with host families in Georgian villages. "Teach and Learn with Georgia" teachers will receive one week of training. 

The question of cost for the “Teach and Learn for Georgia” program has also been a primary source of controversy among Georgian educators. While the Peace Corps is funded exclusively by the U.S. State Department, the Georgian government will have to pick up the tab for "Teach and Learn for Georgia"

Georgian educators question spending money on shipping in foreigners, when many Georgian public schools, despite recent a recent round of renovations, still lack central heating, an adequate number of desks and basic materials like workbooks and chalk.

Although the Ministry of Education has refused to reveal either its budget or its funding sources, “Teach and Learn with Georgia” is expected to cost between $5 million and $6 million a year.

“Teach and Learn with Georgia” teachers will receive free room and board with a Georgian family, a medical insurance package, a round-trip ticket to Georgia, and one round trip ticket home for vacation. They will be paid 500 Georgian lari (about $300 dollars) per month — more than twice what their Georgian counterparts will be making.

“The Georgian teachers are going to be thinking, ‘What, the government can pay this kid who has no background in education, no educational training, but it can’t pay me?’” said Mintek, the former Peace Corps volunteer. “It’s a recipe for trouble.” 

Michael Decker, 31, a “Teach and Learn with Georgia” teacher who has already been placed in Tsoniarisi village in Adjara, a region in Georgia’s rainy west, said that while the challenges are clear, he thinks the program has the possibility of being a real success.

“We’re going to have to figure out what our roles will be in our schools, how to balance the pre-existing Georgian curriculum with our conversational instruction, and how to speak Georgian,” said Decker, with a laugh. He has worked as a high school Latin teacher in Virginia for four years. “It’s not going to be easy, but I guess that’s the point.”

“I want to be a resource. I want to be helpful,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”  

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