Friday, July 15, 2011

Six Hundred (My First Battle)

Last Friday I had my first battle in Indonesia.

First, some background info...

Peace Corps Indonesia's policy caps the number of hours per week a Volunteer may be in the classroom at 20. Schools are not permitted to assign their Volunteers to teach more than 20 hours per week. The other hours may be spent planning, running extracurricular activities, focusing on secondary projects, and taking care of whatever random functions (there are a lot) the school needs the PCV to do.

In Indonesia, high school starts in 10th grade and ends in 12th grade. Classes operate in more or less the same way as elementary school classes in the US. For example, if there are 150 kids in 10th grade, they will probably be divided into five classes of 30 students (say Class 10-A, 10-B, etc. until 10-E). And each of those classes has its own homeroom, where they stay for all their courses. Teachers, not students, rotate between the rooms.

When you consider that for this upcoming semester, there will be eleven classes of 10th grade and nine classes of 11th grade in my school, and that all students are required to take 16 courses (there are no electives) each semester, you can imagine that creating the schedule is a pretty insane task. Therefore, you often get insane results, e.g. students having one hour of English, then one hour of chemistry, then two hours of English again, then two hours of chemistry again. The difficulty of merely designing a schedule more or less precludes logical course sequencing/spacing, such as having English class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Classes are scheduled for whenever they fit in.

On to the story...

The last couple weeks I'd been operating with the assumption that I would teach two classes of 11th grade and two classes of 10th grade for a total of 19 hours per week. I'd been very well in communication with my counterparts, and we'd been designing new materials and drawing up the structure/policies of our courses. Then this morning there was a meeting for all teachers in the school to discuss the schedule for the upcoming semester.

And at this meeting, the principal announced that he had decided I would teach every class of 10th and 11th grade for one period each week. I actually didn't catch it the first time. I was already zoned out from a solid 45-minute block of brain-melting bahasa Indonesia, so it kind of went over my head. Later, my counterpart, Bu Ani, who had been informed earlier that morning, realized I hadn't understood, much to her chagrin. She was afraid of having to deliver the news herself, but deliver it she did, once the meeting was over.

As I said, there are nine classes of 11th grade and eleven classes of 10th grade. That's twenty classes. Twenty hours per week, each with a different class. Twenty classes. Containing at least 30 kids apiece. That's at least 600 students, each of whom I am to instruct for less than a quarter of their total time studying English. It would mean planning with five different teachers.

I was furious, and my counterpart could tell. She was actually a bit afraid, not yet having seen me angry. We went to the Vice Principal for Curriculum, and he caught on to my wrath-vibe in about half a second. He indicated immediately that it wasn't his idea -- the principal had informed him this morning. He accompanied me toward the principal's office, but before storming in there and raising hell, my rational brain prevailed, I excused myself for 20 minutes, and I called the Peace Corps Indonesia Program Manager.

Is this legal? Can the principal even do this? Are you going to back me up here? What if he refuses to change?

Pak Mifta, the Program Manager, answered my questions patiently and offered some thoughts on how to deal with the headmaster. He said that if, after the conversation, the principal refused to budge, I should call him back and he would talk to him. But, bottom line: the principal makes the decision.

So I rounded up the VP for Curriculum (also an English teacher) and one of my counterparts, Pak Eko, told them the angle I was going to take, and we went to the office. We had to wait ten minutes, as the principal was already in a meeting with another teacher. In the meantime, Pak Mifta called Pak Eko and explained to him in Indonesian my situation and the rationale behind "quality over quantity", which we had already discussed in English. I was grateful nonetheless.

The wait was tense. When I get angry like that, and I feel righteous, I get focused and I get forceful. I am not often angry--this was probably the first time since arriving in Indonesia--so I don't mind so much when that side of me comes out. It reminds me of what my buttons are. Push the disrespect button and there is a different me. I felt like bottled lightning.

We went into the office, and the bargaining began.

The headmaster's perspective was predictable: Quantity is important, too. The parents know you are here, and they expect their children to be taught by the native speaker. If you see all the students, you will be able to motivate them all to learn.

My responses were also predictable (and more numerous [and, if you ask me, more logically and morally compelling]): Quality is more important. 600 students for 45 minutes per week means they will learn nothing, and my potential contribution to the quality of education nullified. I do not have magic English dust that I can sprinkle on the students to make them know the language. I cannot plan with five teachers. I am not here to be a political tool or to make the school look good to prospective students; I'm here to improve the program. Any student who wishes to learn with me can join English Club or English Development. I am here as a teacher, not a celebrity.

And so on…there was a lot more. We had some back and forth.

More background info:

There are no free high schools on Java. Students must pay to enroll. More students means more money (MSMMM). This simple equation means that schools are more than half a business. And businesses depend on "clients" for survival. They also compete with other businesses to recruit those clients. I am going to get more into this in an upcoming blog. It is incredibly fascinating for me.

Anyway, the consequence of MSMMM with respect to my presence at the school should be quite obvious. Here in East Java, Volunteers are celebrities. Having a native English speaker on staff is an incredible recruiting tool that no other school in the area can boast. You're fishing in a gator pond with steak on your hook. So, if you, as a recruiter, lure in new students with the expectation of being taught English by an American, there is some real pressure to live up to that expectation.

Despite my arrival just three weeks before the start of the semester, total enrollment is up from 10% to 15% compared to last semester. Coincidence? I highly doubt it. This explains the headmaster's desire for me to take on six hundred students.

The bargain…

We have some back and forth.

Headmaster: Proposes, after hearing my plea, that I play celebrity teacher for twenty classes for the first three months only, after which we could re-evaluate my role.

Tim: I make another passionate plea for a sane schedule, restating/rephrasing my reasons.

Headmaster: Proposes one to two months as celebrity teacher, after which I only teach 11th grade and the accelerated class in 10th grade.

Tim: I express dissatisfaction with this deal. There is no difference between teaching twenty classes for one hour per week and teaching ten classes for two hours per week. I am still spread too thin. I indicate I may accept the temporary role of celebrity teacher if it is, in fact, purely temporary.

Headmaster: Asks me what situation I would be happy with after a month or two as celebrity teacher.

Tim: I reiterate that I want to be at every meeting of any class I teach. Therefore, after playing celebrity, I want only four classes of five hours per week each.

Headmaster: Accepts this compromise. I will be celebrity teacher to 600+ students through the end of Ramadan (one and a half months, but much of which is low-quality teaching time because of frequent interruptions and shortened classes), after which I will be a real teacher on my own terms.

And that is the deal. During and after our conference, I was high-octane. Pak Eko gently suggested I be a bit less serious, though they love my passion. I said that it's good to get mad sometimes, because angry people change things, and I am not here to be a cash cow for the school. Mentally, I was in combat mode. After finishing, I ate lunch with my headphones on while listening to "Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drums". As the afternoon wore on I settled back into my usual good humor, largely helped by a great discussion with Bu Ani, the product of which will make up a different article.

So there you have it. My first battle. I'm proud of not letting myself get trampled.

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