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Fresh Faces and the Wisdom of Ages: The GZAAT Teacher Training Program Hits its Stride

Now that the first quarter has finished and everyone is used to the rhythms of the new school year, observant students may have noticed that there are quite a few new faces among the faculty. There are more teachers than usual roaming the halls, lining up for coffee in the faculty lounge and haunting the classrooms. These observant students may also have noticed that these new teachers are invariably young, energetic and impressionable. They walk with smiles on their faces and springs in their steps. What’s going on here? Are a group of recent college grads getting ready to supplant our beloved old guard? Well, not quite yet but this could be a possibility on the horizon. This group of young professionals make up the first cohort of the GZAAT Teacher Training Program. They make up AAT’s first class of teacher trainees and they will spend the year participating in a comprehensive program designed to educate and prepare its participants to become professional teachers in Georgia.

Why a teacher training program?

Since its inception, the American Academy has always been known as a school which values the profession of teaching. When the academy was founded, one of the first steps taken by the board and founding director Donald Thomas was to send the original cohort of teachers to the United States to be enrolled in Master of Education programs at two respected universities: Simmons and Harvard. The thinking was that, to be effective, teachers must receive some sort of professional training, and that the highest quality training programs, at that time, were to be found in the US. This investment achieved excellent results: many of the original faculty who were sent to America are still teaching at AAT and our school’s faculty as a whole has achieved the reputation for being the strongest and most professional of any high school in Georgia. So, now that the competence and professionalism of the AAT faculty has become so firmly established, what should happen next? According to Simon Janashia, the Manager of the American Academy Institute (and who is also a member of the original group of AAT faculty who went to study in the US, earning a Master’s in Education from Harvard), it’s not enough for the academy to simply rest on its laurels: “When the American Academy was established, the one idea behind it was that it shouldn’t only serve the education of the kids that come to school, but also influence the Georgian education system and Georgian society in general.” It is with these principles in mind that the pilot program was created and developed.

According to Simon, the teacher training program can be divided into three primary components: classroom observation and practice; theoretical knowledge (lectures and workshops), and; participation in school life. The trainees are expected to be at school on a full-time basis and to devote the entire academic year to completing the program.

The program itself has one main goal, which is to help expand the number of qualified and motivated teachers working in Georgia. Simon explains that “often those who want to start teaching in Georgia receive very minimal practical experience before they enter schools, and they don’t have access to highly qualified mentors who could help them understand what teaching is truly like.” But there is also another important element of the program which benefits our teachers here at GZAAT, and that is the requirement that each trainee must be paired up with a mentor/master teacher who will oversee their progress. As Simon explains: “Becoming a mentor helps our experienced teachers to develop further as training drives them to reflect on their practices and rethink the approaches that they use.”

Getting in

The training program was first advertised last spring on various online platforms, and the response was quite strong. There were multiple, qualified applicants for each available spot which immediately made clear the fact that there is a real need here in Tbilisi for such a program. Consequently, the interview and selection process was intense and highly competitive.

History trainee Sandro Mikelashvili was excited by the opportunity and wanted to make sure that his application would be perfect: “I remember I spent a considerable time to have my CV and motivational letter matching the requirements and expectations that our school had. Fortunately, I made it to the interview day where I arrived one hour early. Just a bit early. I was a little strained in the beginning of the interview but in the end, I was feeling I made a good impression on the interviewers.” Sandro’s feeling must have been correct – and his preparation paid off – as he is now working with one of GZAAT’s most respected faculty members, Ms. Keti Sturua.

Giorgi Chkadua, another History trainee, also remembers his interview as being quite intense: “The moment I remember most clearly was when I was asked why I wanted to be a teacher. I replied that I wanted to become the sort of teacher I always wanted to have but never did. After I said this, Mr. Cruz told me that I couldn't imagine how many people had said the exact same thing during these interviews.” Now, Giorgi is working with star History teacher, the beloved Nino Mitsishvili.

