When Hope Meets Fear: Feelings While Preparing for My Final Class with My Students in Indonesia

– By Meghan Cullinan, ETA in Kendari –

For those of you who have been following my journey as an ETA in Indonesia, you know that most of my time has been spent being with, preparing for, or thinking about my students. Honestly, I think that being away from my friends and family in the U.S has led me to put more energy and care into my relationships with my students. My students were the first people to welcome me to Kendari and many of them were the first friends I had. While I also built many strong relationships with students as a teacher in the U.S, something about my Indonesian students has allowed me to feel deeply connected to them. I’m sure other teachers will agree that the student-teacher relationship is an extremely powerful one. Because of my relationship with my students and how much I have grown to care for them, I have struggled with how I will say goodbye and the message I want to leave them with, not only about education but also about life.

Even more challenging, is knowing that all the things I want to say to them are nearly impossible to express because of our different identities and languages. There are not enough words to express how much I appreciate them for the experiences they have given me as their teacher. If you are a teacher, you know that the beauty of teaching is that you learn and change through the process of teaching because of your students. I am leaving my students not only as a different teacher, but also as a different person and as much as I am trying to share this message with my students by playing one of the worlds greatest songs, “For Good” from Wicked, with them during our last class, I am finding it difficult to find the words to thank them. Additionally, as an adult, I have fears for their future that they may not take seriously or fully understand. So, I am left struggling to find the right words to say goodbye and process how much my students have affected me this year. In the process, I have found myself full of two conflicting feelings: hope and fear. Hope for the bright future of my students and the prospect of meeting them again, and fear that the world will present them with challenges and they will forget about our time together. I have taken some time to reflect more deeply on the reasons why I have been conflicted by the feelings of hope and fear and have shared my reflections below. For all the teachers out there, I am sure that many of these hopes and fears will resonate with you no matter where you teach. If I learned one thing this year, it is that no matter where we go and who we meet, we are all more similar than we are different.

Why I am Feeling Hopeful:

  1. My students are devout followers of Islam.

My students recognize the power of God in their lives and their duty, as followers of God, to society. They trust in God and are not afraid to ask God to help them overcome challenges and help them pursue their dreams. They recognize that their religion calls them to seek peace and work together with members of other religions to accomplish peace. They hold themselves to a high standard of values and are not afraid to admit when they have not acted accordingly and ask for forgiveness. I will miss watching them pray together and listening to them tell me about all the things they believe God will help them achieve in their lives. They have increased my faith.

  1. My students are respectful

My students are incredible students, children, and young adults. They admire their parents and many of their dreams revolve around making their parents feel proud and happy. As students, they respect their teachers and value the knowledge their teachers share with them. They go out of their way to help their teachers and hold their peers accountable if they believe someone if disrespecting a teacher. I will miss their thoughtful attitude and concern for my happiness and well-being.

  1. My students care for one another

My students are usually always traveling in pairs or groups. I have experienced the collectivist Indonesian culture most clearly in my school. My students hold hands as they run to my classroom. They help one another when someone is sick. They throw big parties to celebrate their friends’ successes and birthdays. They even help students when they don’t know the information on a test… though, as a teacher, I can’t say this is my favorite thing they do haha. I will miss how much they value their peers and how eager students are to help one another.

  1. My students have a childlike sense of wonder

My students love to learn. They love to explore information and do activities to become their own teachers. I have changed a lot as a teacher because I chose to place my trust in their ability to explore new information on their own. I have been amazed by how many students love to take the lead on their learning and tell me the things they can find out on their own. If I have left them with one thing, I hope that they will be more likely to create their own learning opportunities in their life by asking thoughtful questions about the information around them. I will miss their excitement for our learning games and their competitive nature as they try to learn more than their peers and share what they have observed.

  1. My students are innocent.

Often, I felt like I was teaching in a U.S middle school because the conservative culture and general Indonesian lifestyle has preserved the innocence of my teenage students. They feel very shy related to matters such as revealing clothing and relations between men and women. They feel very strongly about the negative effects of drugs, alcohol, and prostitution. I have recognized the beauty in their innocence and have listened to their concerns about what they view as toxic factors to their environment. I have shared my own culture related to clothing, dating, and the culture of American night-life, but I would never ask them to sacrifice their beliefs and innocence to become a part of these aspects of my own culture. I appreciate their innocence and believe they are beautiful young adults. I will miss listen to them giggle over slightly inappropriate lyrics to a song or break out in shock if they see any of my photos from my clothing choices in America… awkward teacher moments haha.

  1. My students are full of dreams

I have spent a lot of time talking to my students about their dreams. Together, we have dreamed of places we may travel, careers we may have, families we may create, ways our respective countries may change, what we may do if we win $1 million dollars, and most importantly the learning we will do over the course of our lives. Not only have I enjoyed sharing my own dreams and dreams I had as a child with my students, but also l have become inspired by their dreams that are full of hope. They give me faith that the future of the world will be better than it is to today. I will miss the selflessness of so many of my students who shared the dreams they have about what they will do for their parents, community, country, and world.

  1. My students are diligent.

I have watched my students be diligent in so many aspects of their lives. In the classroom, they diligently complete activities, carefully write notes, dedicate the time to using a dictionary, and take pride in their work. In their lives, they actively attend activities after school and meet teachers to become more well-rounded students. They commit themselves to prayer and fasting to make themselves holy in the eyes of God. They try again and again to create what they believe is their best result. I will miss watching them work slowly and carefully, laughing as I tell them to try again and again to get the right answer, and being a part of their community whose primary purpose is preparing students to be children of God.

