Tuesday, 8 February 2011

School - Part 1

I think this blog entry will be split into two parts as there is a lot to talk about. Part one will discuss the school building, both outside and inside. In part two, I will talk about the teachers, students and general teaching experience.

It’s difficult where to start with the school. I’ll start with location. The school is only about a three minute walk from my home. I think most of the children in Gldani (the area of Tbilisi where we live) go to this school, although I think there is another one nearby somewhere. My host-mum is a music teacher there, and my brother used to be a student, so they told me what it was like before I went there on my first day.

Schools in Georgia do not go by names such as ‘Mackie Academy’ (the school I went to) or ‘Banff Academy’. In Georgia, all schools go by numbers, and so I go to school 173. Not sure why they wouldn’t want to have their own unique name but this is Georgia after all and the government may have their reasons.

The school itself is massive. It turns out it was actually two separate schools next to each other, before the government decided to merge the two together and have one great big school. As a result it has way over 2000 students and makes it the second biggest school in Tbilisi (and I would reckon this means in Georgia, too).

The school is majorly run-down compared to Western standards and is massively in need of re-development. Graffiti covers a lot of the building on the outside and it just looks like it’s crumbling down. Inside follows the same pattern. It’s absolutely freezing inside and must certainly lack central heating. The flooring throughout the school is wooden and it creaks as you walk from A to B. The staircases are made from concrete but with years of wear and tear it’s actually pretty dangerous and you have to be careful during periods not to trip on the dodgy surface.

The quality of the classrooms varies from each part of the school. In some classrooms, you’re lucky if a light works and sometimes the heaters don’t work. Even when they do, the heat they give off is minimal. Other classrooms are better, but the desks and chairs vary from one classroom to the next. Some would resemble desks and chairs used by our parents when they were at school. In other classrooms they are much more modern - it really just depends.

I really need to point out at this juncture that I am not criticising the school, not for a moment. It may look like I have written a lot of negative comments about the school, but the truth is my observations are just matter of fact. The school is what it is. It’s an old school and because Georgia is still in many regards a developing country, it is clear the government has not had the money to fund such large-scale redevelopments, which is probably the case not just for schools in Tbilisi, but Georgia too.

Next, I should mention the school’s toilets. Yes, the school, along with pretty much every other school in Georgia, has Turkish toilets. For those who are unaware of this concept, please Google/Wikipedia/YouTube it. Unlike almost all Western toilets, these Turkish toilets do not have somewhere to ‘sit’. Instead of ‘sitting’, the main verb you’ll be doing is ‘squatting’. There is a place to put your feet and beside this is a whole in the ground. Yup, that’s right. If you checked the net for images you’ll probably have a good idea of what I’m talking about.

I guess I have two comments on these Turkish toilets. Firstly, this is the norm here. I know the idea of these toilets make most Westerners shudder, but this is the way it’s always been at these schools, for both teachers and students alike. Secondly, I cannot understand why the government have not replaced these toilets with Western ones, and I can only guess this is due to financial restraints. For a country which is striving to become a more Western society (the fact they’re employing thousands of English teachers from around the world to teach in schools, for example), I’m surprised they haven’t started with the one of the major indicators of a country’s development; sanitation. The Turkish toilets in school look dirty and smell horrific, especially later on in the afternoon. This is all part of the experience, I guess, and it will take time to get used to.

I think that’s the fundamentals of the school building covered, and in part two I’ll discuss teachers, students and the overall teaching experience (thus far).

Orientation Week: Hotel, Security and Lessons

Due to the business of my schedule I am actually writing this two days after orientation ended and we were picked up by our host families. This entry will discuss orientation week including the classes we had throughout the day.

I met most of the other teachers at the hotel over the first few days of orientation. With close to 70 teachers there it became an increasingly difficult job to remember not just names, but faces too. Every time you walked round the hotel you met more and more people. I have to say 99% of the other teachers I met were absolutely fantastic people. They came from all walks of life. Despite the majority of teachers coming from America, they generally came from different states and so I guess you could say our group featured an equal distribution of people from most of the states in America (if this makes sense).  Aside from America, some were from Ireland, a few from South Africa, an Argentinean, and an Englishman. If I’ve forgotten any other foreign nationals I apologise!

 As the week went by we got to know one another better and I think by the end of the week I could remember almost everyone’s name. As the orientation took place in the hotel (excluding trips into Tbilisi of course, as they were only occasional) we learned more about each other and I think this helped the experience. From 9am to 3am (or whatever time you stopped drinking...) you were always in the company of at least a small group of teachers.

The schedule for orientation week was pretty much the same each day. It would start with a meeting at 9am with Tamara, the orientation co-ordinator. She was great throughout orientation and was always willing to help when necessary. The first meeting was a ‘meet and greet’ type meeting introducing herself. Other meetings in the week were just to keep us updated with respect to our orientation and when we would be finding out our locations in Georgia.

Georgian language lessons were generally after the meeting. These lessons lasted four hours but we always had 2-3 coffee breaks inbetween to ensure our brains weren’t fried. In my group our teacher was Marika, and she was brilliant in teaching us the basics of the Georgian language. Their alphabet has 33 letters and so remembering what they looked like and their pronunciations was very difficult, but she made it easier for us to do so. So far I know the fundamentals of the language, such as greetings, directions, talking about the weather, talking about family, food and drink among a few other things. I am by no means perfect at the pronunciation of words but feel I have enough to get me by until I learn more words and phrases.

