Kutaisi School #17

I had the distinct honor of visiting School #17 in Kutaisi yesterday. I have been an educator for 27 years and as a professor of Educational Leadership I have lost count of how many schools I have toured during my career. I don’t think I have ever been as impressed as I was during this visit. The students and teachers of school #17 set the bar that all other school visits will be judged against. I’m already thinking of ways to bring American school leaders and teachers to Georgia to see for themselves the brilliant work being done there.

From the moment you enter the building the student work, proudly displayed on almost every available wall, makes it clear there is some exceptional talent in this school. The composure and professionalism the students showed in presenting their work was well beyond their years. If I had to describe what I witnessed in one word it would be ‘courage’. I saw courage in their art, dance, science, social skills, presentations, and performances. Everything they did they did with great enthusiasm. They took chances, were not afraid to fail (or at least did not show it) and it created an incredible energy everywhere I went. I hope this is just a beginning of my relationship with the dedicated teachers and students of School #17 – there is something special happening there and I can’t wait to learn more.

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The Georgian Dream

I have accepted over a dozen invitations to speak to students from 7th graders to college seniors. With rare exception I am asked to speak on one of two topics:

  1. The American Dream
  2. A typical day in New York City

My first reaction was to say that with a metro area population of nearly 20 million people, there was no such thing as a typical day in New York City, and the American Dream looks different for different people, but pretty quickly I realized I was missing the point. I recalled something I was told at our Fulbright pre-departure orientation in Washington DC, “When people in your host country ask you questions about America, they may really be asking questions about their own country – trying to understand how you see them through your American lens.” 

That is not to say that Georgians aren’t genuinely curious about life in the United States, and particularly New York City. Outside of New York itself, I see more NY Yankee hats here than anywhere else I have ever been, and yet I doubt anyone wearing those hats has ever seen a baseball game. I know because I tried desperately to find a place to watch opening day and struck out (excuse my pun).

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That phenomenon sums up a lot of the fascination with American culture. Georgians are well versed in the music, fashion, and movies coming from beyond their borders, but it is rare for them to be able to talk with someone who has experience with the substance behind the style. It reminds me of when I was in graduate school and struck up a conversation with a bartender overseas who asked me if I owned a horse because I told him my family lived in Texas at the time. Or even closer to home when someone I met in Arkansas told me they were surprised after their visit to New York State that there were farms, because all they ever knew about New York was the city. There is no substitute for traveling and seeing places with you own eyes, but the opportunity to talk with someone who has lived it is as good a substitute as many will ever get.

The American Dream discussions are something completely different though. One student captured it perfectly with her question. After she referenced Michelle Obama’s American Dream speech this student talked about how for Americans their dreams are not realized in isolation, but through a combination of hard work and the opportunities provided for them by their country. She then asked me, “How can Georgians realize their own version of the American Dream in a country without the resources to support them and provide opportunities for success like America does?” 

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Let that sink in: Over and over again, the students I meet choose this as the most important thing they want to talk about  – How can they manifest their own version of the American Dream. This was my first student seminar and it is also when I knew I had to be prepared for some very serious and thoughtful questions in these talks.

My perception of the students I have met in Kutaisi is that they are bright, well educated, and deeply curious about the world around them. I have been thoroughly impressed with them and I have no doubt that I could, for example, take the entire group of college students I met with in my last seminar, put them in an American university, and they would succeed at a high level (more on that in my next blog post). I was almost brought to tears of joy (the kind of tears only other teachers will truly understand) when I casually offered a ‘Denmark is a prison’ reference from Hamlet, paused realizing I may have lost them, and they proceed to accurately put that quote in context and relate it back to the point I was just making. If I was giving a talk about Shakespeare, or even literature, I would have been quite pleased. This was in the context of me talking about the psychology of synthesized happiness which means they were just walking around with a deep understanding of Hamlet they could pull on whenever they needed it. And then they did just that, using their 3rd language.

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But I digress. So the more we talked the more it became clear to me that their interest in the American Dream is not the same as their interest in a day in the life in New York. The latter is a fun way to let the mind wander to a dream trip, a fantasy that puts them in the scenes they have seen countless times in movies their entire lives. The former though, that is much more. The American Dream represents an ideal that means more outside of the United States than I ever realized. It is the promise that if you work hard you can achieve great things for yourself, your family, and ultimately make a difference in the world. I have to add that they are not naive, they understand that luck (or something like it) plays a role, they know that the playing field is not even for all people. The fundamental point they make to me over and over again though is a yearning to have that opportunity to achieve great things, and to see their hard work rewarded. Whether their perception of the American Dream is perfectly on point or not is less important than the ideal it represent for their own dream – the Georgian Dream.

What would you say, you do here?

