When Educational Worlds Collide: An American Classroom and Teacher in an Indonesian School

There are many things that I absolutely adore about teaching in Indonesia.

I love the energy of my students, which sometimes does need some reigning in, but honestly is the reason I show up to work every day.  In the States, one of the biggest challenges of teaching high school, in my experience, was creating excitement and enthusiasm.  That is already there every time I walk into any classroom here.

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Taking class outside, because, well, why not?

I love the way the outside world begins where the classroom ends, and we just have to walk out the door if we want to take class outside.  There is no trekking down the hallway, there is no making sure alarms won’t go off if we go into the courtyard, as there is in so many northern U.S. schools.  We just step out of the classroom, and… there we are.

I love how quickly my students help one another, how they support students who struggle with English to keep up, as best they can, with the rest of the class[1].  I love how easy this makes incorporating group work into the classroom.

I love how the relationship between students and teachers is much more informal than it is in the States: teachers seem more like parents than the distant professionals various regulations have forced U.S. teachers to be[2].  I love the way all of my students take pride in the class they come from, the way their class becomes a sort of family.  I love the way the whole school feels like a family, like a home.

But there is no denying that teaching in Indonesia is also a considerable challenge.

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One of my classes didn’t have a white board for a while, so we used the floor instead.

I laugh now at how much of my own training to become a teacher focused on the use of technology in the classroom, as I now work in classrooms with one whiteboard, no markers unless I bring them myself, and a few shared projectors that can’t be used half the time because of mati lampu.

The classrooms are hot, and often packed with far more students than I would ever recommend in one class[3].  Sometimes, there are not enough chairs for all of the students.

The students take too many classes.  My students take anywhere from fourteen to seventeen classes during their six day school week, and this leaves a mere hour and a half each week for English.  I remember being in college and taking seven or eight classes in a semester, rather than the recommended six, and finding that I was never able to find as much time as I wanted to dedicate to each subject; I can’t imagine how my students survive.

Teachers show up late to class, or not at all, and there doesn’t seem to be any real accountability for them.  And there is no system of substitute teachers in Indonesia, which means the students are left alone for that period.  Students come late to class and skip class too, generally coming to school but hanging out in the canteen when they don’t feel like going to class.  The teachers reprimand them, but in some ways I can’t blame them, what with the examples they see every day.

Every day, I navigate the ups and downs of these joys and frustrations.  Perhaps the most difficult part of this is differentiating when something is particular wonderful or vexing because it simply is, or because it is so different from the American context in which I am accustomed to learning and working.  I do my best to consider everything as objectively as possible—which makes me pretty confident in my critiques of classroom size, but less so in regards to just how advantageous collectivism in the classroom is—but the truth is I will never really be sure.

One of hardest things about teaching in Indonesia, for me, is not having a consistent space in which to teach.  In Indonesia, the students do not come to the teacher; the teacher goes to the students.  This means that I need to be able to carry all of my supplies for a lesson with me, and they need to work in ten different classrooms with ten different set-ups[4].  This means my students sit in the same classroom all day.  This means I cannot leave permanent learning spaces in the classroom.  It is maddening.

At the beginning of the second semester, my school moved the entire tenth grade to a new building, leaving the old tenth grade classrooms empty.  We had just used the required content of diary entries to compare and contrast American and Indonesian schools.  I saw an opportunity.  I took it.

In one of the classrooms left empty by the tenth grade move, my teachers and I have created an American Classroom.  It started as an experiment, as a one-week trip to give them a taste of what they had read about and we had discussed.  But the students and my co-teachers loved it so much that English Class is now held in the American Classroom every week, and I use the space for all of the after-school English activities I run as well.

Students flock to the world map in the back of the room when they arrive, pestering me with questions about different countries on the map (ever so thankful for my high school geography class now).  On the way out they take selfies with the American Flag while making jokes about how they are in the U.S.A.  And they tease me for refusing to take down the Indonesian Flags on the ceiling: “This is the American Class, Miss!,” while I insist on the beauty of campur (mix).  When they are assigned to present on a hero of their choice, a handful of students in each class pick the American social justice leaders whose inspirational quotes are displayed by the door.