Why I am Feeling Afraid:

  1. There are people in the world who will try to brainwash them with their own ideas.

In their own community and around the world, there are people that are trying to spread their own ideologies by using my students as their tools. There are people who will tell them about false obligations they have to do to become the best followers of their religion. There are people who will tell them to look down upon or fear other people because they are different than them. There will be people that ask my students to use violence to protect their religion. I am afraid that my students will not be able to guard their own thoughts. I am afraid that my students will be tempted by the false promises of groups and will follow them. I am afraid my students will not be able to distinguish their own beliefs from those of others and will be led down the wrong path by those trying to manipulate them.

  1. Their own government has tried to silence their voice and ideas.

While I have been in Indonesia, I have listened to many of my students express concerns about their local and national governments. They worry that their leaders are not prioritizing their future and are selfishly putting their own priorities and wealth first. On the local level, government officials have threatened members of my community into voting for specific candidates and have stolen thousands of dollars dedicated to improving infrastructure. On the national level, blasphemy laws that increase criminalization and decrease free speech have affected my students’ abilities to hold their government leaders accountable. The Islamization of the Indonesian political climate has also affected whose voice is being heard and what ideas are being accepted in politics. I am afraid that my students will be let down by their government and will not be able to advocate for themselves. I am afraid that their government will stifle the benefits of debate and respectfully challenging the view-points of others.

  1. They are watching as communities around the world are being divided over differences rather than uniting over similarities.

All over the world and in their own country, my students are watching as problems are constantly erupting between people of different religions, skin colors, nationalities, or genders. Rather than recognizing our own shared humanity, our world is becoming increasingly more divided because of people who cannot accept those with identities and beliefs different than theirs. My students are in a homogeneous religious education community, but are exposed to people of different skin colors and cultural backgrounds. However, outside our school, they live in a community with religious and cultural diversity, and a growing population of people from a different country, China. Watching events transpire in Indonesia and around the world over the past year has left me feeling very afraid. Actually, I think I am afraid of the divisiveness in my own country even more than the divisiveness I have witnessed in Indonesia. I can no longer tell my students that America is full of tolerance, diversity, and opportunity. Instead, I am forced to try to explain the hateful speech of my country’s leaders and the policies that have left many immigrants and foreigners unwelcome in my own country. I am afraid that my students will value similarity over diversity and will minoritize those who are different than them, and I am afraid that the world will be unkind to my students because of their own identity.

  1. The pressures of testing in schools is decreasing the freedom they have to explore knowledge and ask thoughtful questions.

I have been lucky to have been given freedom to teach the Indonesian curriculum with my co-teachers in my own way. However, I have watched as all teachers and students in my community feel limited by the curriculum and requirements their country imposes on them to pass a test on a very specific set of knowledge and skills. I have watched school be canceled for three weeks so that the high school seniors could take their national exams to finish high school and be admitted to college. I have watched my students memorizing and rewriting textbooks full of the ideas of others rather than being asked to thoughtfully reflect on their own ideas. Neither the teachers or students are to blame, rather there is a deadly testing system controlling their education system that is creating fear that limits their ability to enjoy the freedom that comes with learning. I fear that my students will not be given the chance to think for themselves and reflect on their own ideas. I fear that the creativity of teachers will not be valued.

  1. Technology is exposing them to inappropriate behaviors and violence happening around the world.

While my students still have a lot of youthful innocence, I have seen how social media and the internet have exposed them to things regarded as inappropriate in their culture and violence that has made them afraid of the world. In particular, I have watched as my students see social media from my own country and make false judgments about the culture of Americans because of what they see on the internet. Many students have shared stereotypes they had about Americans before they met me because of what they saw on their phones. It is challenging to think about the images people and cultures are presenting about themselves on social media and I am afraid that social media is creating a culture where my students and myself judge other cultures based on what we see on our phones rather than who we meet face-to-face.

  1. There are people who don’t believe in my students’ dreams.

I have gotten to know 350 incredible individuals who have dreams that could change the world. However, I’m afraid that there will be people, whom my students meet along the way, that do not believe in their dreams. Whether it be the leaders of other countries, leaders of their own country, members of their community, teachers, or parents, I know that my students will encounter people who do not believe in their potential and will try to prevent them from pursuing their dreams. I think I am afraid of this because I too have encountered people who don’t believe in my own dreams. I know how challenging it can be to do something different and remain true to your dreams when people and the world are telling you that you should do something else. I am afraid that my students will face people or situations that persuade them to sacrifice their dreams or question their ability to be successful.

  1. The world can be a dangerous place.

More than anything I am afraid because I don’t know what could happen to my students in the future. When I leave them in two weeks, I can only continue to pray that they will achieve all of Gods plans for them and find happiness. However, I know that accidents happen, and life can change in a matter of seconds. Already, I have watched the world claim one of my students because of the motorbike culture that is prominent and not strictly enforced in Kendari. The world can be a dangerous place and while I have high hopes and dreams for my students, I cannot control the factors of the world that might interrupt or challenge these hopes and dreams.

With these hopes and fears in mind, all I know is that when I look at my students for the last time as their teacher, my eyes will be full of potential, hope, and love. Because I knew them, I have been changed for good. I pray that God will protect them in all that they do and will continue to lead them down a path that will lead them to success and happiness. I know that when I meet them again, they will have already begun following their dreams to make the world a better place.


This post originally appeared on Meghan’s personal blog, ‘Keeping up with Kendari.’

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