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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


Meet Kelas Sebelas, or, The Emma Blackery Project

My students are the best part of being in Indonesia.

Anyone who has met me in real life is probably not at allsurprised by that sentence.  I love teaching, and I live for those moments in the classroom.  Generally, in my eyes, students are the best part of anything.

But really, my students are the best part of being in Indonesia.


 The students I get to work with every day are some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met. They take around fourteen classes at the same time, and spend their entire day in the same hot classroom with sometimes up to forty other students.  And yet, they are somehow able to have more enthusiasm for learning and living than I would have ever thought possible.  They amaze me.  They are the reason I go to school even on the days when I know I will be in and out of the classroom all morning, vomiting up whatever delicious food it was my American stomach couldn’t handle.  They are the reason I stay up late into the night preparing lessons, accepting that I will be running on instant coffee the next day. 


 They are the best Bahasa Indonesia teachers Malang has to offer. They are some of the best comedians I have ever seen.  They are artists, musicians, athletes, inventors… and they are generally between the ages of fourteen and sixteen.  


 I am a teaching assistant in both tenth and eleventh grade here at SMAN 10.  Today, I want to introduce you to Kelas Sebelas (Grade Eleven).  


Kelas Sebelas baffled me at first.  It wasn’t their fault at all.  My goal is to eventually teach middle school, and the oldest students I had ever regularly worked with prior to coming to Indonesia were ninth grade students.  Consequently, I hit it off easily with the tenth graders, who are in their first year of high school, much like my ninth graders back home.  But the eleventh graders were older, wiser… and still kids at heart.  It took me a little longer to figure out what made them tick, and what they needed from me.


 They still want class to be fun.  They still enjoy the occasional game, the occasionalgrammar joke, the occasional goofball moment from Miss Grace.

But these are students who next year will be applying to colleges and programs, and generally deciding what they want to want to do with their adult selves.  They are beginning
to come into themselves as individuals, and be proud of who they are.  And they are beginning to really see themselves as part of their country, and their world.  They see opportunities, and strive for success.  They see problems, big and small, and want to be part of the solution.

They want real conversations about real-world topics.  These are the students with whom I did a unit on social justice activists.  These are the students who, when we did a unit on recipes, asked questions about food for the homeless in the United States.  These students are getting ready to take on the world, and they want to be prepared to make it better.


 But they are still teenagers, full of insecurities and doubts about their abilities and their futures. They dream of changing the world, but are convinced they cannot pass the upcoming Physics test.  They hope to make their families proud, but they worry that none of their friends really like them.  They get nervous, they hesitate, they stumble, and they fall.  Sometimes they stand back up.  Sometimes they need a helping hand.  Growing pains are hard.  


 I know that every single one of my students is an incredible individual, capable of endless possibilities. It’s part of my responsibility as their teacher to help them see that.  

Thus began what I started calling the “Emma Blackery Project.”  Emma Blackery, British YouTube creator and musician, released a song called “Perfect” in early November just last year.  It quickly became my favorite song, the one I danced foolishly to in the privacy of my bedroom at the end of a long day.  I fell in love with its message, and dreamed of using it in class.

Kelas Sebelas is required by the national curriculum to study the conditional tense.  Conditional is hard.  Prior to midterms, they still needed more review on the topic.  I scoured the internet for ideas—I had already used Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy” to help them see the structure used in a real example, and I was hoping for another, somewhat enjoyable way to review—but I could not find anything that really inspired me.  Frustrated, I turned to YouTube for some reprieve, and somehow ended up re-watching the music video for “Perfect.”

It was then I noticed that many of the signs Emma’s fans were holding included conditional statements (“I wish I was thin,” “I wish I was funny,” etc.).  There were even
examples of conditional in the lyrics.  That was all I needed.  I proposed my idea to my co-teacher, and she told me to run with it.

I had students watch the video and listen to the song as part mof a listening activity, and then we talked about the conditional in the songs.  I had the students correct the minuscule grammatical errors in some of the signs, while trying to make sure they understood what was really important about those signs: “See?  People who have trouble using perfect English grammar can be in music videos.  English is weird, and it’s hard for everyone.  It’s not about being correct.  It’s about communicating an important idea.”  It’s a concept I’ve been stressing to my students since I arrived in Malang, and Emma Blackery had given me the perfect opportunity to continue the message.

Then it was time for the students to be the star of the show.  I had each student write eight sentences: “Three of these sentences must use the conditional tense.  These are about things you wish you could change about yourself.  Five of these sentences are normal sentences, or statements. These are about what you are proud of, what you can do, what you are that is special, what makes you AWESOME.”  When they were finished, they could choose a sentence to write on a sign, and create a short video clip using my
camera.  I would then compile the video clips, and create a video during the week of midterms, during which time my Visa does not allow me to be in the classroom. Students were not required to participate, but could be part of the video only if they wanted to be part of it.


 I was overwhelmed by how many of them were willing to be part of the video, and especially thrilled to see how many were willing to stand in front of a camera and bare their insecurities to the world.  Such an act would be difficult for anyone, but it is only made harder by being an adolescent.

I barely had space in the video to include all of the footage.  Cutting even a moment of their smiles was heartbreaking.  In the end, I know my video editing skills are mediocre at best, but I can’t help but feel that the amazing essence of my students somehow shines through.

This is why they inspire me.

This is why they are the best part of being here.


 I present to you, Kelas Sebelas, perfect the way they are.