When I was told that the school where I was teaching in Valdosta, Georgia (USA) was not going to offer me a contract for the 2010-2011 school year, I was feeling lost. After applying with several schools in the state of Georgia and getting nothing, I was becoming increasingly upset. Eventually, a search online for possible teaching jobs abroad turned up some good results. Most of them were jobs in Korea for which I was too late. Then I came across an advertisement for teaching jobs in the Republic of Georgia. As a boy growing up in Georgia (US), I was always aware that there was a country named Georgia. However, I had never previously paid any attention to it. I didn’t know anything about the country except that it had been part of the USSR. In most recent years there was a small war between Georgia and the Russian Federation. I knew this because I had been training at Fort Knox Kentucky in 2008. At that time we had a Georgian officer training at our school and we received first hand reports from him. News of the devastation of Georgia had spread through our school.
Greenheart Travel helped me to apply to be one of the first groups to participate in the Teach and Learn with Georgia or TLG program. I left for Tbilisi, Georgia, at the end of August 2010. I had never flown across the Atlantic, not to mention to the other side of world. I had certainly never packed for an entire year. At the same time I was obviously nervous but also eagerly excited and more than ready to begin my new job and a new adventure. Immediately after getting off my plane I began to take note of all the differences between my country and Georgia. The language, the look of the people, and the almost over friendliness of their Georgian culture were just some of the unique differences. Very few people spoke English and it was clear to me why I was there.
My group was the third to join TLG. We were also the largest. There were 96 of us at the start. Most of us were from the States or Canada. A handful of us were from the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. All of us were native speakers of English but none of us had ever heard a single spoken word of the Georgian (Kartuli) language. It was very different from French, Spanish, or any other language with which we were familiar. Soon, in Kutaisi (the second largest city in Georgia), we began receiving classes on the Georgian language. We were learning how to say simple things like “hello,” “how are you,” and “goodbye.” The same things we all hoped to teach our students in English. During the day we experienced the Georgian language, food, and an understanding of our purpose there. At night we were experiencing Georgian beer, vodka, and wine. At the end of 9 days I was off with my host family to my new home, new school and new life. Needless to say, I was more than nervous about all of this but took it with a grain of salt. I mean, what else could I do?
Vertkvichala is a small mountainside village halfway between the towns of Khasuri and Zestaponi. It is about two and half hours west of Tbilisi (the capital and largest city in Georgia) and an hour and half east of Kutaisi. The village has a population of roughly 900 people. Where they all are, I don’t know. I have only met 50 different adults and close to 80 school children. My host family’s house, which was mine for almost ten months, was built on the side of the mountain at the top of a hill. Our neighbors’ houses were the same way. If I were to climb further up, I would reach more and more of my neighbors. M-27 is the main highway that stretches from one side of the country to the other and ran right through our village. On the other side of the highway was another mountain that cradled the rest of our village’s homes. Once I climbed to the top of it in order to attend a dinner party or, “supra.” Our supras were an awesome combination of Georgian food, wine, and lots of toast. Georgians do these things every chance they have. Supras are for all and any occasion. Georgians love to eat, drink, sing, and dance.
Like everything else, I fell into a routine and became use to everything around me. I adapted to my new home, life, and community. I never fully mastered the Georgian language but rather learned enough to get around and get the things I needed and wanted. I could buy snacks at the shops. In my classes, I worked to provide English language expertise and act as a guide through our English lessons. I made corrections when necessary and illustrated to my students the correct ways to say and write words and phrases. Quickly I realized the Georgians are good at grammar but bad at speaking and thinking in English. Their reading and writing skills took shape over time and improved as we went along. I noticed little differences here and there. As time went by, my students began to understand me and my bad Georgian. They begin to respond in English (“ok,” “yes,” and “no” instead of “ki” and “ara”). My students became eager to show me their assignments and have me make corrections.
Going home to the States for the Christmas and New Year holidays was terrific but I found myself anxious to return to Georgia and start the second semester. Upon returning, I discovered that I had many Christmas gifts waiting for me from my students, fellow teachers, and my headmaster Lena. Lena gave me one of the most terrific gifts anyone has ever given me. It is a wine keg made from clay with a built in tap, matching cups, and drinking horns. It is total badassery. Of course, getting it home was a small problem. The mail system in Georgia is almost nonexistent. They have one but it is not satisfactory or reliable in my opinion and I would not trust it with something valuable.
The winter in my village was the worse one the villagers had seen in ten years. Being from the southern U.S. this was definitely a challenge for me. From early February through early April, the snowfall was constant. The snow on the ground came up to my thighs. Classes were often canceled and the power was often out. We did not have a central heating unit in our house but rather a wood burning oven. However, my host family and I bonded together, kept warm, ate well, and found ways to make ourselves laugh and remain entertained. Eventually, the snow went away, the birds came back and the warmth returned.
In the nine to ten months I was living in Georgia. I visited three of its neighboring countries; each one more beautiful than the last. I saw Yerevan, Armenia, Sofia, Bulgaria, and Istanbul, Turkey. If a GHT teacher can only afford to visit one place, I would have to recommend Istanbul. It was extremely beautiful and reasonably priced. The food was excellent and everyone was super friendly and helpful. You must visit the Blue Mosque.
From spring to summer I saw more and more of Georgia. I visited Racha with TLG, Gori and Mstkheta with my school. Early in the year I had visited K’obuleti, Batumi, and Sarpi with my family. I continued to make regular trips to either Kutaisi or Tbilisi. I attended my share of supras to include the one that followed our 12th grade students’ graduation. Like all the other special occasions that passed through our school, we celebrated graduation with a concert. The concerts included some sketch comedy performances, Georgian Folk dancing, speeches (one given by me), and some modern dancing. These concerts were a sight to see.
Overall, I would have to say that my time and experience in the Republic of Georgia was really good. Clearly there were times when I was frustrated with things such as a general communication barrier or lack of American comforts. Regardless of these frustrations, I always stayed positive and pretty happy. I played soccer with my fellow villagers and exercised to stay in shape. I kept myself entertained with downloaded movies and photography. This program was definitely challenging and at times difficult to manage. However, after taking on this program, I feel that I can teach anywhere. The best advice that I can give anyone who is thinking about taking on this program is to stay flexible and be accepting of everyone and everything. Do not allow yourself to compare the Republic of Georgia to your homeland. Remain open minded and remember that it will always be completely different.