Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Day in the Life of a TLG Teacher

I am a “volunteer” teacher in the country of Georgia located in the Caucuses between Russia, Turkey and Armenia. I use quotation marks around the word volunteer because we are actually paid higher than the local English teachers, our salary (living stipend, whatever you wish to call it) a whopping $300 USD per month. Local teachers make about $150 USD monthly. I am part of a government sponsored program called Teach and Learn Georgia (TLG) which places fluent English speakers of many nationalities into public school classrooms around the country to assist the Georgian teachers and provide both students and teachers the opportunity to practice their English.

I am writing this post because many of the teachers I met during our week long orientation had no idea what kind of country Georgia was nor had any idea what living in Georgia would be like. Some teachers expected to be living in a tropical country, many teachers expected to be living under western European standards, many teachers didn’t know that it was quite possible, no likely, that they may end up living in a village where they might not have things like running water, hot water, heating, air conditioning etc etc. 

Everyone here has different experiences. Some people live in modern houses in cities, others live in rural areas where they don’t even have an indoor toilet, just a squat toilet in an outhouse in the backyard. If you’re not willing to live like this for a while, than you shouldn’t consider this program. But for those who are open minded and willing to experience something completely different, than TLG is a great program to join. This is just the story of one day in my life.

I wake up to the alarm clock on my TLG supplied Nokia cell phone at 7 am. It’s still pitch black like night outside, there’s no daylight savings time here. I crawl out of bed and search around in the dark for the plug for my space heater and plug it in the only outlet in my room. I’m not allowed to leave the heater on at night, maybe for electricity costs, maybe for safety, probably for both. I crawl back into bed and hit the snooze button for the next 30-45 minutes until I can drag myself out of bed. I pull out my clothes for the day; jeans, sweater, long underwear to wear under everything plus two pairs of socks. I put it all in front of the space heater to warm up, everything feels like ice to the touch. After about a minute in front of the heater everything is warm and toasty and I can get dressed.

I go downstairs to the kitchen to start getting ready for school. I strike a match and light the gas burner on our gas canister that serves as a stove and put some tomato and bean sauce on to warm up. I plug in the hot water maker to boil water and while everything is heating I go get ready. The kitchen is cold because no one has lit the wood stove yet this morning. The bathroom is even colder with its tiled floor and cement walls. A shower is unthinkable in this cold, sitting on the toilet is like sitting on ice. Our sink is outside and I go out to brush my teeth and put my contacts. I never realized that toothpaste would get so tough to push out from the tube in the cold. At least the water is hot this morning so I can wash my hands and face in warm water.

I go back in and cut up some bread to go with my bean and tomato sauce for breakfast. I pour my hot water in my cup and make tea. I hold the cup in my hands to make me feel a little warmer.

I leave the house and go to wait at the bus stop for 9:30 when my co-teacher’s husband will come to pick me up to go to school. The marshutka (the van used for public transportation) only runs to the village once every two hours and since we don’t teach until second period today we get a ride rather than getting to school for first period and sitting around doing nothing (lesson planning is not really something teachers in my school spend much time doing). As usual, they are late and I stand around in the cold for 20 minutes waiting for them to come. We show up to school 5 minutes after second period has begun and my co-teacher scolds our students for playing in the hallway rather than sitting in the classroom waiting for us.

We start class, my co-teacher asks the students what page we’re on, and since she doesn’t have her own copy of the text book, she takes one of the student’s copies. Two out of the seven children in this class have no text book, well, make that three now that the teacher has taken another book from them. We put them in pairs so that they share books.

These children are in the 6th grade and, though only one of the seven students can actually read, our principal decided that they should study from the English World 3 textbook, a book that focuses hard on reading, assuming that students know past tense and a heap of vocabulary. These kids can’t answer simple questions like “how is the weather?” or “how old are you?”, heck, some of them can’t answer “how are you?” properly. Now three months into school we’re still in the “review” chapter in the beginning of the book trying desperately to enforce the basics. Trying to teach them past tense when they don’t understand present tense. I’m getting frustrated and feeling hopeless with these students. We’ve been having such good progress with the younger grades, but these kids are too far behind.

When I first came, I thought that working in a village would be better, easier to teach since there are small classes. Only 100 students are in the whole school, grades 1-12. But, I’m realizing more and more each day how big of a disadvantage these students are at. Many of them do no homework. Maybe their parents don’t care, or maybe their parents are unable to help, especially with English. As an ex-soviet country, the majority of people over thirty have only studied Russian as a second language, not English, and may not even know the English alphabet to help their children. Children who don’t get a good grasp their first year of the basics fall behind quickly as the material gets increasingly difficult every year. There’s no such thing as leveled classes or repeating grades in this school. Often children in the cities have better educated parents or can afford private tutors or English academies for their children, but not the children in the villages whose parents may not have stable incomes to pay for such luxuries. Many students go to school without books, even, because families may not have money to buy them.

The class ends when someone rings the bell. Yes, we have an actual bell and someone must actually ring it. We have a ten minute break where we warm up around the wood stove. 45 minutes of teaching in a classroom with no heat and my hands have started to go a bit numb. We got a tiny space heater for our classroom last week, finally, but today there is no electricity, so we don’t even have that. Even when we have it, it doesn’t really do much unless you happen to be standing right next to it. Our only plug is near the door and most of the hot air goes out our broken door anyway.