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Students using the Irregular Verb Word Wall for a poetry exercise.

But it’s not just about the decorations.  It’s about creating a permanent space to learn in.  When it was time to incorporate biographies into the tenth grade curriculum, I was able to create an interactive gallery walk about famous Black American heroes, something that, had I needed to move it to each of my ten classes, would have taken too much class time to set up to really be feasible; those same biographies now line one of the classroom walls, and some of the eleventh graders, visiting the American Classroom after school, recently read through and asked me questions, thereby extending the Black History Month lesson well beyond only the classes I teach.  I have created Word Walls of all the new vocabulary they were exposed to last semester, and of the irregular verbs they have been working with so intensively this semester; not only does this act as a great resource for students while they are doing their work (no more leafing through the notebook for those words they cannot remember), those students who tend to finish work a bit more quickly go to these Word Walls when their assignment is finished, extending their vocabulary.  Upon the request of my co-teachers, I will be adding more quotes and reading materials for some of the other walls, to provide more extended practice for high-achieving students.  Students are currently working on their own poems, and I plan to display that poetry on one of the walls which, for now, is intentionally blank.  There may only be three months left in or grant, but I already have so many ideas as to how to use this new space for future lessons.

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The kind of lesson that just wouldn’t really be feasible without the American Classroom.

I don’t think I’d be exaggerating when I say that every aspiring teacher dreams for the day when they have a classroom of their own.  I ended up with my first classroom in a fairly untraditional fashion, in a borrowed, faded, unused classroom, devoid of desks and chairs and with broken windows and a whiteboard that had to be re-nailed to the wall.  But as I sweep the classroom floor before school, and students start to file in early (usually stealing the broom from me in the process—it is considered disrespectful if they let their teacher do the classroom cleaning), firing questions off right from the beginning about whatever it is I have added to the wall or written on the board that week, satisfaction settles in around my smile.  What I have is a classroom that is a blend of American and Indonesian traditions, with both an American and an Indonesian teacher, with some of the loveliest students any teacher in the world could ask for.  Who needs desks?

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Waiting for students to arrive.

[1] This probably comes from the culture of collectivism that prevails in Indonesia.  Collectivism is complicated, with plenty of positives and negatives alike, and I don’t fully understand it yet, but I do so love this one element.

[2] Most of the teachers I have worked with are not actually all that distant.  But there is no denying that any time a student would give me a hug there was bound to be someone telling me to be careful about physical contact with students, and I could really only get away with it at all because I am a woman.  This is not the case in Indonesia.  Students and teachers touch all the time (though gender does play a role, still).

[3] This year, my largest class has thirty-six students, which is pretty close to the average class size in Indonesia.  Last year, I had more than one class with forty students in it, and fellow ETAs have taught in classes pushing fifty students.  In comparison, the average U.S. High School Classroom, according to data from 2012, is 26.8.

[4] Objectively, I know this experience will make me a much stronger teacher in the future, especially if, instead of becoming a more traditional classroom English teacher, I go into ESL education and work in a variety of classroom alongside other subject teachers.  Nonetheless, I am an American teacher trained with the expectation of someday having a classroom space of my own, and the lack thereof wears on me.

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5 thoughts on “When Educational Worlds Collide: An American Classroom and Teacher in an Indonesian School

  1. Grace, always a pleasure to read your artful expressions of international observation. Thank you for leaving a piece of yourself online for me to appreciate. 🙂 Love you roomie.

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  2. Wonderful blog, Grace! It may please you to know that I went to a high school where teachers hugged students. We also had classes on the lawn when subject and weather permitted. Good luck with your next 3 months! I can’t wait to see the poem wall.

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  3. Hi grace, love to know that you enjoy teaching English in Indonesia 😀 I am kiki, a local english teacher from Cirebon ( a town in west java province ). I am having problem with my students reading habit. Yet they will face the national examination which the questions are in the form of reading comprehension. Is there a teaching method that can solve it then? I desperately struggle with this issue. Need much insights. Thank You 😃

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  4. Pingback: A Long, Complicated List of Love: 100 Things I Absolutely Adore and 100 Things that Endlessly Frustrate Me About Indonesia | All for the Love of Wandering

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