The Teacher Becomes a Student 

– By Meghan Cullinan, ETA in Kendari –

It was 6:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. But there was no sleeping in for the students of MAN 1 Kendari on this Saturday, or any Saturday for that matter! All around Indonesia, most students that attend madrassas, Islamic affiliated public schools, were also on their way to school. These students attend school six days a week so that they can study religion in addition to meeting the requirements of Indonesia’s national curriculum.

I woke up to the sound of the loudspeaker blasting music for the students’ weekly aerobics assembly. The first Saturday I arrived in Kendari, I was horrified by such a wake-up call, but today, waking up to the loudspeaker has become a part of my weekend routine. Usually, I will use my extra time in the morning to go jogging, contact friends and family from home, or catch up on some reading. However, on this particular Saturday, I decided to join my students in their day of learning. Miss Meghan was going to become a student at MAN 1.

Since beginning my English teaching experience in Indonesia, I have had many questions about the educational environment surrounding me, and what my students are like outside the classroom. However, the language and cultural barriers between my coworkers and I make it difficult to get all my questions answered. So, I decided to change my strategy. Instead of asking questions, I was just going to observe my surrounding environment to learn about my school, my students’ experiences, and education in Indonesia. I wasn’t sure what I would see or if becoming a student would be an authentic learning experience, but it was Saturday and I had no plans, so what did I have to lose!

I chose to join my 10th grade language program class that I teach twice a week. Because I see them more often than my other classes, I have more time to really build a positive student-teacher relationship with them. I also wanted to challenge them to use their English language skills to explain their other subjects, because they chose to study in the language program at MAN 1. I explained my project to one of the best students in my English class, intending to shadow her specifically throughout the day. I imagined I would sit alongside her and only ask her questions to be as inconspicuous as possible.

When I arrived to their class on Saturday morning, I quickly realized that there was no way I was going to be able to keep a low profile as a “student” in their class. Everyone in the class was eager to work with “student” Miss Meghan and wanted to be part of my learning experience. Students started grabbing chairs, clearing off each other’s books, and yelling “Miss! Miss!” to invite me to sit next to them. To keep everyone happy, I tried to move my seat every class to work with a new group of students.

We started off our day with a class called Aqidah Akhlak. The name of the class literally means “moral beliefs,” but the class is meant to teach students about the value of a madrassa education and how to live out their religion in their daily lives. My students quickly broke up into groups to read different sections of their textbook about their responsibilities as Muslims in the communities they are a part of. I had many questions for my students about the information, but what was most exciting was watching my students stand up and challenge one another after different groups summarized different parts of the reading.

I listened intently, trying to translate as much as I could. One of my students watched me throughout the class discussion, constantly checking in. “Do you understand Miss?” “Hey who can explain to Miss. Meghan?!” The teacher did not speak English, but she smiled as students tried to keep me up to speed on the material they were discussing. She too wanted me to find the class material interesting. I was pleasantly surprised that even students who are typically more reserved in English class were actively trying to explain material to me and get me involved in their class activities. One group of students even wrote my name on their group writing assignment to inform their teacher that I was a member of their group. I contributed very little to their writing assignment (which was about their religious responsibility to forgive bad people in their community and guide them to goodness through following God), but they taught me a lot!

When it was break time, students invited me to go to the canteen, where all the “cool kids” go to buy a drink or snack between classes. They helped me pick out food to try and watched intently as I ate. “Miss, do you like it? How’s the taste?” They offered me their noodles, to which I politely declined as four of them were hunched over the bowl slurping up as many noodles as they could before we had to return to class.

The rest of the day was slow. Our next class was canceled and our third class, Biology, began about 30 minutes late. Thank goodness for Wikipedia and Google translate in this class because even my students struggled to understand what they were reading from their textbooks about bacteria. They had to read a new text about bacteria and explain the subject to the teacher, even though they knew little about the topic. They were able to use their cell phones, so that definitely helped, but mainly the strongest students in the class dominated the conversation. Luckily, a lot of scientific vocabulary is the same in Bahasa Indonesia and English. Also, yogurt, cheese, tempeh, and tofu are staples in my diet, so my own food habits helped me have a few laughs with my some of my students who were as confused as I was about bacteria.

Moments like these over the course of the day taught me more than I ever could have learned by simply asking my students and fellow teachers questions. My students’ natural environment provided me with the most authentic learning experience about their lives as students in my school, their unique personal identities, and their collaborative class community.

From her day in 10th grade, “student” Miss Meghan will be sharing a few lessons with “teacher” Miss. Meghan:

1. Students spend seven hours a day in the same classroom, six days a week, with the same group of people, so they get to know each other really well. Students are the owners of their classroom, and teachers are only visitors for one or two hours. There is something to be said about the Indonesian classroom structure because it makes students more like family than classmates.

2. Students are often the best at policing one another. Because students spend so much time together, they know each other better than the teacher knows them. Giving them the chance to be the ones to call out their peers when they are not on task or causing a problem in class is often the best way for teachers to address behavior issues in class. Peer-to-peer accountability is an extremely powerful community building tool.

3. Students are capable of leading great discussions about complex topics. When students are interested in a topic and are confident in their ability as learners, they will speak up. Teachers shouldn’t be afraid to challenge them by giving them the English language tools to speak about complex topics they are interested in.

4. Being a teacher is hard, but being a student is harder. In a country where things rarely happen on time, being a student takes a lot of patience. Students are required to be in their class, and if a teacher is out sick or shows up 30 minutes after the bell, they must find creative ways to occupy themselves or take ownership over their own learning. There is no system of substitute teaching in Indonesia, so sometimes class just can’t happen or must start late. Students’ reactions to this reality: tidak apa-apa, no problem.

5. Taking off the “teacher hat” leads to some quality interactions with students. While any good teacher can establish a collaborative student-teacher relationship in the classroom, students will still view you as their superior. But when a teacher switches roles with their students, they give themselves the opportunity to see who their students truly are.

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