The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, December 04, 2009


No place for lazy teachers Duncan Graham

Haji Lalu Syafi’i wasn’t aware of the old English maxim that cleanliness is next to Godliness. However he agreed it matched his rubbish-free campaign, particularly as Mataram is littered with signs saying it’s a progressive and religious city.

To report that the director of education in the capital of Lombok is on a mission would be pushing journalistic licence. But only a little. He’s hot on professional discipline but he’s not a disciplinarian, preferring a persuasive approach. A benign controller.

Syafi’i would like to be Mr Clean, but still has a way to go, though by Surabaya standards under-crowded and orderly Mataram is the Singapore of Eastern Indonesia.

“According to my religion the rivers must be kept clean,” he said. “But because of the culture people don’t follow this rule. They just throw their rubbish in the water, as in the old days.

“We claim to be moral people yet we are abusing the environment. Conservation is a moral message.

“The culture also says the young must obey their teachers, so we are putting this message through the schools.”

It’s one of many. Syafi’i is initiating significant reforms throughout the 300 schools and 82,500 students under his control, starting with the teachers.

There are 5,000 of them and not all are wildly embracing their leader’s ideas. “Some do not want to change their habits,” he said. “They come to school late and they’re lazy. They think that having a quiet class means they’re doing their job properly. That’s a challenge.”

While not excusing slovenly practices in a profession with a high burnout rate, it’s easy to see how some have learned to hunker down in a hostile environment that has long been inimical to best practice.

Classes so crowded that the shy and sly can cruise through semesters without saying a word or being noticed. Oven rooms that bake the brain. Regimental rote learning with the mind in neutral. Protocols that take preference over performance.

Indonesian teachers may have high status but the pay doesn’t match. To keep their family’s rice-cookers full many have to sell cellphone subscriptions and run roadside stalls after work.

A promotion system that rewards long service over merit, and a culture which respects age even when the elderly are inept and idle is another concern. The notion that a smart young chalkie just a few years out of university should leapfrog gray-headed time-servers is bound to cause resentment in the staff room.

Syafi’i understands these factors well. Before becoming the boss of Mataram’s education department five years ago he served 20 years before the chalkboard in a variety of schools. Along the way he picked up a handy Western aphorism – “an ounce of practice is worth a tonne of theory.”

He also used his time to ponder the faults of the education system he served, and to wonder why Indonesian schooling was stumbling behind other Southeast Asian nations.

Not just think – but do. Whenever an opportunity presented Syafi’i took the chance to go overseas and sniff the wind. In 2003 he was in Malaysia. Two years later he was looking at curricula in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan.

In 2006 he went to Australia to study vocational education, then to China for a mathematics competition. That was followed by a trip to Japan.

Last year he was in New Zealand and this year he’s been to Holland. All the while he’s been promoting sister-school relationships so Indonesian kids, like their leader, can open their minds to other cultures and ways of doing things.

Class sizes abroad are often a fraction of those in Indonesia where public school teachers can face a room of 40 plus. There are obvious difficulties in cutting workloads – insufficient space and too few teachers, but a pilot project of 18 students per class is now underway.

Earlier this year 19 Mataram students went to NZ for a fortnight. Their experiences pushed them to raise serious questions and stir the winds of change.

On their return the teenagers asked why they have to study 13 or more topics in senior high school when their counterparts abroad are able to focus on just the five or six major subjects they’ll need for post-school education.

And why can’t they question and challenge sloppy teachers who aren’t up to date with their subjects? Should taboos on doubting authority apply in a learning environment?

From his overseas trips Syafi’i has gleaned wisdoms, ideas and techniques that he’s now applying in Mataram. Back in the days of Soeharto’s New Order authoritarianism the word would have been ‘enforcing’, but in a democracy reformers have to shuffle, not march.

“I’ve learned that if you want to change others you must first learn to change yourself,” he said in his spotless office. “You must set an example, become a role model. It’s not do as I say but do as I do.

“That’s why I moved into administration though I love teaching. If I’d stayed in the classroom I could bring benefits to only a few but in this job I can benefit many.

“Teachers and principals must serve. This is the key to education. You can’t force – only the army can do that. But we do supervise and monitor our teachers closely.

“I want staff and students to interact. I’ve found that the best teachers and principals tend to be women – they don’t create so many problems. They are more honest than men and don’t misuse money.”

The rule now is that Mataram’s teachers must be at school ahead of the students, ready to greet as they enter the gates at 7 am. Staff are not supposed to give bleary-eyed grunts or make sarcastic comments on the kids’ dress and behavior, as teachers worldwide are wont to do, but be friendly.

And more than that. The teachers are also expected to have such a good rapport with their charges that they can ask about their families and toss in the odd casual question and comment to show they’re in touch and the pastoral care is genuine.

Syafi’i, 48, came from a family of farmers and was the first to seek higher education – initially at a teachers’ training college in Malang, East Java. He married a teacher, Hajjah Bq Mimi Mariani, who is currently a primary school principal.

He’s not content to remain in Lombok and hopes to get promotion to Jakarta where a new breed of progressive broad-shouldered teachers is slowly heaving the education system into the 21st century.

“We should not think of what we can do to lift education in Indonesia,” said Syafi’i, who is clearly no fan of the NATO (no action, talk only) administrative style often found in the provinces.

“Our job is to put our ideas and plans into practice. The doing is the important thing.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 17 November 2009)



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