Retrospective:My Indonesian ELF Experience 2010-2011
I have just completed a ten-month assignment as an English Language Fellow, assigned to conduct English teacher training and teach other English courses at the Institut Agama Islam Negeri ( IAIN ) in Palembang, Indonesia in south Sumatra, and working under the auspices of the Regional English Language Office (RELO) in Jakarta. In this entry I want to look back on the year and 'take a big picture view' of what I saw and did and learned and felt.
Even with all my past teaching experience abroad, the past year included a number of important 'firsts'.Perhaps most importantly, it was my first time to be the only native speaker teacher in a language program. In fact, ALL of my colleagues at most other schools were fellow expats, usually Americans.At IAIN the other English teachers were Indonesians whose English was at best 'limited'; only two had lived in an English-speaking country.I suppose in that situation they feel a bit insecure and more in need of always asserting their authority over the class - which is the traditional mode of teaching here anyway ( as it is in many countries ).My own classroom style, in contrast, is very informal, relaxed, and spontaneous - i.e. typically Western.From what I heard and observed, most local English teachers use Indonesian a lot in class, a sharp contrast to everywhere else I've taught.Outside of class no one ever used English except to talk with me - but why would they?I never picked up enough bahasa Palembang to even begin to follow their conversations, and people seldom tried to translate what they were saying for my benefit.So I felt a bit 'out of it' much of the time. But at the same time, I was automatically 'famous' and very popular with students simply because I WAS the first and only native speaker they'd ever met, much less studied with.Local newspapers found out I was there and sent reporters to interview me, with the unexpected result that color photos of me up to half a page high appeared in the papers along with very flattering ( I was told ) articles.I'd certainly not expected anything like that to happen!
Still, most people seemed a bit hesitant to actually take advantage of my being there by spending a lot of time with me practicing their English.Some IAIN teachers and students occasionally stopped by my office to chat a while; I tried to be as willing to talk as I could possibly be, but for whatever reason after a while such visits became few and far between.In part this might have been due to another 'first':this was the first place I've lived and taught where almost everyone seemed inhibited to the point of being paranoid about making mistakes with their English, even with what are minor grammar points.I suspect that this is the result of how their past (Indonesian ) English teachers have over-corrected and punished them for errors.Also, in Indonesian culture people are obsessed with avoiding situations where they might 'lose face,' and exposing the weaknesses in your English could cause this, especially for English teachers.I'm sure there were at least 500 times this year - not in class but in conversation - when people apologized to me for their English mistakes.Sometimes people apologized over and over and over during the same conversation!
Everyone I met was super-friendly and curious about me - truly, they were the friendliest, kindest, and most supportive people I have ever met in my life, and that's saying a lot.Sometimes colleagues invited me to their homes and to accompany them as they attended weddings or made the rounds of family/friends' homes during holidays, which I really appreciated.This was another important - and much-appreciated 'first'.I had never been invited to local people's homes or to celebrate holidays with them in any other country I've taught in.So many people told me how honored they were just to have me in their home, again because I was a foreigner and in particular an American.
Some 'firsts' related specifically to teaching, both positive and negative:Although I'd often done conference and other in-service training workshops, this was my first opportunity to teach credit teacher-training courses.This was one of the main appeals for me of being an ELF and it was MOST satisfying!I'm going to miss it if I now go back, as I expect to, to teaching basic language-skills classes.Secondly, before coming to Indonesia I had always had at most 15-20 students in a class, but all my classes at IAIN included 30-40 people.Previously I had always met classes 3-5 times every week, for a total of 5-12 hours a week, but at IAIN classes are scheduled just once a week for 100 minutes. These two differences meant that I never got to know most of my students as individuals, or was able to turn my classes into a sort of 'community' - there just wasn't enough time, and there were too many of us.In addition, I had always taught in programs where students were placed in new classes each term according to end-of-term tests, but at IAIN students generally keep moving along with their 'cohort', i.e. the group they started with, whether or not they are 'keeping up with the pack' - and some of mine were not: I soon found that quite a few of my third-year students had hardly learned any English at all even after two years of full-time English skills classes.An especially bothersome 'first', not only in classes but in any situation where there was a speaker and an audience, is that most people totally ignored the speaker and chatted with neighbors - without making even a token attempt to 'keep it down.'I was absolutely dumbfounded the first day of school when an auditorium full of people, even front-row 'dignitaries', chatted merrily away while the IAIN Rektor gave his welcoming address - and then was shocked again when the Rektor himself sat down and started chatting as soon as our 'guest lecturer', a renowned writer/professor flown in from Jakarta for the occasion, began his talk.(BTW the speakers always ignore the chatting and proceed as if they have everyone's rapt attention.)As I was to discover, this is the norm in Indonesia, and people looked at me like I was truly weird when I told them that I thought it was disrespectful.I was fairly successful in enforcing quiet while I was talking to my own classes - perhaps less of a challenge because I never talk for very long, preferring to have them work at group discussion tasks for most of the class.Still, it was a difficult policy for some students to get used to and I expect some never did understand why I made such a big deal about it.
