Friday, November 11, 2011

Being a Teacher

Is it possible to start a composition with an aside?

[Aside: **In a posting back in April or May, soon after I’d arrived in Indonesia, I said I would try only to write about specific topics, because capturing my “experience” in Indonesia in broad terms would not be possible.  I stuck to that model for some months.  Recently, however, my posts have become more about…me…and less about Indonesia.  That’s odd, because as far as I can tell, the other PCV bloggers have gone in reverse—that is, they started out talking about themselves and now are talking about Indonesia. 

I just don’t feel the same urge to transmit cultural insights that I felt before.  Perhaps this is because, for me, the exercise of writing is a tool to organize and process new information.  Seven months in, there’s not as much "foreignness" to deal with.  The primary challenge is no longer personal adjustment to this once-alien culture, but carrying out professional responsibilities.  That, of course, entails its own series of headaches and what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here moments, but it’s more focused, less all-embracing, than the original challenge. 

Anyway, I think all of that accounts for both my reduced writing output and the shift in tone over the last couple months. **]


General Information

Some people have asked me what it’s actually like teaching in the school.  Kind of weird, I haven’t really written much about it, even though I’ve been teaching at my school for some four months.  Here are some facts about my situation:

·      I teach at a madrasah, which is an Islamic state school.  In Indonesia, there are non-religious state schools, overseen by the Ministry of National Education, and there are madrasahs, which are overseen by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.  Usually around 10:00, there is a 20-minute break for solat (prayer).  There is another solat around lunchtime after 12:00.  And Monday through Wednesday, there is a third solat after school ends.  It’s very funny to watch the kids and teachers doing ablutions (ritual washing) before prayer, because their clothing gets drenched.  The boys always horse around splash each other with water.

·      Appearance is extremely important in the culture here.  All the women must wear headscarves (jilbab), and all students/teachers wear uniforms. That is, except for me some days.  Three days per week I wear my own preference, and three days I dress like the other teachers.  People here aren’t as crazy about footwear though.  It’s pretty amusing to see kids and teachers wearing ties and full-length pants and skirts, but no shoes.  They like to kick them off when they sit down in class.

·      Those of you clever in arithmetic will have deduced that the school week is six days.  Sunday is the only day off, but Friday and Saturday are shorter than Monday-Thursday.  And Thursday is shorter than Monday-Wednesday.

·      In Indo, high school lasts from 10th until 12th grade.  I teach four classes of 11th grade and one class of 10th grade.  When I say “class”, I mean group of students.  Indonesian high school is organized rather like American elementary school.  Like class 10-A has its own classroom where they have all their lessons, and the teachers move around.  After tenth grade, kids are differentiated by “tracks”, of which there are four in Indonesia. 

·      There are more than 900 kids in my school.  That’s not the most for any PCV in Indonesia, but I think it’s top five or top three.  Because it’s such a large school, it actually has all four tracks: IPA (science), IPS (social), Bahasa (language), and Agama (religion).  All four tracks study certain core subjects, and there are also subjects specific to certain tracks.  For example, all students must study English and Indonesian, but only Bahasa and Agama students have to study Arabic, and only Bahasa students have to study Japanese (at least in my school).  All students have to study history, but only IPS has to study sociology.  And so on.  I hope you get the picture.

·      Outside of the track system, there are no electives.  In my school, students study eighteen subjects per semester.  No, this does not make any sense or have defensible logical underpinnings, so don’t bother trying to figure it out.

·      For 12th graders, the entire year is dedicated to preparation for the national exam.  Whether a student passes is determined by an average of the kid’s grades in school and scores on the national exam.  As a rule, schools inflate grades to offset poor scores on the national exam, which is very difficult, so that all or almost all of the kids graduate.  Schools here are businesses, and it’s bad for business if “clients” (students) fail.  

This is what the schedule looks like at my school.  I spent two or three days studying it before the semester began just so I could understand how it worked.  The time investment paid off, because I got to skip several months of chaos and confusion.


Frequently Asked Questions

Q.  What are your class sizes?

Two of my classes (IPA) have 32 students, two (Bahasa) have 26-27, and one has 15.  The class with fifteen is 10th grade Acceleration.  It’s a new program in my school.  Those kids are supposed to graduate in two years, rather than three.  I feel grateful that my two most challenging classes are relatively small, at 26 students apiece.  My heart goes out to the PCVs trying to teach 40 rowdy, unmotivated kids per class.

