When Mikheil Saakashvili – Georgia’s pro-Europe, anti-Russia president, who viewed Andy Garcia as the ideal figure to play him in a movie – announced in August of 2010 that every schoolchild in Georgia would become “an English speaker” in the next four years, as part of an “educational revolution”, quite a few eyebrows were raised. Having brought in a series of widespread reforms in the wake of the 2003 Rose Revolution, which contributed to his approval rating of 67% at the time, ‘Misha Magaria‘ would not be deterred from his next big venture.
Announced in the presence of the first group of native English speakers to arrive in Georgia as part of the Ministry of Education’s newly-formed Teach and Learn with Georgia (TLG) program, Saakashvili’s ambitious words reinforced the “linguistic and computer revolution” plan that had been put forward 4 months previously, which posited that English language classes would become compulsory from the first grade in schools and that every first grader would be given an XO mini-laptop.
Drawing parallels with one of the largest migrations in Georgian history, Saakashvili boldly claimed that “the arrival of 10,000 English language teachers in Georgia in the next three years will be similar in scale to when David the Builder resettled 50,000 Kipchaks [after which] the Georgian state’s modernization [became] irreversible.”
Saakashvili viewed this program as the first step towards modernizing Georgia, a country which, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, had been ravaged by civil war and mass emigration, while being dealt the usual cases of corruption, poverty and crime. Saakasvhili presented his agenda of mass deregulation, flat taxes, and criminalization of white-collar crime as less of a political one and more a teleological leap forward. Like Putin in Russia, he looked to put behind the chaos and disarray of the 90’s by presenting his governance as the re-establishment of a stable state institution and the return to normality. Rather than confront the Soviet nostalgia that remained in the hearts of many Georgians, Saakashvili imagined Georgia as part of the broader Western consensus, pushing it towards both NATO and EU membership. To usher in this new era of normality, the Georgian youth would have to start understanding and speaking the language of Baron, Wilde, Lil Uzi Vert, Pitbull, and the fella that wrote The Notebook.
Well-intentioned though it may have been on the surface – taking a novel approach to educating Georgia’s future generations in the global lingua franca – considering the fact that, at the same time, local public school teachers held numerous, valid grievances with the government, it seemed near-sighted in the extreme. When TLG was set up, there was no proper teacher’s college or top-down national curriculum in the country, while pathetic wages for teachers forced many to tutor in order to make ends meet. Minimal skills training and support, and shitty school facilities in both the cities and countryside added to a bleak overall picture. This invariably begged the question: where was the money coming from to transport 10,000 foreign teachers to Georgia? Unfortunately, your guess is as good as ours. Rumour had it that USAid or the World Bank funded it but, apparently, TLG didn’t show up on any of the funding projects. Word spread that it was funded by cash extorted from businesses, which the Saakashvili regime was known to do in the tourism industry. We contacted TLG to get to the bottom of this but got no reply. They are sort of famous for not replying, even to their employees.
Ostensibly, the program was intended to place native English speakers in every Georgian city, town, village, and whatever Khashuri is, to impart their knowledge and experience. The consensus was that Georgian teachers were inadequately qualified or trained to properly teach the language, and that having some Westerners around might fix this. According to TLG, “Outdated teaching methods, lack of listening and speaking comprehensions, unmotivated teaching environment made it very difficult for Georgian society to master the language. It is obvious that the importance of having a native speaker in schools should not be underestimated.” The belief that through osmosis Georgian teachers would learn how to be a decent teacher and master the language from some recent sociology graduate from Oklahoma was optimistic. Underneath it all though, one couldn’t help but suspect that this was a giant, expensive PR exercise to declare the country ‘open for business’, rather than a real attempt at addressing the serious deficiencies of the educational system. Saakashvili was never much of an administrator, but the Georgian Vincent Corleone certainly knew how to grab attention; something he continues to do even to this day, as a ‘man without a state’ in Ukraine.
Straight off the bat, Saakashvili’s last-minute decision to recruit foreign teachers for the 2010-2011 Georgian school year almost proved disastrous. With positions desperately needing to be filled at schools across the country so that the president could make good on his pledge, Georgia accepted nearly everyone who signed up to the TLG program, regardless of their qualifications, experience or motivations for doing so. Rumours arose that Alexis Reich, a transwoman formerly known as John Mark Karr, a serial child molester who rose to notoriety after falsely pleading guilty to the murder of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, was one of the early participants of the program, although these were never fully proved.
