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!
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.
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.
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.
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.