On Being a Geography Teacher

I never imagined a year ago, that I would end up being a geography teacher (even though it was something I always had in mind as a career), and certainly never imagined trying to teach a British GCSE curriculum in another country with students who had English as a second language and had not travelled very much and certainly had little experience of school field trips.

The process so far, whilst it has been immensely enjoyable, has also been a huge challenge, especially in terms of accommodating the needs of myself as a Brit with British cultural expectations and schemas of good and acceptable behaviour, and trying to somehow fuse this together with the reality fo how free willed and high maintenance and free range Georgian children are.  I don’t have the resources or support that I would have as a teacher in a school in britain, and the communication issues have been a huge challenge, especially in terms of trying to maintain the British standards and expectations of a British curriculum.

It is hard to plan lessons, and lesson planning has a different meaning in Georgia than it does in Britain, where everything needs to be cross referenced and planned a year in advance ready for those testing ofsted inspections and people sitting in on your lessons to make sure that you are meeting the government’s standards.

My life has become immersed in Geography.  Even to the point of being in London at a conference organised by the Royal Geographical Society, a place at the forefront of teaching Geography in Schools, and where it was great to have access to experts and teachers of Geography and to question them about how to improve my teaching.

I know that I am doing the best that I can, and I am up until 4am every night trying to make videos and worksheets, and going over each lesson before I teach it.  But I still feel like a failure as a Geography teacher, or in fact, just as a teacher in Georgia.  It is a huge ask to teach a subject and curriculum in a foreign country, especially when the only person who has actually sat a GCSE and knows what is expected and how prepared you need to be, is you and you alone.  Georgian students are very proud, and they have this kind of naiive idea that no matter what you do, if you want it badly enough, then you can succeed.  But they don’t seem to understand, that to pass the exam, requires something called ‘study’.

It is incredibly frustrating to be dealing with parents, who complain when you don’t give their beloved child a grade of ’10’ for every lesson, as they just don’t understand that to me a ’10’ means they have done everything perfectly, and that they will go on to get a high grade or even a pass at the GCSE.  I understand that in other lessons, they may get a 10 because they are considered a ‘kargi gogo’ (good girl), but the British curriculum does not work like that.  I feel like people are trying to tear me in two sometimes, and my only aim and interest is in the children and making sure that they are ready and prepared for their exams come the summer, whichever year they decide to take the exam.  Many students have plans to sit the GCSE Geography exam after just one year of studying, against my advice.  They fail to bring a pen or notebook to class, spend the lesson gossiping to their friends about Jonny Depp, or whatever, never do homework, lose the sheets I give them, and don’t study what they are supposed to.  Not to mention the fact that there is no way on this earth that we are ever going to cover even half of the curriculum that they need in time for the summer.  English is their second language, and they don’t have sufficient skills to read and ANSWER the question that the examiner gives them.  Nor have we covered a single aspect of the field work that we are supposed to cover, which will relate to the practical aspects of their exam.  In short, the expectations are unrealistic, and I have the sneaking suspicion that if they take the exam, AGAINST my my advice, at a cost of £110, the equivalent of an average monthly salary for most Georgians, I will be the one to blame.  Or worse still, that they get a grade below C and still consider this as a pass.

The problem is that I care about each person I teach, and if I didn’t then I wouldn’t be bothered by anything they did.  Traditionally in Georgia, lessons consist of giving a text, getting them to translate it, and memorize it word for word.  Fine for the Soviet style exams of the past, but not sufficient for dealing with and applying knowledge to unfamiliar situations in the context of a Geography exam designed with a British curriculum in mind.

Its a tricky situation to be in.  Do I continue to waste my time making videos, worksheets, photocopies, and giving them homework and competitions, or do I just go to the Georgian way or giving them material and letting them learn by their mistakes??