Q.  What are the students like?

They’re mostly wonderful, and at times they make you want to bang your head against the wall.  Social harmony and respect for elders or “superiors” is much more deeply ingrained in people here, so it’s very rare for me to feel personally disrespected.  I wouldn’t label any of my ~130 kids as a troublemaker.  Unlike American teenagers, they are not “too cool” for school.  It’s very easy to get them excited if you know the right buttons to push, and they become very spirited in class games.  They love to sing.  As far as I can see, they do not form cliques like American kids.  They love to cheer and clap and make noise as a group.  This is a collectivist culture.

That collectivism can make you want to break stuff at times, because collective cheating is so widespread here.  I’m very strict about cheating, and I feel confident saying that it doesn't happen too much in my classes during assessments.  I’m always on the lookout.  Most students have a fear of being different (is this really so different from American kids?).  They are usually petrified if they have to speak in English with any degree of spontaneity or creativity.  It’s also pretty common to laugh at mistakes here, so I had to make clear to my classes that it is forbidden to make fun of people who mess up. 

Anyway, the kids love to smile and laugh, and they always say hello when they see me.  Because they so readily accept authority and have (in my opinion) very low standards for teachers, it takes a lot of pressure off of me.  For some of my classes, I can always count on the kids to be bright and cheerful, and that really lifts my mood.   I usually leave a class feeling better than I did when I entered.

Q.  How are the students in English?

Skill levels within classes vary wildly, but the general level of English is very low.  I’d estimate that about 15% of my students would be able to converse comfortably in English about their daily activities.  Perhaps 5% could do it with grammatical accuracy.  At the other extreme, I have kids who have scored 0% on vocabulary quizzes, failing to produce the English words “take, go, say, make” etc.  Mind you, those kids have been taking English classes for at least five years.

Q.  How are the teachers in English?

There are six English teachers at my school plus me.  Their levels vary.  Three of them have what I would call very good English.  One of them is pretty good.  One is not so good.  One could hardly be said to speak English.

Last week we instituted a new policy: English teachers MUST always speak English with the other English teachers.  Every violation means a 1,000 rupiah fine.  The teachers love it, and we’ve all had to pony up.  So far the jar has over 10,000 rupiah.  They love policing one another—I never have to insist that they follow the rule.  The money is used to buy teaching supplies.

Q.  What kind of resources do you have?

Most classrooms are quite large, but drab.  There is a whiteboard and a desk for the teacher.  Some classes have painted slogans or pictures on the walls to beautify the room, but the rooms are horribly underutilized.  Students usually sit in pairs at big, clunky wooden desks.  The school has two printers, which are old and crappy and don’t do color very well at all.  There is no photocopy machine, but paper is available to buy at the cooperative store.  There are a couple digital projectors, but these are hardly ever used.  There are no transparency projectors, as far as I can tell.  There is wireless internet in the school (my most important resource).  There is a language lab, but I haven’t used it yet, and I’m not sure if it’s really functional. One cool resource is the mosque, which is really big at my school and much cooler than the classrooms.

Doing an activity in the mosque on 11/11/11

There are no English textbooks at my school.  The kids all have these cheap paper workbooks called LKS books.  The LKS books are awful--they are riddled with mistakes, they are illogically organized, and they assume the students have a level of English comparable to native speakers.  They're so awful, in fact, that my counterparts and I are not using any book at all.  We are creating all our own materials.  Obviously this makes planning more taxing, but we are teaching material that is realistic for the students.  The kids were raised on the LKS books, and their English is terrible.  For me, that’s enough justification to throw the books out if at all possible.

There is no store of English teaching materials that have been put to good use.  Some of my counterparts have books about teaching English filled with ideas for activities and worksheets and such, but those are very rarely opened.  There are no posters or realia or maps.  All in all, though, there are enough resources for a creative teacher to deliver high-quality lessons.  But it requires imagination, which is sorely lacking here.

Q.  What’s good about teaching?

When things are humming in the classroom, it’s a great feeling.  When kids are actually speaking in English while engaged in some silly contest, it’s awesome.  I suppose the best part is, as I said before, going into a classroom feeling low-energy and coming out of it feeling pumped. 

One of the most interesting things is getting to know the students’ individual strengths and weaknesses, as well as to measure how they progress.  It’s interesting to grade a quiz and be pleasantly surprised that a kid is doing much better than before, or conversely to be perplexed as to why a good student did poorly.  And it’s delightful when the kids catch you off guard with their creativity.  I’ve gotten a couple writing assignments that really just lit me up.

Also, as a native speaker of English and a person not shy to take charge in group situations, I get a ton of respect from the other teachers.  My ideas are taken seriously, and when I ask for help with things, I can usually count on someone wanting to help me.  And there’s really no pressure from the other teachers.  I could literally just take a vacation for a week, whenever, and nobody would say a word.  Basically all of the stress I feel is self-generated. 