It must be pointed out that, although the TLG participants were nominally “volunteers”, the program offered quite a few perks, including accommodation with a local host family, medical insurance, travel costs covered to and from any location in the world (including one flight home per year), and a monthly stipend of $300 – which may seem miserly but is roughly three times that of a Georgian public school teacher’s salary. Provided one wasn’t looking to start saving for the future, the program was an interesting prospect.
Having always harboured a desire to visit Georgia, the TLG program piqued my interest as an ideal ticket for my next destination, spending a large part of 2011 in Chile, courageously staving off the unemployment line at home. The offer of paid flights from anywhere in the world was a particularly enticing prospect, especially considering the cost of air travel to and from South America and the meager salary I had been on while in Santiago. With over a year of teaching stoned Chilean students in a university basement behind me, and after submitting my application, background checks and ‘audition’ video, I was accepted into the Spring 2012 collection of teachers in Georgia.
Before being placed in the classroom to begin our roles as the providers of modern education, each participant was expected to undergo a week of training and orientation in the capital. Housed in the famous Bazaleti Palace hotel near Ortachala station in the suburbs of Tbilisi, the building possessed all the warmth of the hotel from The Shining, minus the blood getting off the elevator (although that may have been for the summer group). I was among the largest group of TLG recruits – some 150 teachers, mostly from the United States, Britain and Australia, but there was also a smattering of Poles, Kenyans and an Estonian. After teaching English in Chile, I had assumed that the majority of the other teachers would also have worked abroad, to be willing to venture so far outside the standard TEFL countries like Japan and Korea. For a sizeable number however, it was their first job out of college and their first time abroad. When asked whether he had worked abroad before, one Irish participant brilliantly answered “ah yeah, I spent the past few months making illegal websites in a basement in France”.
It was early on in the orientation week that I met Ciaran, co-founder of Post Pravda, who had flown in from Korea, after spending a few months teaching there. The first encounter – at the breakfast table in the hotel – set the tone for the resulting friendship, involving as it did me tightening my arse cheeks and smiling uncomfortably, while Ciaran offended a group of strangers by spraying the word ‘cunt’ around at an unnecessarily high volume. Regardless, a friendship soon formed over our mutual love of football, In Bruges, Style Council and laughing at the sheer absurdity of the unfolding orientation week. Along with basic Georgian language lessons – which came in handy when attempting to decipher which bus to take home – the orientation subjected us to the most random lessons, such as how not to be mistaken for a prostitute and how to cross the street, as well as the most inane questions by fellow participants, including “what is the returns policy in Georgian street markets?” and “what are my rights if my image is used without my consent?”
Ciaran and I were stationed in tiny villages in Shida Kartli, a region that wasn’t the jewel in the Georgian crown. Intriguingly, the village next to mine, Metekhi, had the distinction of being home to Vera Putina, a woman who claimed to be Vladimir Putin’s mother. According to my co-teacher, this old woman’s house was given a wide berth by the locals, but a line of Black Mercs with tinted windows would visit it a few times a year, bringing supplies. After discovering that two journalists who had been investigating whether these claims were true, and whether Putin had spent a portion of his primary education in Georgia (a country he had bombed in 2008) had mysteriously died in irregular circumstances, I decided it would be wise to also leave well alone.
Looking at it from a Western millennial’s perspective, Georgian village life was tough. There was no broadband (the shock!), power outages were common and I was told by everyone not to venture out once it got dark “because there were wolves.” Bordering the separatist region of South Ossetia, Russian tanks had rolled into the village during the 2008 conflict, forcing villagers – including my host family – to flee, while the railway bridge in nearby Kaspi was still in a state of destruction, having had bombs dropped on it by Russian planes. A number of IDP camps were set up on the road to Tbilisi.
It was at my host family’s house that I was introduced to the wonderful world of the outhouse – a privilege that Ciaran was denied, as his host family owned an indoor toilet. Still, he did have the comfort of having his host grandmother pray for him each time he entered the lavatory to take a shit. The local school also had an outhouse, while water had to be collected from a well in the yard and kids were sent out to collect firewood for the stoves in the classrooms. Clearly, this educational revolution would not be televised.