In our mid terms, which I had no prior notice of date wise, as with the end of year exams, I don’t even know the term dates still, and I also hadn’t banked on missing lessons because of Sarkozy’s visit to Georgia, public holidays, or my getting flu, many students started crying because they were stressed at being tested.  They told me that they didn’t have time to revise!  Yet, in a British school, one would expect that if you had done your homework and classwork, that revision wouldn’t be so important, the whole point being that revision is about re-visiting the information you have already studied in class!  Children often disappear from class for weeks at a time.  They don’t tell you, you just find out that they have gone to Paris or America (those who are from wealthier families), and then when they return, they consider themselves too great to need the services of a mere teacher.  Then they expect you to give them extra help to enable them to catch up, or complain when they get bad marks.

In Britain, it is down to the student to catch up on missed work, by asking friends to collect hand outs for you, or by copying their notes.  Its not like the kids at my school don’t have the ability to do this, or the technology or finance to record lessons or take a photo of the board to share with their friends through their ipad or whatever.  They seem to be very resourceful when it comes to using facebook in class that is for sure.

And I guess, the thing that sometimes really frustrates me, is the fact that these kids are so privileged, and that their parents are paying a lot of money for them to be at a private school, and the kids just don’t appreciate it at all.  I would love to offer their places to the kids from my state schools, where we had no electricity, no library, and often my students couldn’t even afford a note book for class.  Those kids had a real desire to learn and studied really hard, but some of the students in the private school, just expect to get away with not doing work because they know that their parents will come in, shout at the school, and then they will get the grades they need.

To be fair, I’m painting a bleak picture of the state of my school and my students.  And its really just a minority who behave in this way, the rest of them are fantastic, and work very hard and consistently.  But it does put me under a lot pf pressure as a teacher, and trying to guide them towards what standard they need to be.  A bit like leading a group of blind people, when you still have to read the map yourself and manoeuvre them around the obstacles on the way, and teach them how to walk.  Its a huge and lonely challenge at times and I often feel that others don’t realise how much they are asking of me, and how much effort goes into teaching the children and preparing them for their exams.

People think I had a holiday in London, but it wasn’t like that at all.  I was fighting hard to get the resources and equipment essential for teaching them Geography to the best of my ability.  Including getting them the best opportunities and sponsorship, since I know that school doesn’t have the money to pay for such things, which are considered advanced by even British School Standards.  Other teachers go home after a day at school, and relax with their family, but my day doesn’t end when the school bell rings.  I’m a foreigner in a foreign country, and every task demands more attention than it would for a Georgian, and navigating the cultural differences is huge.  I am coming home to myself, doing everything myself, and in a foreign language, and I am also missing the family that I no longer have connection with because I am in another country.  I don’t have time for a social life, because I am constantly trying to do my best and to teach the lessons to the best of my ability, and its a lonely life in that way.  I don’t begrudge that, and I am happy in my choice to teach Geography here, and on the whole it is rewarding and I really love the kids.  But in becoming more attached to the kids, and being the only one aware that they are headed for a tall cliff which they will have to learn to either jump or fall from, really freaks me out.  I have to somehow give them the tools to either survive that fall of failing an exam that I knew they were no where near ready for, or I have to battle against everything and help them to make a parachute for themself.  I can give them all the tools, but if they refuse to use them, then I know they will go hurtling down towards the bottom of that cliff, and the parents will be at me for that when it happens, which it inevitably will because only I know what that cliff (or GCSE) they are facing is like.  Which puts me in the difficult position now, of either bailing out because they refuse to follow my advice, or sticking with them to the end, knowing that they have failed to heed my warning because they consider that they know better than I.

I wonder if all Geography or GCSE teachers feel this way?  I would love to know if that is the case, and if so, how people have dealt with that.  And especially, I would love to hear from anyone who has been in the position of teaching abroad, with the cultural differences and expectations, and language difficulties of teaching a British curriculum.

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About Sarah Rows Solo

British YouTuber and Founder of Environmental and STEM education charity Oceans Project, preparing for a solo row around the coast of Great Britain.
This entry was posted in Britishness, Death and Dying, Georgian Life, Teaching and Geography, The Pets and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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