And it’s fantastic to see other teachers adopt improved practices.  It makes me really happy when my counterpart wants to enter grades into our weighted spreadsheet on her own because it's "fun".

Q.  What sucks about teaching?

It sucks to feel like you’re constantly swimming against the current.  The flip side of being the native speaker/leader-type is that I am under all the pressure to be creative.  It can be tough to stay motivated when other people have lower standards and try to avoid responsibility for creative work (i.e. sitting down and designing interesting, logical lessons).  Trying to inspire others to a higher standard of professionalism can be tiring, and staying level when things don’t progress as quickly as I’d like requires patience.

Additionally, the culture surrounding education here is (in this American’s perspective) seriously flawed.  Certain crucial components are missing:

·      Accountability (at all levels)
·      Punctuality
·      Commitment to a predictable learning environment
·      Fostering of critical thinking/originality/creativity
·      Pragmatism (i.e. the goals of the curriculum considering the resources actually available)

Compared to the US, there is a much greater emphasis on developing “character”, which I suppose they do a pretty good job with, because 99% of the kids seem to be good kids.  But as a product of an education system that places performance above character, it just sucks seeing how inefficient education is here.


Other Observations

In all five of my classes, the girls do significantly better than the boys.  Average difference in test scores range as high as 20%.  I think the trend is the same in American schools, but it seems more pronounced here.  Boys goof around more. Interestingly, however, the “smart” kids are not ostracized or jeered—they are actually more or less the top dogs in my classes. Boys and girls never sit together here, and one-on-one interaction is extremely rare, though group interaction is common enough.  I’ve learned not to try to pair boys and girls, because they become painfully awkward, even sullen. 

The only time I’ve felt actually angry over “insubordination” was when a boy turned sour over being asked to work with a girl.  He nodded his head as if he understood, but didn’t move and tried to pretend that he was looking through a book, despite being told repeatedly.  To avoid a standoff, we had him work in a trio of boys and the girl in a trio of girls, but it really got to me.  At first I was irritated with the boy, but I cooled off by reminding myself that it’s not his fault he’s so uncomfortable with the prospect.  Just the way he was socialized.  I shouldn’t expect him to react like an American kid would.

Dating is prohibited in my school.  Kids who are known to have girlfriends or boyfriends are subject to expulsion.  This kind of freaks me out.  It’s normal for people here to get married in their very early twenties (especially girls), or even their late teens.  But by that point, they still have never really had much opposite-sex interaction outside of their own family.  People get married with terribly limited knowledge about the other sex.  The thought of locking oneself into a lifelong partnership with someone without really understanding the commitment or without having explored other options is just…chilling.

I haven’t had any real disciplinary problems.  During tests and quizzes I police the kids quite strictly to discourage cheating, but other than that they’re all good.  At times they can be screechy, annoying sixteen-year-olds, but with the proper management they don’t become too unruly.

Last week I carved pumpkins with my English club, and it was awesome!  One of counterparts gave his 12th graders a break from class so they could come look at what we were doing.  Not bad for kids who had never done it before.  The one second from the left was declared best pumpkin.  It had eyebrows and ears!

For a solid five minutes, I had most of the kids and the other English teacher scared that there was actually a ghost in the room.  I showed them a photograph of the jack o' lanterns with a white streak in front.  They were relieved when I said it was just a trail from a boy who was moving across the frame.
I’ve already said many times that appearances are more important in this culture than in American culture.  One consequence, or corollary, is that it’s also a more visual culture.  Students put so much more effort into making simple papers and projects look nice.  I had teachers back in America who told me, “I don’t care if you write your essay in pen, crayon, or blood, as long as I can read it and you’ve done good work.”  Here it’s the opposite.  The quality of content can be absolutely horrendous, but you can rest assured that the presentation will be attractive.  During Ramadan I asked some kids to write about the fasting month, and they turned in some things that I’d never seen before.  One pair of girls glued their paper to a triangular piece of wood.  Another made a multi-colored folding heart (see pictures).  One wrote their thing on a neon-colored cutout of Donald Duck’s face.  Several groups glued small fuzzy butterfly dolls to their paper.  

Now that's some serious creativity. 

That’s as much as I’m going to write about this in one sitting, so I hope it was informative!  If any of you future Indonesia PCVs are reading, good on you for getting informed ahead of time!  We look forward to meeting you and hazing you ruthlessly. 

Just kidding.



  1. The kids seem like they are very energetic in the classroom. The art projects are even cooler than at my school.I love you being an English teacher,Tim.

    your niece, Sophia Curtin

  2. It seems like the kids are very energetic. Your art projects are cooler than at my school. You are a great English teacher, Tim.

    Your niece, Sophia Curtin