Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rome wasn't built in a day..... part 2

It's true. Rome wasn't built in a day. And the educational reforms that are in the works here in Georgia won't be made in a day, either.

I really appreciated Minister Shashkini taking his time to talk with all of us Teach and Learn with Georgia (TLG) teachers yesterday. He answered many of the questions and concerns that have been building in my mind over the last five months. Concerns about the horrible books that are being used in the classroom -- and when I say horrible, I mean that they are so bad, I'm surprised any of the students have learned anything at all from them -- there is no organization to the order in which the material is presented, the level of the written texts is way beyond what the students can understand, there is little or no conversational application of the language -- I can't even call it a curriculum, because that would imply that it is useable for schooling....... Enough of that tirade -- He addressed concerns about many of the poor facilities, lack of heat, out-dated teaching styles of some of the Georgian teachers, "English" teachers who don't know English, lack of student motivation, lack of homework completion, mostly absent parent-support, and the list could go on. Many of the concerns do not apply to me and my school; I feel like I drew the lucky straw with my school placement. But from what I have heard from many other teachers, there are difficult, bordering on deplorable conditions in some working environments.

As Minister Shashkini spoke with us, he kept saying, "Just give me some time." He is fully aware of the problems and struggles that exist in the present system. But change takes time. He has made some drastic changes that have brought criticism from those who do not understand the big picture. But he told us about many instances in which he has exercised restraint because he does not want to bring about a collapse of the school system. (Some people have criticized M. Shashkini for not firing all the English teachers who can't speak English. He said that if he fired all the teachers who should not be teaching, so many would be pitched, who would teach the classes?) He is working at balancing prudence and decisive action. And I think that he is doing a great job of it.

Five years. That's how long he and TLG are expecting to wait for solid results to be seen. TLG is only one of 32 separate reform projects that the Ministry of Education has running concurrently. So much work is being done on an organizational and theoretical level, and much of it cannot be seen. There is still such a gigantic amount of work left to be done and generations of poor educational philosophy to overcome, that it feels like no changes are being made. At least, that's what it feels like to us individuals who are often isolated in our little villages struggling to teach and be understood. Minister Shashkini told us that he knows that many of us feel like we are not making a difference, but he gave us several examples of ways that we have already made a difference in the eight months that TLG has been in operation.

The books -- he said that the books have been the number one complaint of every single teacher. Because of our united voice (although we didn't know that everyone was saying the same thing), plans for new curriculum were sped along to be implemented sooner than the Ministry had originally anticipated. New books have already been chosen -- from the MacMillan Publishers -- that have been used with great success in China, Korea, Japan, and other countries where English is taught on a large scale. In August, the new books will be put into use in the lower grades (1-6), and the following August, the upper grades (7-12) will begin using the new curriculum. These new books will be sold much cheaper than the old ones and the government will help any families who cannot afford to buy their books. Copies of all the books will be kept in the schools' library collections, and every teacher will be given all the books, teacher's manual, and teaching resources that accompany the curriculum free of charge. Wonderful!! M. Shashkini reiterated to us that it is because of us -- the TLG teachers -- that these changes will be made. (When I told Tea and Lika about this, they almost couldn't breathe. I thought Tea might cry. They are thrilled!)

He also shed a little light on the attitude that seems to be prevalent among most Georgians regarding education (except for those who live in the region where I am -- the region of over-achievers) -- that it is just not that important. And, as I had suspected, it goes back to the Soviet times. There was no motivation then to do well nor reason to achieve, so apathy took hold as the over-arching attitude toward education. And now I see the results of this attitude every day in my classroom (in some students): lack of curiosity, lack of self-motivation, and lack of homework. M. Shashkini told us something else very, very telling: last year a Gallup Poll was conducted among Georgian parents. They were asked if they are actively involved in their children's education and school work. The results? 10%. Only 10% of Georgian parents take an active role in their children's education. The other 90% had no idea what their children did at school and never talked about it with them. My jaw dropped open at that one.

So many changes..... books, certification exams, increased English instruction hours, more vo-tech offerings, teacher trainings, renovated facilities, new facilities, new teaching methods, new assessment methods, updated technology, increased salaries for teachers, graduation exams, grade-level exit exams..... and those are just the tangible changes. The intangibles will be much more difficult to change. So much change takes time (and money). Minister Shashkini said that if he had a billion dollars, he could make all the changes in a year. He doesn't have a billion dollars. So, he is asking for five years. And from the changes I have seen already, within five years, there will be marked improvement in all areas of Georgia's educational system.

It's really nice to know that I am part of something that is making a difference.

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