Saturday, October 3, 2009

Things no one told me about teaching in Indonesia

My first full week of teaching at UNG was riddled with surprises. On Monday morning I took a bentor to campus as usual, fully expecting the driver to pull up to the front door of my building like all other drivers had done previously. But that day we made it no farther than the front gate of the university. There, we were greeted with a big sign saying no bentors past that point. As I sat there wondering if I should cover the remaining distance on foot (about half a kilometer), some men in uniform gestured to me that I should get on the back of some guy’s motorbike. I had never ridden a motorbike before and was a bit hesitant at first, especially since I had my heavy laptop slung over one shoulder. Would that throw me off balance? With a shrug, I got on the bike. There was no way I wanted to walk that distance in the hot 10 am sun and arrive at work dripping in sweat. We covered the short distance quickly and I discovered that it was actually quite fun to zip along on the back of a bike. Later I found out that bentors are not allowed down that particular street past 9 am while classes are in session. I suppose this is an effort to keep the noise level down. Starting Tuesday, I learned how to instruct my bentor driver to take me to the back entrance of the university, “Lewat belakang UNG”. This way the driver can take me almost the whole way to my building.

The second huge surprise was the noise level in some of the classrooms. Two of the classrooms that I am supposed to teach in are on the street side of the building and the noise level is ridiculous. Even despite the ban on bentors, there is still a never-ending parade of motorbikes. It makes me wonder if there really is any point to banning the bentors since the motorbikes are actually louder. And of course, I teach with all the windows open because there is no AC in the classroom and we would suffocate otherwise. Anyway, it’s so loud that I found myself shouting at my students. Or sometimes I would just stop midsentence and wait for the noise to die down a bit. What a nightmare for my students to have to attend a class in a foreign language and strain to hear their teacher and classmates against the competing background noise of extremely loud motorbikes.

The next big group of surprises concerns the unspoken rules about what classroom to use, when to arrive and when to leave. One day I went to my assigned room early to set up my things on my desk while I waited for my students to trickle in. Fifteen minutes later I was still sitting there alone. Out of a class of 30 students, how could everybody be late? Wondering if I had gotten the room number wrong, I poked my head outside the door and asked another lecturer if he knew where my students were. He said they were probably waiting for me downstairs and sent one of his students to check. Sure enough, they had all been waiting for me downstairs and then came upstairs en masse. Who knew that we were supposed to all walk over to the classroom together? For my previous two classes, I had met some of my students at the bottom of the stairs and we walked to the classroom together but I thought at the time that it was just a coincidence.

The next day I purposely left my office right on time, met my students at the bottom of the stairs and followed them up to the second floor. The feeling that I was finally starting to understand how things worked disappeared as my students filed right past the assigned room and into another room. I had no choice but to follow them. As they took their seats in this new classroom, I consulted my timetable and was satisfied to see we were supposed to be in the other room, as I had thought. I announced that we were in the wrong room and made everyone stand up and change rooms. Once everyone had taken their seats again, the chairman of the class protested, “But Miss, this room is too dirty! I cleaned the other room for us.” He gestured towards the white board, which was covered in writing from another class. With a sigh of resignation, I agreed that we could go back to the first room the class had entered.

After all that back and forth, we finally got class underway and had a great lesson. Then it was time to leave. Ashleigh, my friend and fellow ELF in Banjarmasin, had posted on her blog that she noticed her students would stay seated at the end of class out of respect until she left the room first. I hadn’t seen this in action yet, but that day, as I lingered at the teacher’s desk putting students’ papers in my folders, I saw that this was definitely true. It’s really quite a weird feeling to have all eyes on me as I get myself packed up. At the end of a class I usually like to take my time to erase the board, sort my papers, jot down any notes I have about the lesson and answer questions students might have as they file out. But here the tables are turned. I leave first to retreat to my office and the students linger in the classroom to chat with their friends. Hopefully, they will come to my office hours if they have any questions…

And finally, no first week of teaching in Indonesia would be complete without a power outage. Now, electricity is generally not something I depend on having in the classroom. In fact, we don’t even use the lights in most of the classrooms I teach in because the open windows provide enough natural light. But on this day, we happened to be in a classroom that did depend on the overhead lights. There were windows but they were small enough and high enough to not really provide that much light. Plus, it was raining that day so the light from outside was dark and gray. The power went out just as we started going over the answers to a worksheet the students had spent the past 15 minutes or so working on with their partners. The classroom was suddenly very, very dark. Not wanting to leave the students without the answers, I instructed everyone to take out their cell phones and use the light of their screens for the next few minutes as we went over the answers. This worked just fine. For the last 15 minutes of class, I had planned to have the students do some journal writing, but I knew that activity would be futile under these conditions. In the end, I told them to do it for homework and dismissed class early.


  1. Everything you're describing is EXACTLY what I experienced too. Except when I was there, the classes weren't even numbered! My first day teaching I asked a co-worker, "Where am I supposed to go, and where are my students?" He casually responded, "Just go look for them." W H A T???!?!?! Where the hell am I supposed to look? I think back on that moment now and smile, because that's EXACTLY how things roll there.

    Also, students will be very reluctant to see you during "office hours". Your office hours really don't mean anything to them, and you'll find they'll just show up wherever and whenever they decide to approach you, which is usually at the most inopportune time for you. ;)

    Sounds like you're haning in there though and teaching some great lessons, which is really why you're there right, to teach! :)

    The moto noise on campus NEVER got old, and I, too, constantly wondered what the point was of securing off the bentors but NOT the noisy motorcycles. Again though, this is classic Indo.

  2. I totally second (or third) that notion of loudness outside the classroom. It's bad. I have to shout at my students as well. And it's the talking the motorbikes, and the general outside ambient noise that gets me. As I've noticed, there is no such thing as quiet in Indo.

  3. I taught my students how to do the wave and whenever it gets really loud we all look at each other, stop whatever we're doing and engage in a raucous round of the wave like we're at a sporting event until the noise dies down. It's beyond entertaining. If your students are game, try it with them. It'll make the incessant noise that much more bearable if you add a little humor.