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The Challenges of Teaching English in Indonesia

The other day my counterpart, Pak Warai, sat next to me as I prepared material for English club. Suddenly he asks, Mel, what can we do to make students study outside the classroom? Pak, I laughed, if we can solve that we would improve education all over the world!

He sighed.

I feel putus asa. Do you know this? he asked. I didn’t. He described an idiom meaning a lack of motivation and desire to quit. I don’t want to plan, I don’t want to go to class. The students understand the material for one day, then the next day they don’t understand again. This makes me feel putus asa.

Oh Pak, I feel that too, sometimes.

For the first time, Pak Warai opened up about a topic I have often thought about: how challenging it is to teach English in Indonesia. As we discussed the issue, Pak Warai and I identified many challenges that make teaching here difficult, most of which are, sadly, out of our control. Here are the highlights of that conversation:

1)      The Indonesian English Curriculum

This is our biggest hurdle. The English curriculum in Indonesia is genre-based, which is an incredibly strange way to teach a foreign language. Rather than getting through the basics, and very simple grammar, students are thrown into the deep end and given advanced passages to read and decipher. Narrative text, analytical exposition, hortatory text – these are just three types of texts that students with practically zero vocabulary and grammar skills are expected to understand.

When I first arrived at my school, I proposed developing and implementing a new and simpler curriculum. However, almost all the English teachers opposed this because what matters most in the current Indonesian education system is that students pass the Ujian Nasional or the National Exam, based on the government curriculum. Going outside of that would not prepare the students properly, the teachers argued, and they will fail the exam. (Although they fail to acknowledge that most students can’t pass the exam anyway, and the majority who do, cheat.)

Of course we still incorporate basic concepts and other kinds of activities into our classes, but to center English education around genres with a goal to pass a national exam is extremely restricting.

2)      Classes are large and multilevel, and students are overwhelmed with school subjects.

In my school the average classroom has 45 students. All these students receive every subject together, regardless of their level. Therefore, I have students who can barely introduce themselves, alongside students who could debate an issue fairly well in English. To create lessons that are simple enough for low-level students and interesting enough for higher-level students is a major challenge for teachers. And even more so when all 45 students need to take turns, share materials or simply, be quiet and attentive.

In addition, the students in my school have 22 subjects per week, including three languages (English, Arabic and Bahasa Indonesia). Though, at best, only 5 hours of English are taught per week, it all comes down to simple economics of attention span. Students focus on the subjects that they like, and because English is difficult and, often, irrelevant to their lives, most don’t care for it. (I like to believe some like it better now because I’m around…but that’s not very sustainable.)

3)      English materials are often wrong or inappropriate.

During my time here, I’ve created a lot of worksheets and materials to counter the disasters that many LKSs, or Indonesian workbooks/textbooks are, but when a student’s dictionary translates the word “wide” into “wode,” it feels like it undoes the work we are doing. But this is the reality of developing countries.

Materials are often bad because there isn’t money or resources (including human resources) to make them better. At the moment, I’m that human resource, but it’s not enough. Teachers all over Indonesia rely on these terrible materials as their primary teaching tools, even when these are really just confusing students more.

An LKS example of a short spoof text.  This one of the hardest texts to teach kids here because if the story is actually funny, it's due to the sarcastic one-liners that go way over my students head because a) they don't really use sarcasm in Indonesia

An LKS example of a short spoof text and the types of questions that are found in the National Exam.
(I’d be extremely surprised if any of my students know what “precocious” or “inquisitive” means, let alone who Phil Collins is, or that he’s a drummer.)


Spoof is one of the hardest things to teach my students because if the story is actually funny, it’s because of a sarcastic one-liner and a) my students don’t usually know enough vocabulary to get it and b) sarcastic humor doesn’t really exist in Indonesia.

4)      English is extremely different from Bahasa Indonesia

Bahasa Indonesia does not have tenses or the verb to be. I’ve spent about 70 percent of my teaching time reviewing these topics because they are hard to grasp, as it’s a totally alien concept. Try to explain what “being” means to someone who doesn’t understand you and whose language you don’t master. (It ain’t easy, let me tell you!)

Bahasa Indonesia is also a relatively new language that has a limited vocabulary. There has been many frustrating moments when I ask my counterpart to translate a word and he uses the same exact word for two related, but distinct concepts. Take for example, ‘pain’ and ‘sick.’ Both of those words are translated into sakit, which is confusing for students. This only gets more troublesome when students study for something like the TOEFL, which has thousands of vocabulary words. As I saw in my TOEFL study group last semester, when students are presented with similar words that vary slightly in meaning, they often translate the concept into the same Bahasa Indonesia word. At best, this is only half accurate. (And in a multiple choice test like the TOEFL, half accurate = 100 percent wrong.)


Still, we carry on.

