Through English teaching, you can teach anything.
With English Language Specialist projects in such diverse locations as India, Uzbekistan, and the West Bank, understandably Tamrika Khvtisiashvili views creativity and flexibility as critical to her success. Indeed, creativity has been fundamental in her approach to education since her days as a film student at the University of Utah. She became interested in linguistics near the end of that degree, following a set of inquiries that eventually led her to a career in education: What does it mean to speak a language? How does that ability affect our experiences in communicating with others?
It was during these formative years that Khvtisiashvili was initially introduced to the Specialist Program by one of her professors, MaryAnn Christison, who had done a Specialist project in Brazil. After first participating for a year as a Fellow in the West Bank, Khvtisiashvili applied to be a Specialist, attracted by the flexibility of shorter-term projects.
Creation and Collaboration
Looking back on that time now, Khvtisiashvili sees a continuation of the creative energies she put into her undergraduate film studies in her current work as an English language instructor teaching abroad. “I think English teaching can be one of the most creative professions because through English teaching, you can teach anything,” she states. “As long as you’re teaching English, you can teach zine-making; you can teach jazz chants. I actually find the profession of English teaching to be really liberating because you can take it in so many directions.” Khvtisiashvili brought that creativity to her most recent Specialist project in Bangalore, India, where she conducted a 60-hour in-person TESOL Core Certificate Program course. This training course was provided for more than 50 English mentor teachers working with the Karnataka Government in Bangalore. She found the task of creative collaboration easier thanks to the quality of her team. “I have to give credit to my co-trainers,” she says. “I was working with two other lovely, wonderful educators, and all three of us working together was really helpful because we could divide up the tasks. It would have been harder if I was alone.”
For Khvtisiashvili, getting to know her workshop attendees in India was never a problem, and their characteristics as participants informed many of the project’s strengths. “The teachers were on it, and were ready to work hard. At the same time, they were super eager to dance or do anything fun during our sessions — older participants were as enthusiastic as those who were younger. They left the door open to connecting with me, and they were flexible in their approach to learning,” she says.
In Khvtisiashvili’s view, this open nature of her Indian participants was one of their greatest strengths even as it required occasional problem-solving. “Something as simple as Think Pair Share was sometimes challenging in an Indian context because my audience was naturally drawn to work together. The beginning part, that part where you have to work alone, was sometimes a challenge for them.” Working explicitly on taking time for individual reflection was a crucial element of the success these teachers had throughout the Core Certificate Program.
Cooking Together, Learning Together
At the same time, working effectively in a group is a learned skill. Knowing this, Khvtisiashvili introduced teacher training activities that explicitly explore what it means to collaborate. She describes the metaphor she shared with participants to illustrate the difference between collaboration and cooperation: “Imagine you have a potluck, and everybody comes and brings their own food and then you all eat together. This is different from if everyone comes together, and buys ingredients and cooks together. Nothing is wrong with the potluck, of course, but the second approach is more about actually creating a product together.” Participants took to this concept of “cooking together,” and the two weeks of workshops resulted in a supportive community full of skillful, professional teachers ready to share their newfound knowledge with colleagues and support one another’s continued growth after the project’s end.
If you do amazing work just in your classroom, it’s not enough.
Continuing the Metaphorical Meal
The success of the Bangalore project kept going strong after Khvtisiashvili left. Using the messaging app that was originally just for sharing resources and supplemental materials, the teachers have developed a vibrant virtual community among themselves. To Khvtisiashvili, this is a particularly notable outcome because most of the teachers in the group were newly acquainted. “That collegiality and those new friendships and professional relationships are really lovely because that’s how education changes,” she says. “If you do amazing work just in your classroom, it’s not enough.”
Khvtisiashvili still follows the app and continues to be impressed by the videos and activities they share, such as an assortment of different jazz chants from one teacher who particularly took to that technique during the workshop. Khvtisiashvili credits the teachers’ interactive, tech-savvy nature as being instrumental in their success at developing a healthy community of practice following the project.
Connections Around the World
Outside of her work in India, Khvtisiashvili’s work around the world in a multitude of different contexts has contributed to her development as an educator. Though she has always preferred meeting her participants in-person, her 2021 Specialist virtual project in the West Bank illustrated the benefits of remote work. She had completed several in-person projects in the region following her fellowship there, but the pandemic required an online approach. “I was struck by how many of the participants were coming from more isolated areas of the region or from refugee camps; it would have been difficult for them to travel in person,” she notes. “Also, a lot of women have an easier time being a part of education if they have access to remote learning because of their responsibilities culturally and at home.”
Elsewhere, Khvtisiashvili’s heritage informed her Specialist work, as in Uzbekistan. “I felt a certain kinship given that I left Georgia when it was still a part of the Soviet Union,” she says. “I felt like I understood my participants and understood the education system they were working within.”
Advice for Future Specialists
It’s a benefit to the participants we work with, but it’s also a huge professional and personal benefit.
Khvtisiashvili aspires to continue her work as a Specialist for years to come. Her past experiences have left her with valuable advice for prospective program participants. “Jump at every opportunity you get,” she says. “Every opportunity has something to teach us—as an educator, I cannot imagine my life without my experiences in the West Bank, Uzbekistan, India, and the other places I’ve taught.” She maintains that it is also important to be flexible, and to really think about what it means to be flexible culturally. “Being half Georgian, half Russian, and knowing that a lot of me is American, I constantly have to walk through these lines of different cultures depending on which family members are around,” she observes. This ability to traverse cultural boundaries is a cornerstone of being an effective Specialist, in her view.
Looking forward, Khvtisiashvili is excited about the potential of future projects and thankful for the many opportunities afforded to her by English Language Programs. “It’s a benefit to the participants we work with, but it’s also a huge professional and personal benefit.”
Tamrika Khvtisiashvili, PhD, is a linguist and an educator. In addition to her work in Bangalore, she was previously a TESOL Coach in Uzbekistan, training teachers in the TESOL International Certification Program as part of a larger ESN project in collaboration with the Ministry of Education of Uzbekistan. Before that she was a Specialist in the West Bank, where she conducted workshops on Curriculum Development and Alternative Instruction and Evaluation, spearheaded Global Design Collaboration between U.S. and West Bank students, started an annual English Language Conference and helped develop English language teaching materials for a newly formed Nursing Program. Along with language learning and teaching, she is interested in intercultural communication, incorporating cultural understanding in the classroom, community engaged learning, teaching with all 21st century skills daily, and incorporating creativity and social change in language learning classrooms.