High Hopes

Overall, five teacher trainees have been accepted to the program – four full-time and one part-time. As the year began, all of these new additions to our school community expressed enthusiasm and excitement for the challenges which lay ahead. Elene Javakhishvili, the new Biology trainee explained how she views this program as a welcome, and rare opportunity to learn the craft of teaching: “As a person who wants to become a teacher, being mentored by experienced and amazing professionals at one of the best schools in Georgia was a unique opportunity for Georgian reality and stood out from all alternative vacancies for the teachers position, especially for those who are at the beginning of their career and want to develop and learn-not just fill the position.” Elene also commented that the importance and difficulty of the profession can often be overlooked, for example when teachers with no experience are simply thrown into classrooms and told to sink-or-swim. “Teaching young people is a huge responsibility,” Elene believes.

Irine Chogoshvili, the trainee in the Georgian Department, expressed similar sentiments: “There are so many things that I can learn from this program, especially as this school has an original style of teaching and a special environment.” She says teaching is the kind of career where you have to continually develop, and because of this she hopes that she will be able to rise to the challenge and, eventually, start living the dream: “If you love your job and if you take pride in doing it well, then it becomes more than something you do simply to earn a salary. It can become a vocation, which is a fantastic reward on its own.”

Nuts and Bolts: What is the program like?

Although the program is in its relative infancy, the initial reviews seem positive: across the board, every trainee – when asked – has responded with great enthusiasm. Elene Javakhishvili, the Biology trainee who is being mentored by Malkhaz Makashvili, reports that she has been kept quite busy so far: “On a daily basis I assist my trainer/mentor with his lessons, I take part in the teaching process as well. I attend classes of other teachers to observe various teaching methods and specifics of other school subjects and also all the trainees attend lectures/seminars on various aspects of teaching and learning which are held in the scope of the teacher training program.”

History trainee Giorgi Chkadua also reports being kept busy: “I attend lessons; I am involved in the process of planning lessons; I try to make my contribution both in the course of the lessons and in other matters as well. I observe the techniques of conducting the lesson, How teachers deal with difficult moments, how texts are chosen, and from what angle they ask questions; The teaching method in GZAAT is drastically different; it is discussion oriented. This factor requires other skills from the teacher; you need to know and know when to intervene in the discussion, when to allow complete freedom, when to ask an additional question, when to switch to a monologue, and so on. You must feel the flow of the lesson. I have been involved in this process for only a few months and I have already learned a lot.”

Flipping the Script: Mentors’ Responses

What about the teachers themselves? What is it like for a GZAAT teacher with years of training and experience to suddenly have a new person in her/his classroom? All of the teachers interviewed reported that it was overwhelmingly positive to be able to work with a new trainee. Ketka Topadze, the experienced Georgian teacher who is currently mentoring Irine Chogoshvili, explained that the learning actually flows in both directions: “It’s a two fold process. First of all, the trainee gets your experience, observes and your signature method of teaching, and so on. But this is also very useful for me as a teacher, because I have to refresh my approach and really think of things from a new perspective. Consequently, I have realized that there were certain things I was starting to do automatically, or even in an incorrect way and I have been able to make adjustments and refresh my approach.”

Keti Sturua, of the History department, also finds that being a mentor has helped her to reflect in more detail on her own teaching style and on making adjustments: “Working daily with a new teacher, I get reminded of my earlier path and experiences when I was also new to this field. As a teacher you always analyze what went right or wrong after each class, and make plans for the next day; this time I also get to discuss it, which allows me to reflect in a different format. It is a newfound experience.”

Overall, the trainers seem to be quite satisfied so far with their mentees, and they relish the experience of being able to share their hard-won knowledge in a new format. Malkhaz Makashvili, our long-serving and much-loved Biology teacher has this to say about his new role as a trainer: “It is only pleasure to work with them, you try to transfer your knowledge and experience and in fact, you contribute to the formation of the new generation of qualified teachers.”

The GAZETTE Gazette will check in again with the Teacher Training Program and catch up with the mentees as the year progresses.

Here is the complete list of the inaugural, 2022-23, cohort of trainee teachers and their mentors:

Georgian: Irine Chogoshvili (Mentor: Ketka Topadze)

Biology: Elene Javakhishvili (Mentor: Malkhaz Makashvili)

History: Giorgi Chkadua (Mentor: Nino Mitsishvili), Sandro Mikelashvili (Mentor: Keti Sturua)

English: Lana Vardanidze, the GZAAT Administrative Assistant, is also involved in the program but on a part time basis. Lana is training in the English Department and her mentor is Anthony Schierman.

Edited by Anthony Schierman

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