NO SUBSTITUTE FOR A GOOD TEACHER © Duncan Graham 2005
Like any good Aussie lad, Simon Welsh, 11, plays a straight bat. But that doesn’t stop him falling for a googlie tossed by his sister Eloise, 8. To the critical observer of backyard cricket he’s clearly out leg-before-wicket, though it’s true a passing kitten obstructed his line of sight.
Inevitably there’s a protest; it should have been a no-ball. But everyone else in the house is too busy to umpire. The neighbors are nonplussed and the dispute fizzles out as the cat is not prepared to take the blame.
In the background the television broadcasts news from Down Under. Dad and Mum discuss their kids’ school assignments round the kitchen table. It looks like typical Australian suburbia. The only giveaway is the maid at the sink.
That’s a luxury language teachers Alistair and Julienne Welsh didn’t have in their seaside house in Torquay, Victoria. This is the home they’ve left for two years to work for Australian Volunteers International in East Java.
Their workplace is now a big Nahdlatul Ulama pesantren (Islamic boarding school) near Probolingo, a town best known as a base for exploring nearby Mt Bromo.
In Australia Alistair lectured in Indonesian at Deakin University and Julienne taught Indonesian at the Christian College in Geelong. Now the couple use their considerable abilities and experience to help Indonesian teachers of English lift their skills and develop resources.
Any Australian teaching Indonesian in Australia would have no credibility if they hadn’t studied, worked or lived in Indonesia. Yet thousands of Indonesians who teach English across the archipelago have never been outside their country.
This is not their fault. The huge imbalance in wages, job conditions and cost of living make travel to an English speaking country difficult for most Indonesian teachers, while Australians are restricted only by their will.
“I first got interested in Indonesian at high school through an enthusiastic teacher I had for six years,” said Alistair. “I learned then – and it remains true today – that there’s no substitute for a good teacher.
“I pursued Indonesian at university then spent three months in Yogya and got hooked.
“Later I spent time teaching in the Moluccas. We then went to the Cocos Islands (an Australian possession south of Java where the population is mainly Malay) as teachers.”
The couple met in Darwin where Julienne was coordinating education exchange programs between Australia’s Northern Territory and East Indonesia. So after so much experience, why leave secure and pleasant jobs in Australia and move north?
“It’s definitely not a CV boosting exercise,” said Alistair. “But after ten years out of the country we thought it necessary to come back and recharge the batteries, particularly as so much has changed in government, politics and use of technology.”
“We also needed to build our understanding of Islamic education,” said Julienne. “In the past I’ve been heavily involved in administration and this is a great chance to get back to grass roots learning.
“Although we’ve been to Indonesia many times we’ve never previously worked in a pesantren. Fortunately the one we’ve been invited to is very progressive and welcoming. I dress modestly but I’m not required to wear a headscarf.
“We’ve been surprised at the students’ discipline and enthusiasm, and the campus facilities. These include a well equipped language laboratory.”
The pesantren has about 7,000 students. It does not allow television on campus, so the students don’t get the chance to see English language programs that many Indonesians use to pick up speech patterns and vocabulary.
Compensation comes through a FM radio station run by staff and students. This broadcasts the popular Kang Guru English language program produced under an AusAID (Australian Aid) grant.
A major problem for Indonesian teachers of English has been the lack of suitable resources. Textbook pictures of well-rugged little blond kids building snowmen before the village church don’t exactly resonate with pesantren students in the tropics.
So in association with English lecturer Sugiano, the assistant principal of communications at the pesantren, the Australians are designing and writing textbooks specifically for Islamic students.
“Building student motivation and self confidence is extremely important,” said Sugiono. “It’s interesting to learn from Alistair and Julienne that the problems we face as teachers here are not that much different from those encountered in Australian schools.”
Sugiono has applied for a merit-based Australian Development Scholarship to study at an Australian university, and if successful will spend two years away from Indonesia. A condition of the award is that skills learned in Australia will be passed onto his colleagues at the pesantren.
The Welshs brought their two children to East Java to expand their horizons and better understand their neighbours. The kids continue their schooling through the Victorian Education Department’s distance education program.
Lessons and assignments are mailed to and from Australia and their parents supervise the children’s work at home.
The family has rented a house off-campus to preserve their privacy. But they live in a nearby village well away from other Westerners; they eat Indonesian food in the local warung, and chat to their neighbours in Indonesian.
“We’re here to improve English language skills, teaching methods and assist with the new competency-based curriculum,” Alistair said. “We’re working to build the capacity of teachers so when we return home their language teaching abilities will continue to grow.
“But our other goal is to enhance Indonesian-Australian relationships.”
Apart from living in the community and demolishing through daily activities and lifestyles the many myths about Westerners, it also includes introducing pesantren students to the complexities of sport.
Like most Australian families the Welshs are fanatical about football and cricket and believe sport is a great way to interact. Alistair has already spotted a local boy with a perfect over arm action that he thinks might become the next bowling sensation when Shane Warne retires.
If the Indians, Pakistanis, West Indians and even the English can beat the Australians at their own game, why not Indonesians?
The Welshs are part of the Islamic Schools English Language Project (ISELP), an Australian government program.
It’s being managed by Australian Volunteers International and will run till 2007. The cost is AUD 3.3 million (about 25,000 million rupiah).
Fifteen Australian English language teacher trainers have been placed in selected Islamic junior secondary schools. Most are in East Java, including Madura. One is in Palembang (South Sumatra) and one in Jakarta.
The program grew out of a visit some years ago by a group of Indonesian Islamic leaders to the United States where they realised the need for improved training of English language teachers in pesantren.
Australia offered to fund the project which started in 2004. Education and training are the largest component of the Indonesia-Australia Development Cooperation Program.
ISELP manager Chloe Olliver said less than ten per cent of teachers in the Indonesian school system have tertiary training.
“Professional development opportunities in under-funded Islamic schools are scarce,” she said.
“This project allows for on-the-job training and mentoring. ISELP trainers work with groups of teachers and conduct one-on-one team teaching.
“There’s been a notable shift away from traditional passive and grammar-focussed approach to teaching English, and towards more active and participative methods.
“Indonesian teachers have been hesitant to use such methods in the past as they may appear to be noisy and undisciplined in rustic classrooms with rattan walls separating one class from the next.”
The Indonesian government’s new English language curriculum focuses more on speaking and listening. The required pass grade has also been lifted.
All the Australian teachers working on the project have experience in competency-based curricula.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 7 September 05)