Thursday, February 21, 2013

(The Weather Is) Hot for Teacher: A few thoughts on working as a volunteer educator

Before I started my volunteer service, I think my Peace Corps aspirations were pretty big and starry eyed. I don’t know if I wanted to “save the world,” but I definitely had big ideas for my effects on my future community, maybe even the future country. Part of truly becoming a PCV, in my opinion, is learning to scale down from those big dreams to small, sometimes microscopic goals. Sometimes, the only comfort at the end of the day is that one student answered a complicated grammar question correctly. Other days it’s positive feedback from a counterpart who has been spending time outside the classroom and outside school thinking about new education ideas. And when I wake up every morning, I don’t really know what that day will bring, “success” wise.


(no pressure, just trying to meet my saving the world quota)

Working as a TEFL education volunteer, I teach at an Islamic high school in a semi-rural community. My school has 750+ students in 10th-12th grade. A school week runs Monday-Saturday and a school day lasts from 7 am to 1:30 pm on average, with 90 minute classes and two fifteen minute breaks. There are five English teachers teaching twenty two classes of students, students who study English for four hours a week, along with 15-16 other subjects a semester. At the end of their senior year students sit for a series of standardized national exams that in part determine their future college careers and also reflect on the school’s standing.

If this is the setting for education in my community, let me list the complications: substandard text and resources, frequent class cancellations for reasons ranging from school events to a luncheon in the teachers office, rampant cheating on homework, tests, and the national exam, hot and stuffy classrooms in tropical heat, complacent pensioned educators with low motivation, bureaucratic demands that leave teachers needlessly overworked.

So, with that setting and those complications, the average TEFL volunteer enters and is confronted with lots of confusion and misunderstandings and may or may not fully understand the workings of the average Indonesian school, and is working with a staff that may or may not fully understand the Peace Corps program. There are some things about the Indonesian classroom that are culturally so unfamiliar to American volunteers and teachers that we immediately see it as a problem—like chatter between students (a sign of disrespect in an American classroom), or the cheating, or teachers coming to class late.  It’s also uncomfortably, sweating through your dress clothes, hot. I’m afraid that I will start involuntarily sweating whenever I don a button down shirt, just from the association, whenever I’m back in the US.

Every volunteer has their sticking points, and their personal projects for the classroom. Some people are really into grading—which I would consider to be lax in the Indonesian education system when I’m being polite, and completely arbitrary when I’m having a less polite moment. Others want to create a habit of timeliness in the classroom. For me initially, I saw certain actions in the classroom as very unfamiliar and therefore “wrong.” Part way through my first semester, though, I came to a decision that it wasn’t my place to necessarily “Westernize” the classroom, that is, to have my classes mimic the familiar behaviors and atmosphere I was accustomed to. There’s a confusing thin line in the beginning between what is a problem and what is culturally unfamiliar. I realized that the student chatter wasn’t disrespectful to me, and I saw that when a day’s schedule allows for no lunch breaks or time to change after phys ed class, it was helpful to supply a ten minute delay between classes. Once I let go of that stress to have a familiar classroom, I was open and available to work within the parameters of my school and Indonesian culture.

Still, it’s easy to be caught up in the frustrations of system corruption and bureaucratic nightmares, to be discouraged by an education system that at times seems to be working against the students’ own potential successes. It’s easy to grow cynical about your service only being a form of soft diplomacy to make America look good, or resigned that the effect you’re making is minimal at best and trivial at the worst.

When I hit those walls of frustration or discouragement, I remember my Imaginary Wall of Real Heroes. The wall might be imaginary, but the heroes are not. They’re all Indonesians that I have met so far in my service and had conversations about the state of education here, about the problems and the possible solutions. Because as an American, and as a single volunteer, I’m not here to “fix” the system. But the Indonesian people I meet, especially the young adults and teens who already have a critical eye on their nation’s education system, they’re the real agents of change. They’re the ones who will shape future policies and call for improvements. The Imaginary Wall is a teacher’s bulletin board, decorated fifth-grade style with patterned paper back ground and that decorative border edging. It also has this quote posted on it: Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead.

My Imaginary Wall of Real Heroes includes:

>My past counterpart, Aini, who is a recent college graduate and new teacher, who sees regular issues in the school system, from sexist and obsolete hierarchy to stagnant teaching methods.

>My counterpart Pak Mustain, who is constantly pushing for dynamic methodology and continuing teacher education.

>A visiting education department official who admonished both students and teachers to read more, to improve their lives and expand their knowledge.

>A twelve year old girl I met when visiting an MTS (Islamic middle school), who asked me what Indonesian schools can do to match the development of Western countries.

>A man I met on the bus who runs an English course in Surabaya, who saw a real problem with the lack of critical thinking skills in both adults and students. (He also paid for my bus fare that day).

>Sarah’s Bahasa Indonesia tutor, who is a young college student and future English teacher, who is already planning how she can improve classroom culture and education.

>All of the Peace Corps Indonesia staff, who are all actively involved in developing the Indonesian education system by working in partner with the Indonesian government and providing back up and resources to us volunteers.

I think I really stepped into the role as an education volunteer when I learned to be an open resource to my counterparts, and to serve where my community called me. Very few, if any, of my pre-service training ideas or plans for what I would do at permanent site have come to fruition here. Instead, I adapted to a new batch of needs. We covered this in PST, this engagement with community and understanding their needs vs your desires of service. And in many ways, I couldn’t fathom what my site and my school would need from me while still in training. There’s so much to Peace Corps that you can only learn once you hit the ground running (or stumbling).

What I’ve been happy to see develop is a demand for teacher training, for information about student centered classrooms and dynamic activities and ways to engage students. Every month, I visit a local middle school to “give motivation” to the students there (and on the side, promote my high school). These visits were my school’s idea, because they had a shiny new bule to advertise. I had a few demands of my own, if these promotional visits were to take place—that I wanted the English Team (as we English teachers call ourselves) to all take part in doing activities with the middle school students as well.

At first, my counterparts were demure, in that I was the “guest celebrity” and they didn’t want the students to feel like they didn’t get the full native speaker experience. But after a few visits, I noticed—almost to my irritation at first—that Bu Nikma was on the mic giving instructions for our English games. After about thirty seconds, I was pleased as punch to see her taking the leadership initiative and showing ownership of the materials we had planned together.


(Bu Nikma, leading the English game at a middle school)

And then, while planning with a middle school, the teachers asked me if I would lead a “lesson” for the teachers as well. So together with my counterpart, who gave me feedback about what activities and methods I brought to the classroom that he found most useful, I assembled an hour long presentation for all the teachers of this middle school. When we planned to visit a school this past January, I offered the teacher training workshop as well as the student activities (this is my solace in being part of my school’s shameless self-promotion). The middle school agreed, and they jokingly asked if we would host an “English Camp” for teachers at some point.

Which we are now planning for March.

I had no idea that teacher training would be where my site called me to serve, back in PST. But being open to my community’s needs, instead of my preconceived ideas, was essential. It was a lesson in humility, in a big way. It’s also a lesson in patience. I might not see direct, tangible changes at the rate I would desire. I’m not going to see a revolutionized education system during my time in Indonesia. But I choose to dwell on the small, personal connections I make with individuals, that might encourage a teacher to try a new activity in the classroom, or give a student more confidence when answering a question.

In closing, this quote has been a huge motivator for me during service. I first saw it while I was still in America, and I think it holds the essence of development work:



  1. sartoriallyinclinedpeacecorps posted this