“This chapter you will read at home” is a sentence that Georgian teenagers are used to hearing in their biology classes. It means one thing – this is a chapter about human sexual reproduction.
In Georgia, as elsewhere in the relatively traditional South Caucasus, schoolteachers often view questions about sex as an embarrassing topic better left to students’ parents. An unofficial taboo exists against delving into them in public.
But in Batumi’s Public School #3, 63-year-old biology teacher Rusudan Chkonia, unlike many of her colleagues, never skips these questions or chapters. Instead, she draws on her more than 30 years of experience as a schoolteacher to explain to her students what, in actuality, their parents generally avoid discussing at home.
“In my first years at school [as a teacher], I found that many students misunderstood the point of our discussion [about sex] and they would start laughing during class,” Chkonia recounts. “So, I decided to explain that what’s happening with the human body in puberty is natural and it’s neither funny nor shameful. This is the main point: to present the topic as a normal process, without any hint of judgment.”
But Chkonia, who holds a master’s degree in biochemistry from Russia’s University of Pskov, says she was never instructed how to teach the facts of life to students. In the Soviet era also, teaching about sex was off-limits. School textbooks focused only on non-homo sapiens.
Memories of how she struggled as a university student to get any accurate information about humans’ sexual relations seem to motivate Chkonia today.
“Until I was 30, everything for me [about sex] was incomprehensible, “ she explains. “All we were mainly studying were chemistry, biology and psychology. They would give us some books for a day and that is how I found out some details” about human sexual practices. Fellow students, she recalls, sometimes came to her secretly and asked her for information related to safe sex. She gave them what advice she had.
That informational vacuum wasn’t unique to the Soviet Union, however.
When the Soviet system collapsed in 1991, the Georgian Orthodox Church, the faith of most Georgians, stepped into the void and became a major source of influence on society. That still meant a categorical “No” to any public instruction in sex education, seen as an immoral subject, notes Lela Tepnadze, 35, manager of the primary education program at the Tbilisi Green School, a private school for six to 17-year-olds.
Nana Kilasonia, who oversees the Georgian education ministry’s textbook approvals, says she remembers “serious pressure from the Church” during her 2004 stint as a consultant in the ministry’s National Education Department. “They were checking textbooks and commenting about gender, about how could a man and a woman be equal in the sight of God,” she claims.
The Georgian Orthodox Church could not be reached for comment. But one senior priest who once taught in the public school system, Archpriest Andria Gejaghmadze, comments that “there’s nothing unusual” about the Church playing a role in decisions about textbooks. The 2002 agreement that establishes the Church’s constitutional role authorizes “joint educational programs” with the government.
Gejaghmaidze, 46, a former math teacher who is now a priest at two Church-run schools in the Tbilisi suburb of Kiketi, thinks that “copy-pasting” European practices related to sex education will not work in the Georgian educational system.
“Society in Georgia is not yet ready for such dramatic changes. While discussing this issue, we should take our country’s neighborhood into consideration as well. This is where we are and this is who we are. So, making changes in an abrupt and dramatic way will cause people to respond the same way.”
Gejaghmaidze, however, does not deny that Georgian schools have a problem with how to discuss human reproduction. He largely approves of Chkonia’s approach, though believes that using the family as the medium for explanations about sex would be a better way to tackle the topic. Some issues about sex should be discussed in private, he explains. “I’m a priest and I also have to deal with people who have some issues concerning their sex life, but I do not discuss them in public.” “Very few schoolteachers” are equipped to teach about such matters in class, he adds. “That’s why our educational system still needs years to develop.”
Tepnadze, however, lays ultimate blame on the Soviet Union for establishing “a taboo machine” against anyone who presented humans’ sexual functions as just another part of biology.
“Even teachers were not and are not taught how to introduce these issues to children,” she complains. Instead, they are “handing the problem to families. And modern parents are also brought up by that [Soviet] generation, so how would they know how to talk to their children?” The result, she says, is “an ever-spinning circle of schoolteachers, students and the traditional Georgian family, where nobody really perceives reproduction and sexual life as a normal part of a human’s life.”
Even after the Soviet Union’s demise, Georgia’s biology textbooks largely maintained the same text about animal, rather than human, reproduction. In 2012, as part of a series of reforms under then President Mikheil Saakashvili, 8th graders’ biology textbooks gained one chapter on human reproduction. But, so far, no changes have occurred in how schoolteachers tackle sex education.
Specific guidelines do not yet exist for teachers on this subject, confirms Manana Ratiani, 47, deputy director of the National Center for Teachers’ Professional Development, which trains teachers according to the government’s educational standards. Those standards are defined in the education ministry’s periodic National Education Plan; in the past, the government did not specify requirements for teaching about sexual reproduction, Ratiani adds.
With no official methodology, Chkhonia simply developed her own. “I always tell my students to ask me some questions if they have any. I also ask them to write them down if they prefer to.”
Boys tend to ask questions about sex more freely in class than girls, however, Chkonia has noticed. She’s also learned that most students haven’t had a conversation with their parents about the changes going on in their bodies as they enter puberty. “They feel ashamed,” she comments. “Sometimes I hold extra lessons for girls and for boys separately to inform them about any specific details that I think they must know at their age.”
The Tbilisi Green School’s Tepnadze differs with this approach, however. Separating students according to gender “gives them the impression that you are hiding some information from one or the other group,” she believes. “You are dividing instead of uniting.”
Teachers at her own school, she says, answer questions about reproduction based on what students in a class want. “If there are any questions, a teacher will not evade them,” she claims.
Chkonia, known to her students as Rusiko, accepts the criticism. “I’m well aware that my approach is not ideal,” she says. “All I want is that young people have at least had information about what’s going on with them and that what’s happening is normal.”
Whether or not textbooks for the 2018-2019 academic year, set for release this October, will help any further with that task is unclear. Kilasonia, the education ministry’s textbook manager, says, though, that the ministry has worked out more detailed guidelines for all textbook writers. “The next step is discussion and any member of the media or society can share their opinion about these books before we make a final decision” about what text to include, Kilasonia elaborates. “So, society will have a chance to know the textbooks before they appear in schools.” Ultimately, it’s up to schools’ teacher councils to decide which textbooks are used in class.
Chkonia, though, is unlikely to let textbooks or ministry guidelines restrict her own goals as a teacher.
“If my students are informed about puberty, reproduction and safe sex, I think I’ve somehow fulfilled my duty,” she says.