I am in a constant state of explaining what I do. It is the most common question people throw at me to try to untangle what my job is, why I am here, and what exactly is a Fulbright Scholar. For the last question there is no one answer really. At our orientation in Washington DC I met Fulbright Scholars from all over the United States that were preparing to spread out across the globe. All of them were doing things so different that for many of the research projects I learned about, I never even considered before that there was somebody studying that thing. So going abroad to do research and teach feels a little bit like those first few days of being a freshman on a college campus far away from home – it is disorienting, filled with new names and faces, and the common ice breaker is, “So, what’s your major?” except now the questions is a little more like this…

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In many ways, for me at least, being a visiting scholar is made up of the same “stuff” that makes up my work as a professor back home. I will spend time here teaching in the form of seminars and workshops with students and faculty. I will also provide service to my host university as they will submit their accreditation self report and host their site visit while I am here. My role is to consult as they look to further develop their goals of internationalizing their research and faculty support infrastructure. My research though is the heart of the proposal I originally submitted to Fulbright.

So when people ask me about the book I am writing I answer them like this: I study what happens between knowing what we should do, and actually doing it.

—I usually pause here, and only keep going if they really seem to want more —

I try to understand why people often don’t follow through with decision they have already made, the conditions under which they are more likely to do what they already know they should do, and how we can make that more likely in the future. We call this the judgment-action gap and this line of study has led me into all sorts of interesting spaces where I do this work – from how school leaders make decisions to how we teach ethics to emerging scientists. Ultimately I am interested in the pedagogy of integrity – how we teach people to successfully traverse the judgment-action gap, and I look at that from a interdisciplinary perspective that includes psychology, neurobiology, and behavioral economics.

So that is what I do here, but my biggest takeaway from the Fulbright orientation was that even though they care about all of those things, and they want my research project to be successful, there is something that Fulbright sees as more important than all of that. The dominant theme I heard from Fulbright included phrases like “soft diplomacy” and “cultural exchange” but perhaps the words of J. William Fulbright get to the heart of the matter more quickly than my words can:

Creative leadership and liberal education, which in fact go together, are the first requirements for a hopeful future for humankind. Fostering these–leadership, learning, and empathy between cultures–was and remains the purpose of the international scholarship program that I was privileged to sponsor in the U.S. Senate over forty years ago. It is a modest program with an immodest aim–the achievement in international affairs of a regime more civilized, rational and humane than the empty system of power of the past. I believed in that possibility when I began. I still do. [From The Price of Empire]

Breaking Khachapuri

When Eka was packing some food for me to take on the 3+ hour train ride from Tbilisi to Kutaisi I implored her to not give me too much. One piece of cornbread is all I would eat anyway. So she said, “Okay, you asked for one so I will give you three so you have some to share.” and of course I laughed. I had heard about people sharing food on the trains in Georgia, but I assumed that was one of those old traveler’s tales. You know the kind, somebody offered a guy an apple on a train once and he writes about it in his blog and next thing you know there is this urban legend about how people in Georgia break into a food party once the train gets rolling.

Well, halfway into my train ride – out came the food. The passenger next to me offered me chocolate and a banana and the woman in front of me was sharing her Khachapuri (see the picture below) and thanks to Eka I had cornbread, cheese, and cookies to share too. I am trying to imagine the looks I might get if I tried that on my next commuter to Chicago. The cool part about this rather informal Georgian ritual is that it seems as if it would not occur to anyone there *not* to share their food with the strangers sitting next to them on the train. Breaking bread, is just so deeply embedded in the culture it happens without a thought.

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One of 4 (maybe more?) different types of Khachapuri 

Which leads me to the ultimate expression of Georgian love of food and company – the supra. Every visitor to Georgia who documents their experience is required to write about their first supra. It is a milestone event as a foreigner to this country and as good of an introduction to what it means to be Georgian as anything I can think of. I have seen supras for 30 and over 100 and they happen in tiny mountain villages and in the heart of the capital city. They celebrate weddings, birthdays, visitors to town, or just because somebody decides they want to have a supra. It is a meal, but it is much more than that.

There is so much food, and it seems to never stop coming. So much food in fact that there is quickly not enough room on the table for it all and it is traditionally stacked on top of each other 3 or 4 layers deep, platters of food on top of other food. It is also delicious. I will dedicate another post to some of my favorite foods and wines that I have discovered here. There is also a lot of wine, but rather than sipping it casually during the meal people tend to wait until there is a toast, of which there are many, that are traditionally led by a person selected beforehand to handle the toastmaster duties for the table. This person is called the Tamada and they lead the table through a series of eloquent and sometimes even poetic (as far as I can tell through my interpreters) toasts. There is a pattern of traditional toasts that establish an early outline of sorts. I may have these out of order or be missing some, but I remember toasts to peace, Georgia, those no longer with us, children, parents, women, and friends. After each toast glasses are refilled, food is eaten, and the dance floor fills to traditional Georgian music until they are beckoned back off the dance floor for the next toast.