After this conversation, I must say, my counterpart brought my own spirits from high to low. I suddenly began to feel his putus asa, but I quickly thought about some of the students in our best class. Think about Maisaroh, Ulfatun and Yulia! I told him. Their language has improved and most importantly, they are brave and confident to try speaking and writing, which before they would not do. We concluded: Under these conditions, we have to aim high, but be satisfied with these kinds of small triumphs.

Yulia rocking her English journal about her favorite story – a perfect example of one of our best teaching activities and most improved students.
(Coincidentally, her last sentence fits into this blog entry quite well, too.)

At a later time, Pak Warai and I had a different conversation about happiness. I asked him what keeps him teaching in spite of all the challenges and lack of motivation. In the United States, I explained, I think most people with the problems of our job would want to quit or change professions. As always, Pak Warai is full of wisdom.

Pak Warai sitting at his office, where we've had all of our numerous conversations.

Pak Warai sitting at his office, where we’ve had all of our numerous conversations.

He replied that in everything there are ups and downs, including in motivation. Sometimes, he said, I get bored and tired of the daily drudgery, but then I find a new way to teach the material, like the methods you use, and I feel interested again. Besides, after our long conversation on what makes him happy or feel “serenity” (his word), it’s clear that Pak Warai’s happiness isn’t dependent on the job he does six times a week; rather, his happiness comes from his religion. He explained that being a teacher and sharing knowledge is an important good deed within Islam, and that’s his deepest satisfaction in his chosen profession. In my secular mentality, I measure my success by number of students understanding everything I say, speaking fluidly in our classes, or doing their assignments well, but success for everyone in my madrasah is always closely connected to Islam—and that has its own positive consequences.

For example, my madrasah’s community is quite beautiful. All the teachers are close and tight-knit and consider each other family. They all pray together many times during the school day, most live near each other, and on the one weekend day, there are usually arisans – or gatherings—with food and more prayers. Teachers travel far to pay their respects in the event of a teacher’s father’s death, or visit a teacher’s home if their child is sick. Classes are often cancelled for teachers to fulfill these duties, or entire school days are used for praying or religious events. At first it was frustrating for me, because MY job is to teach English, and MY job can’t be done if—in addition to everything else— I have to excuse constant absences. But I understand that those are MY priorities, conditioned in another part of the world. Priorities here place God and community before education, and certainly before schedules and dates and time and money. And though I see both the positive and negative sides of this, it can’t be said that their priorities are off.

8 thoughts on “The Challenges of Teaching English in Indonesia

  1. I agree with you, teaching English in Indonesia, especially in the rural area, is quite difficult since they don’t think that they will use the language in their daily life, not even they think that there is a possibility to use it in their work.
    As for the curriculum, well . . . it is not only the curriculum for the elementary, even the curriculum for the university is not proper, too. Once I had to give a lecture in a class with almost all audience did not know the basic of what I talked, and I just realized the matter when many asked silly questions 😦

    • Yes I also taught one time at a university in Malang and their skill was also very low. It can be discouraging to start at 0 in every class, that’s why language should be taught by levels and using an entirely different curriculum!

  2. Pingback: Suasana Hati II | in the land of dragons

  3. Hello, Melanie.

    I’m going to do a research project on Indonesian English teachers’ content knowledge. In your opinion, do you think the English teachers themselves (including the ones in universities) have an ‘acceptable’ level of English? Based on my personal experience, many, if not most, of them should upgrade their English proficiency levels.

    Btw I stumbled across your blog after googling ‘english teacher education issues in indonesia’. This post is a well written piece.

    It seems that you are no longer in Indonesia, but I hope you still respond to my question.

    Thank you for your time and dedication volunteering in Indonesia….

    • Hi Albard! Sorry for not answering sooner. Yes, in my experience teaching in Indonesia, very few teachers had high English proficiency levels. Even if they were good speakers of English it didn’t mean that they were good teachers. Teaching is a very difficult job! The teachers I encountered probably didn’t receive very good instruction themselves and once they are out of university they have little exposure to English speakers and do not get to practice their skills in speaking, listening or writing. Many English teachers conduct their classes in Bahasa Indonesia and use the inadequate materials as their main tool. The material (books, dictionaries, etc.) in general are bad and full of mistakes. Yes, Indonesian teachers should probably upgrade their proficiency levels, but there are a lot of other problems outside of that, which contribute to poor English education in Indonesia.

  4. This is so well written.

    I feel this putus asa every now and then but I can’t imagine what it was like for you having 40+ ss in your class. Actually, I can, but I just recoiled a little. :p

    Let me tell you this, it doesn’t get much better in private schools – better resources, yes, but basically there’s still a whole lot of confusion about what teaching English should be about, and, if my instincts serve me right, what teaching in general should be about, in this land of ayam bakar.

    This is all probably long behind you now but I thought I’d still share as you might still be in the ESL loop.

    Actually, I also wanted to ask you for any tips/knowledge on blog writing. It’s something I’ve wanted to get into but I’m not really sure how to get started. Thanks

    Keep up the good work.

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