The bell rings and we go down to the first grade classroom. They have a wood stove here and I’m actually able to take off my jacket while I teach. These kids are the sweetest, most well behaved students. They are slowly catching on to everything. A lot of them have learned the alphabet and now we’re starting phonics with them. I think this class will able to go far with English if they keep doing what they’re doing now.

I leave this class feeling a little better about life and now it’s time for a break. We head to the “cafeteria”. It’s not really a cafeteria, it’s a room with a table and a few chairs where the teachers take their breaks. There are no meals offered at school. Students theoretically eat lunch when they go home from school at the end of the day (which varies depending on the grade, but is somewhere between 1:30-3:30). There is a small “café”, though where students can buy snacks. Nothing nutritious, mostly cakes, cookies, and a Georgian favorite, sunflower seeds. Teachers usually drink tea or coffee, water is stored in plastic jugs which are filled and brought to school every day. There is no running water in the school.

Now we go to teach the 11th graders. We look all around, but they are no where to be found. Finally we spot one of them. “Come to class!” “No, teacher, we have chemistry now!”. Apparently someone had changed the schedule without informing us. We sit around the teacher’s room wood stove and wait until the next period. My co-teacher disappears for a while. When the bell rings, I find the 11th grade students, well, three of them at least, but my co-teacher is nowhere in sight. I call her and she tells me to start class without her, she’ll be back in 5 minutes. When I ask the three students who have showed up where the rest of the students are, they inform me that the rest have already gone home.

We start class. Again, we have no teacher’s book, but with only three students (miraculously all of which have books) I am able to look over their shoulder as they read their lesson. These are good students who try hard, but their English book is way too difficult for them. They read the whole lesson without understanding much and are unable to answer any of the questions in the book. I go over all the “new” vocabulary from the lesson, but there are too many other words from the text that they don’t understand that they are still unable to answer the questions in the book. I assign the work we couldn’t do in class for homework, but I know they won’t do it. My co-teacher, by the way, never showed up for class. And she’s the good co-teacher.

After school I run an English club for the older students. This week we are playing the board game Life, which I borrowed for the week from the American Corner in town. The kids love it, but they don’t use much English to play the game. One student who speaks English well translates everything for the rest of them.

After class I go to catch the marshutka back into the city. Usually I rush out to catch it at 3:30, but it never shows up until 4:00. Today I get out of our English club at 3:40 but when I get to the marshutka stop, the students inform me that it has already left. Fortunately, I am informed that if I stop a passing taxi from here heading back to town it is only 50 tetri (0.30 USD) so some other teachers and I hop in a cab and head back to town.

Back in town I head over to my favorite internet café. While it’s possible to get a USB modem for a laptop here, the device is expensive and I didn’t feel like spending three day’s pay on a device I can only use for 2 months. The internet café charges just 1 lari per hour (0.75 USD) so it’s cheaper for me to go there several times a week rather than getting internet for my laptop.

After making my skype calls to the Boyfriend and checking e-mail and facebook I head back home, trying to be home before dark. While it’s not really dangerous to walk around after dark, people tend not to do it unless they have to, and so I try to do the same. It’s kind of lonely walking home after dark, even at just 7:00.

I get home and my host mother points to the pot of tomato and bean sauce and asks me “sachmeli?” Food? This is how we communicate since my Georgian isn’t so great still. I scoop up some sauce on my plate and eat it with bread. For dessert we have homemade fruit preserves. This is a treat, my host mother doesn’t pull these out often.

After that I pull out my book and sit in front of the wood stove trying to keep warm. It’s hard to read with the cacophony of noise around me. Phones constantly ringing, the two children arguing with their mother about their homework, lots of really loud conversations because my family loves to talk and talk and talk. I’m used to all this now and I can usually read my book over the din. This past week, though, my host mother’s brother and his wife and their 3 week old baby have moved into our house (for reasons that have never been explained to me, they just appeared one day and never left) and this has added to the din. The baby is generally very, very good and hardly makes a fuss, but when she does start to cry, the mother has the most obnoxious song to calm the baby down that goes something like “Nyaaaaa, nya nya nyaaaaa, nyanyanyanyanyaaaaaaa, nyaaaaaaaa”. After my ears can’t take the abuse any longer I retreat to my room where I huddle in front of the heater with my book until it’s time to sleep.

I go back downstairs and my host parents have figured out that I ran away from the cacophony and laugh that I have returned again now that things have calmed down. I go out again to the sink outside to brush my teeth and take out my contacts, thinking to myself that I should have put on a jacket before stepping outside. Finally I’m ready for bed to recharge for a new day. I slip into my ice cold sheets and wait to warm up and fall asleep.

 * update* the weather has been much better lately, around 10˚C every day. November was an unusually cold month. December is more seasonable. I expect that January and February should bring back November's cold weather again.


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience of what life is like for a TLG volunteer in the schools.

  2. No problem, this is one of my favorite posts from my time in Georgia.