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My first supra

As the evening starts to wind down (hours later) feet become a little sore from dancing, stomachs are full, and the toasts become longer and fueled by wine to be either more poignant or funnier. Other people begin to join in making their own toasts or picking up where the Tamada leaves off to extend a toast further – the only competition coming from the DJ if a particularly good song comes on and then you can feel the energy of the table shift to wanting the toast to wrap up so the dancing can begin again. Sometimes the leftover food is collected and people start making plans for a picnic the next day or a house to meet at where the “day after the supra” feast can take place.

From the train to the supra to the casual gathering around cake and coffee I wrote about in my last post – food seems to always be at the center of Georgian community. Now I have to run – I am meeting a group of friends for cake and coffee…

A Love Note to Georgia

Happy Valentine’s day from Kutaisi Georgia! Two weeks into my Fulbright adventure and I have fallen in love with my host country Georgia. The history is rich, the ancient architecture fascinating, and the food and wine are sublime, but it is the people that make Georgia feel like home almost instantly. I came back from a walk within days of arriving here and all I could think was that the people here are just lovely and warm. Now it may not always feel that way at first blush as I quickly learned to suppress my Southern reflex to smile and wave as I passed people on the street – that is simply not done here. But look a little closer and it becomes clear how Georgians have such an easy way with each other, something that struck me as coming from a people for whom life has often not been very easy.

When people do greet each other the warmth and enthusiasm is palpable. The streets are teeming with people of all ages on foot either walking or standing near favorite gathering spots, collecting more people as the day goes on. It is not unusual to find that men will walk arm in arm with other men as do women with women, and nearly every familiar greeting comes with a kiss on the cheek. There is a positive social vibe that runs throughout each neighborhood I have visited. The action is happening outside and even on rainy days I feel compelled to get out there and join them.

Those easily observable social kindnesses only tell part of the story though. If I had to choose one theme to capture my early perception of Georgians it is that they are hospitable to their core. People don’t just “stop by” – they stop by, and out comes the coffee and cake (always at the ready) and they sit and talk and laugh. Meals are social events and I am in a constant state of being made comfortable both at home and at the university that is hosting me this semester. Over and over I heard the same message even at work, and at my gym in Kutaisi – we want you to feel like this is your home.

So take a place with majestic mountains, tranquil countryside, lovely European city cafes, amazing food and wine, and some of the warmest and most hospitable people I have ever known, and how could you not fall in love?

It is official! My Fulbright Scholar Announcement

The U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board announced that John Pijanowski of the University of Arkansas has received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program award in educational leadership.

Pijanowski, a professor of educational leadership in the College ofEducation and Health Professions, will research, consult and lecture at Akaki Tsereteli State University in Kutaisi, Republic of Georgia, as part of a project to study “Pedagogy and Curriculum Design Behind Supporting Responsible Conduct of Research.”

“Engaging new colleagues around a project I am passionate about and immersing myself in Georgian culture and a new academic community is one of the most exciting opportunities of my career,” Pijanowski said. “Ultimately, this work will inform my research and teaching when I return to the University of Arkansas and serve as a springboard to a new phase of my work in the pedagogy of ethics.”

Recipients of Fulbright awards are selected on the basis of academic and professional achievement as well as record of service and demonstrated leadership in their respective fields.

George Gavtadze, rector of Akaki Tsereteli State University, wrote in his invitation letter: “Dr. Pijanowski’s experience building and leading a successful and innovative educational leadership program, developing research ethics curriculum and pedagogy for the National Science Foundation, and leading a university-wide faculty development institute at his home campus will serve as an invaluable resource for the faculty at Akaki Tsereteli State University.”

fullsizeoutput_128bThe Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to build lasting connections between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. The Fulbright Program is funded through an annual appropriation made by the U.S. Congress to the U.S. Department of State. Participating governments and host institutions, corporations, and foundations around the world also provide direct and indirect support to the program, which operates in over 160 countries worldwide.

Since its establishment in 1946 under legislation introduced by the late U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the Fulbright Program has given more than 370,000 students, scholars, teachers, artists and scientists the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns. Fulbright, an alumnus and president of the university and later a longtime senator from Arkansas, is credited with introducing legislation to establish the international exchange program that bears his name. He is also the namesake of the university’s J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.

Fulbrighters address critical global issues in all disciplines, while building relationships, knowledge and leadership in support of the long-term interests of the United States. Fulbright alumni have achieved distinction in many fields, including 57 who have been awarded the Nobel Prize, 82 who have received Pulitzer Prizes, and 37 who have served as a head of state or government.

For further information about the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State, visit the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs website or contact the bureau’s Press Office at 202-632-6452 or press@state.gov.