So far I've been describing my 'core classes' only, in the English Education program. For EE I taught Curriculum Development and Cross-Cultural Understanding as well as skills classes in writing, reading, and speaking.But I also taught a variety of other classes and workshops this past year. My favorite was six hours a week teaching speaking and listening to about 20 IAIN lecturers, as part of a 20-hour-a-week program- quite demanding for them because they all were teaching full-time too.This was 'pure teaching' in a sense, with no grades or exams, except a couple practice TOEFLs.It was also challenging because there were students of all ability levels mixed together, and I had to plan each day's lesson as a self-contained unit since so many of them came on a drop-in, drop-out basis depending on other demands on their time.I also couldn't give any homework.Still, I had enough time with them and the group was small enough that we did get to know each other well and had some 'real' conversations about a range ofsubstantivetopics.And of course they were all highly-educated professionals in their 30s or 40s with corresponding life experience, which made them a refreshing contrast to all my 19- and 20- year old undergrad students, who at times still seemed to be children in maturity and 'perspective on life'.
As English professors at other local universities found out about me, they began inviting me to make presentations and teach special short courses at their schools, or simply to visit their classes.As ELFs, this is an expected part of our role and I was delighted to do it; indeed, it was another of the main attractions for me of becoming an ELF. At my university in the US I am a small fish in a big pond, but in Palembang I was at least a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond, if only for lack of competition! For example, I was asked to make a conference presentation to two hundred+ language teachers on "Trends and Issues in TEFL".I also was asked to prepare a group of graduate students for the interview and writing sections of the IELTS, which they needed to pass in order to begin scholarship programs in the Netherlands, and was very pleased to learn later that everyone passed.At the request of the US Consul, I spent two weeks in Banda Aceh preparing a group of students for the TOEFL iBT so they could begin graduate programs in the US.I also visited a variety of high school and junior high schools informally, just doing Q & A sessions with combined classes of very eager and un-shy students.Again, all of these activities were an expected part of being an English Language Fellow.I did teacher-training workshops in Borneo and co-led a weekend 'English Camp' for teens.
The fact that I was working through the US State Department and RELO Jakarta did not turn out to factor nearly as much into my day-to-day ELF experience as I'd expected. The one big exception to this is that ( as mentioned ) the US Consul in Medan arranged for me to spend two weeks in Banda Aceh teaching a TOEFL course. I did receive some useful teaching materials from RELO, and they brought a 'Specialist' to Palembang for a couple teacher-training workshops.But my students were at most barely aware of my US government connection, and I never felt that it influenced my teaching or other decisions during the year.
My main regret is that I did not get to spend much time with most of the other 13 Indonesian ELFs.I met them in Washington DC last August and we all got together for a week in January, but other than that my face-to-face meetings with anyone were limited to a brief visit with the ELF in Medan, a visit by the senior ELF to Palembang, and a Christmas/New Years visit with the ELF in West Kalimantan.Several ELFs became Facebook friends and I also read their blogs, plus I had regular and very enjoyable Skype conversation with another.A number of the ELFs were close enough to each other to visit on weekends and holidays, but from Palembang it was just too much of a trip.Too bad - there are several I'd love to have had the chance to develop close friendships with. But in general I have no doubt that my time as an English Language Fellow was worthwhile for me and for the people I worked with.I'm going home with a head-full of interesting memories and stories to tell.