Despite the harsh environment, I figured that once the inevitable nuclear warfare kicks off, these hardy people will be ideally equipped. Knowing how to grow their own food, make their own wine and chop firewood puts them at a distinct advantage to most of us. On one occasion, a snake appeared in the schoolyard – one of the 4th graders just picked it up and fucked it over the back wall.
Each weekend allowed the TLG participants to escape the boredom of village life and congregate in one of the regional cities, which in the case of Ciaran and myself was Tbilisi. The main youth hostels and hipster bars in the city would be packed to capacity with pissed-up foreigners, who would proceed to spend their monthly stipend in one night. On one occasion, staying at the Hotel Ira (it’s funny if you’re Irish or British) in Batumi, we encountered two TLG volunteers who availed of the same hooker within a few minutes of one another – this was a lady who had more track marks than teeth. If the education sector wasn’t receiving a boost, at least the hospitality sector was.
Naturally, with this being Eastern Europe, cheap and homemade booze was ubiquitous. Whether it was in the staff room at the school, at home, or out at the bars, then chances were that most teachers were drunk. More pressing was that some people just couldn’t handle themselves with the streams of homemade Georgian wine constantly flowing. One participant in my group named something absurd like Hallum Dickens the 3rd decided that he’d just take a shit in the middle of a busy street in the quaint town of Poti. Perhaps the similarities to the word ‘potty’ was too hard to resist? Another teacher ended up getting so inebriated that he fell out of a hostel bunk-bed. When TLG informed him that they would not be covering his medical insurance, he decided to threaten the program with legal action. As a consequence, everyone in the program was informed that TLG would no longer cover their insurance if they were drunk, which of course was the majority of claims. Eventually, TLG teachers started to build a pretty strong and worthy reputation of being pissheads among Georgians.
By and large, I can only assume that most participants of the program travelled to Georgia for the right reasons; to see a fascinating part of the world and teach some English. However, there was an undeniable stink of entitlement off a lot of the teachers. Every TLG event inevitably turned into volunteers whinging about how backwards the country was, how their co-teachers were stupid, how their host family wasn’t feeding them, or why the marshrutkas smelled of potatoes. On the other hand, it seemed that many TLG teachers were not qualified to step into any classroom and came to Georgia with some sort of saviour complex. Perhaps, because the program had hyped them up as being part of some national project, they assumed they had the right to patronize and disrespect their hosts. Famously, one volunteer decided to proclaim Georgian women as just being chaste, with no sexual agency, which fit into a pattern of pathetically uninformed statements. As TLG was at its maximum capacity in terms of numbers in the first half of 2012, the program had become a source of resentment, particularly among Tbilisi’s intellectual class. It was around that time that the project basically died.
Thanks to the parliamentary elections held in the autumn of 2012, TLG fell from the lofty objectives of 10,000 foreign teachers two years previously, to a shell of that figure. Saakashvili’s United National Movement was slaughtered at the polls by Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party, owing to the Saakashvili government’s predilection for sodomizing prisoners with broom handles. Turns out, Misha and his government were pretty twisted bastards. The majority of TLG teachers were informed that they would have their contracts terminated at the end of December and they would be sent home. Many acted in an indignant fashion, crying about suing TLG, but never seeming to think about what the cost of the program could have been or the fact that it most likely wasn’t worth the effort. A small percentage of teachers remained, but by the start of 2013 TLG was becoming a distant memory.
On recent return visits to the country, it is clearly evident that English is spoken far more on the streets of Tbilisi and other Georgian cities since 2012. Go into most places in the centre of Tbilisi, and you’re almost certain to receive service in English. My guess is that this has hardly anything to do with TLG. The economic need for English speakers, an improving economy, and greater interaction with foreigners due to the upsurge in tourism would have had a much larger effect than a short-lived teaching program. The end influence of TLG might just be that it was a massive PR project that brought some attention to the country for a brief moment just before tourism took off, but no more than that.
Both Ciaran and I regularly return to Georgia and often joke about the absurd circumstances that brought us to the country. Although we might not have left much effect on the country, the country certainly changed our lives. For that, we’re thankful that someone implemented the mental idea of inviting thousands of people from around the world to a country most of which couldn’t even find on the map.
by Klemens Casey and Ciaran Miqeladze