This summer, math teacher Steve Weissburg and science teacher Carlan Gray traveled to Georgia, a small country bordering the Black Sea and Russia. They were there for a little more than a month as consultants for the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), a nonprofit organization that works on international education. Mr. Weissburg and Ms. Gray each designed 24-hour training programs for Georgian teachers to help revamp their education system, much of which has been carried over from the Soviet era. They worked on these projects eight hours per weekday in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, with Georgian consultants as their partners.
They also found time to travel to several locations in Georgia and learn about the many unique aspects of Georgian culture.
Francesca Chu ’18: What different locations did you visit?
Carlan Gray: The first weekend we were there, we went to Kazbegi. Kazbegi is very northern and if you Google it, you’ll see it’s got a pretty famous—
Steve Weissburg: —monastery—
CG: —up on a mountain.
SW: And then we went to Kaheti—
CG: —which is the wine region—
SW: —near Azerbaijan, and we went to Borjomi, the famous springs. Oh, and we were in Tbilisi, which is pretty interesting in its own right.
CG: We stayed right in the center of Tbilisi in this place called Freedom Square, which is relatively new since 2008, because Georgia was at war with Russia. And so there are a lot of really new structures that are a byproduct of post-war building, but you also have buildings that have been there for hundreds and hundreds of years. And there’s no zoning—it’s just kind of all together, and there’s sort of this post-Soviet feeling to buildings that are unfinished.
SW: But then some of the old Tbilisi, it just sort of feels sort of old and European, I guess.
CG: So, we lived in a hotel and we sort of worked out of the hotel and we worked out of the teacher professional development center for the whole country of Georgia.
FC: In general, how were you received as Americans?
SW: People were really nice to us. They like Americans.
CG: Yeah, I think it was hard to come in and pretend like you were an expert in anything, but it’s a very kind, welcoming culture and people. And so I think it was a little more disconcerting going home back through Turkey because we were there at the time of the coup and the bomb in Istanbul—and we got offered to be rerouted. We all came home through Istanbul, and we all kept the reservations just because it seemed to make sense.
SW: Georgians are very hospitable, because of their geography. Basically, they’ve been invaded by everyone: the Ottomans, Persians, Russians; so they’re pretty accepting of other cultures.
CG: But I think the alphabet and the language thing, that was a huge challenge. I mean, the alphabet isn’t even something that—like, Steve was good about learning his alphabet—but . . .
SW: Yeah, but I’m forgetting it.
FC: Georgia has had recent conflicts with Russia and some of its ethnically distinct regions, such as Abkhazia. Did you notice any signs of this political turmoil?
SW: I mean, there isn’t really political turmoil now, but a lot of people expressed frustration that they still have two regions that have been occupied by Russia since 2008.
CG: And when we were down on the border by Azerbaijan, they were saying, “Oh yeah, Azerbaijanis are still occupying some of the Georgian churches,” and so it’s a place in the world where borders seem to be—
SW: —yeah, a little fluid—
CG: Fluid, and disputed. Not in a wartime way, but there’s just a constant border dispute in every place you go.
SW: It’s all so old and culturally diverse that pretty much everyone can point to a piece of land and say, “Yeah, my people lived here a thousand years ago.”
FC: What was the most striking cultural difference you noticed?
CG: There were a couple that stood out to me. Smoking is still really important, and smoking everywhere and in enclosed spaces.
SW: Yeah, people smoked a lot in restaurants and that was a bad thing. But I would maybe say their open-mindedness to other cultures. There are lots of Russian tourists, there are lots more Russian tourists than American tourists, and they were just invaded by Russia eight years ago.
CG: And they’re not mean or sad or bitter about it—they’re just like—
SW: —“There’s the Russians, they invaded us; there’s some Turks, they invaded us.”
CG: Yeah, their kindness and acceptance toward everyone [stood out] and there’s not a place in the world that I can imagine has been that invaded and that accepting of all people still. But yeah, I think on a very basic level, there were some things that were very different, like the smoking thing. But on the larger, more important level, it was just a pervasive kindness of the people that you don’t really get a sense of here.
SW: They definitely have a food culture, I would say.
CG: A food and wine culture.
FC: Can you tell me more about the food?
SW: So, they have lots of really great vegetables—the tomatoes were amazing—and they’re really into bread.
CG: They’re really into bread. They make these things called khinkali, which are like dumplings, and you fill them with all kinds of things, and they’re huge. They make khachapuri, which is this—
SW: —bread with cheese.
CG: It’s like a prenatal pizza kind of thing, [and] there’s a lot of meat on a stick kind of situations….
SW: One thing is, if you go to a Georgian restaurant, you can’t really just order a meal.
CG: Everything’s family style, so you have to go with a group, and everybody eats out of everybody’s dish.
FC: What was the highlight of your trip?
CG: Well, for me, it was definitely the people we were working with—sort of the group that we had of Americans, and just the little adventures we’d have on the weekends. And it was a very nice, fun group of people, and they all had amazing life experiences. Three of them, including Steve, had been in the Peace Corps, and one of them had been in the military.
SW: I felt like they were all superheroes and everyone had different powers—so, yeah, that was definitely a highlight. And I got along well with my counterpart too. I really liked him and in fact, we still email each other. Afterwards, I went to this remote region of the country, and that was pretty fun, too. It was like going back to the Middle Ages, basically. Everyone just gets around with oxen and horses, and so that was pretty cool. And they didn’t even speak Georgian there—they spoke another language that was beyond incomprehensible to me.
FC: Do you have any last thoughts about your experience?
CG: I guess I would say that in retrospect, from a lot of the experiences that I’ve had as a teacher, that most of the really amazing ones that I’ve had have been from a global experience. So, traveling with students, or working with teachers from different places, I think you learn the most about yourself and the most about teaching and learning when you’re in that kind of context. It just sort of extended my thinking about that already. I had already kind of known that international trips and thinking about what’s going on outside of this building have always been really important, but it just makes that all the more real and meaningful. And I think it’s important for kids to have that experience too, so I want to think about how to continue to provide that for myself, but also how to do that for students. And thinking about your education as kind of more than what happens in a classroom, I think, is probably my takeaway from that.
SW: Yeah, I would agree. You always learn stuff when you travel. To me, what was interesting also was just how diverse and different it was. And a lot of those people didn’t necessarily have a lot in a material way, but they still had a lot of richness to their life, so it’s kind of nice to be able, on some level, to experience it and partake in it. It makes you able to have a little perspective when you get back to your work. It was also a good experience to be in a room with people who were all really intimidating and smart and capable. Probably all of us, at some secret point, were like, “Why am I here? Everyone knows more than me. They made a mistake.”
CG: But it also makes you realize that what you do have to offer is valuable and important and that there is something that you can offer people, whatever that may be. Even if it’s just inappropriate humor.