In the afternoon we had Cultural Training. This workshop-based session encouraged us teachers to interact with one another in groups as well as others in the class. The main purpose of these sessions was to make us aware of things like cultural shock (pretty self-explanatory I know) but also to go in more detail, such as looking at prevention strategies as well as coping strategies if it was to happen to any of us. I felt more comfortable after these sessions and now know the signs to look out for if I think cultural shock is going to set in. Other aspects of the cultural training was to make us aware of culture differences between our society and Georgian society. Despite being similar in a number of ways, there are differences which we need to have an understanding of, particularly as some of us will be living in the country for a year. Perhaps one of the most surprising differences is that Georgians do not smile to eachother if they were to pass on the pavement, which is possibly why I received strange looks when walking past the locals during the week.

We were usually finished these sessions around 7/8pm and the rest of the evening was ours to do what we wanted. Some people would have a look round Tbilisi while others stayed at the hotel in the bar. On one of the evenings a group of us got taxis to the Rustaveli (the CBD of Tbilisi, if you will) and had a walk round there. It was an absolutely amazing site, and I hope to have a blog entry on the Rustaveli over the coming weeks/months.

When we stayed in the hotel for the evening, the hotel staff were pretty laid back and we were allowed to buy alcohol from small shops near the hotel for considerably less than the price they were charging in the hotel. You can buy a bottle of Chacha (their vodka which is far nicer than any other vodka I’ve tasted in my life) for about 10 Laris, converted to Pounds thats about less than a fiver. Amazing. Beer is also cheap and you can buy a 3 litre bottle of lager for 5 Lari. Again, this is ridiculously cheap compared to UK prices.

I must mention an interesting aspect of the orientation which was...security. Throughout the week in the hotel there were security staff following us pretty much everywhere we went (around the hotel). These were typically mean-looking Georgian men who never gave us as much as a smile. At first I thought they were keeping an eye on us in case we misbehaved or got into any trouble. It only became apparent some time later that these guys were here to protect us as much as they were there to look after the hotel . As we were guests of the hotel they would have wanted to ensure we got into no difficulties, for example with the locals.

These ‘mean-looking’ security guys were actually the most hospitable guys I’ve ever met. They followed us constantly through the day but when they clocked off at 1am or whatever, they would join us at the bar and drink with us. They would bring everything from beer to vodka and shared it with everyone who was in the general area. They were very friendly and together we learned a bit of Georgian and they learned a bit of English too.  The secretary of the hotel (although I think to us Westerners he was actually the boss) was a lovely chap who was very friendly, and despite not sitting down to drink with us he would play on the grand piano in the bar to give us some ambient music.

Overall orientation was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The days started early and went long into the night, but I think it was the perfect way for us to meet new people and begin preparing ourselves for our time in the country. The orientation formally ended on the Saturday, one week after arriving there, and it was time to meet our host families and leave the hotel for the last time. This will be covered in my next blog entry.

Arrival in Tbilisi and Hotel

Wednesday 19th January, 1.14am

So this is the first blog I’ve written since I’ve arrived in Georgia. In short, it’s been a whirlwind of a few days.  There’s a lot to get through but I’ll do my best to keep it in chronological order.

The rest of the plane journey to Tbilisi was fine. Got a bit bored by the end though. We landed in Baku and the majority of the passengers got off, including those in first class, but I didn’t even think to cheekily ask if I could move forward to that part of the plane. We were on the ground for about 40 minutes in total which wasn’t too bad, and arrived in Tbilisi almost 7 hours after leaving Heathrow. Despite being delayed in taking off from Heathrow initially, we made up time due to the weather (the wind pretty much blew us to Georgia). Upon leaving the plane I met another guy taking part on the TLG programme (Alex) so we went through the customs bit with him. As it was around 1am in the morning the airport was pretty much dead aside from members of staff moving around. There wasn’t a problem getting through the security bit and I now have a Georgia stamp on my passport, possibly the first one of many?

We continued through the airport and were greeted by about three or four TLG staff. They greeted us formally and gave us nametags to wear for our orientation week. We were told to change $100 into Lari (Georgia’s currency which has considerably lower value than that of the pound and Euro). The main TLG guys left us in the hands with our driver who would be taking us to a hotel which would be our home for the week. I aim to post a blog solely on that of the state of driving in Georgia so look out for that somewhere down the line, people think British drivers are bad but really they have seen nothing yet...

The driver, despite not speaking much English, looked courteous and gave us a pat on the back after arriving at the hotel. A warm smile helped and eased my initial nerves of being taken around a foreign country with a guy who I’ve never met before.

We arrived at the hotel after a short ride. The hotel, called the Bazaleti, looked huge from the outside, and inside it was no different. As you walk through the front door there is a huge leisure area filled with comfy sofas to relax and from there you can view the beautiful scenery of the mountains overlooking the hotel. Continuing on through the hotel is the reception, followed by yet another huge leisure area, this time with even more comfy seats and sofas, a bar and a fancy piano. From this area it is possible to get to most of the rooms are on both floors overlooking the area.

 We checked in at reception, and the receptionist took photocopies of our passports to keep us on their file. Myself and Alex were taken to our room by a porter. The hotel room had three beds which would mean we would be getting another flatmate later on in the night (it turned out we were one of the first people there). The room was very spacious with plenty of floor space. A fridge occupied one of the corners containing around ten bottles of water which would get filled every day. It’s not widely recommended to drink Georgian tap water, particularly since we’ve been used to UK water for years, so this ensured we would be less likely to suffer from any dodgy stomachs from drinking from the tap. I’m not sure if I really expected a difference but our hotel room really is just like any other UK, America-style of hotel room.  

Anyway, the third roommate (Timothy) arrived around 4am and we spent an hour or so just chatting before eventually crashing out. Overall, it was a long but enjoyable day. It’s not often you can say you’ve been in four different countries in one day (Scotland, England, Azerbaijan and Georgia of course...).
More to come in my next blog entry.