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

Saturday, August 24, 2019


Want to sleep well?  Become a teacher                                        

It’s a curse that’s dogged educators since 1903: ‘He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.’

Just one pithy line from the prolific Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman – a drama / comedy now rarely performed.

It was delivered in 1903 so should have been eclipsed by reason long ago.  It’s also objectionable for the gender-specific assumption.  Yet it persists as an age-authenticated quote for parents who put status before service, fearing their children might opt for a chalkface career.

Though not Dr Anita Lie.  The professor doesn’t pause to reload when targeting the GBS cynicism:  “Teaching is the noble profession.

“The image hasn’t always been good.  It started deteriorating under (second president) Soeharto when the focus was on economic development, but now it’s getting better.  

“People in general still treat teachers and the profession with respect, though we have to attract more entrants from the middle classes and above.

“As a teacher you can go to bed with a clear conscience every night.  You sometimes encounter emotionally troubled kids, but you are doing good things.  Teachers help other human beings become better – that’s like being a doctor.”

For the Professor at Surabaya’s Widya Mandala University these are gospel truths.  They are not glib marketing lines to dissuade ditherers from enrolling in the ubiquitous management studies.

Yet she’s no Pollyanna.  The Graduate School Director knows the profession is in deep strife despite rivers of rupiah; the Constitution mandates 20 per cent of the national budget flows to education. 

At first glance a splendid scene.  Last year more went into education than any other sector of government.

Pause the applause.   The World Bank soberly reminds that the national budget is 15 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.  That means the Republic’s education expenditure is only three percent of GDP.  That’s one of the lowest in Southeast Asia.

Lie believes decentralization following the fall of Soeharto in 1998 was too fast, leaving provinces unable to cope with the cascade of cash and weight of power tipped out of Jakarta.

“The issue has not been about the amount, but how it’s used,” she said. “Expenditure has relied on the goodwill of regional heads.  Corruption is still a concern.”

One of the more brutal analyses of the state of Indonesian schooling came last year from a report by Andrew Rosser, Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Melbourne. 

On the plus side he found most had access to desks.   Indonesian kids are starting school earlier and staying longer which is all commendable.

The minus is lousy teaching – a factor which could thwart President Joko Widodo’s plans to develop a ‘world-class’ education system by 2025. That’s shortly after his term expires.   Lie backs his vision but reckons it will take at least 15 years.

The need for English isn’t an indulgence.  It’s linked to productivity and the export-based economy sought by the government.  Workers in high-tech industries will flounder without the international language of trade in their toolkit. 

Overseas investors will head elsewhere if communication is difficult. Although Vietnam’s 12-year Project 2020 language boost has reportedly fallen short, the country has overtaken Indonesia and Thailand in English proficiency.
Rosser wrote: ‘…, numerous assessments of the country’s education performance suggest that it has a long way to go before it will achieve that (world class) goal.

‘Many Indonesian teachers and lecturers lack the required subject knowledge and pedagogical skills to be effective educators; learning outcomes for students are poor; and there is a disparity between the skills of graduates and the needs of employers.’

Lie agrees:  “The problems have been going on for so long.  Every administration realizes this but gets overwhelmed and doesn’t know where to start.”  There are 50 million students and close to four million teachers working in 300,000 schools spread across the nation.

 Lie’s doctorate was earned at Baylor University in Texas where she studied English literature.   Now she focuses on teaching methods.

Along with other academics one of her current jobs is evaluating English language teachers under the national government’s plan to improve classroom expertise.  Here she’s seeing teachers perform face-to-face as they seek certification.

“Some are alright, but most are not, though they have good hearts and many are creative,” she said.

She recorded one playing the role of a dahlang (puppet master) before the whiteboard, using a broom as a prop with the characters talking English.  Despite this imaginative approach his language was judged inadequate.  He’s been sent back to lift his game.

“It’s not always the teachers’ fault,” said Lie.  “Some principals fail to supervise well so allow staff to continue bad practices.  Others don’t know how to improve.

“I asked one whether he used English to explain the points he was making in class.  He replied: ‘If I taught in English they wouldn’t understand what I was saying.’

“I’m surprised such people can be teachers.  No, that’s the wrong word – I’m frustrated.  Yet overall I’m also cautiously optimistic.”

No Australian teacher of Indonesian could hold her or his job if they hadn’t spent time studying in the archipelago.  They’d also need to be regular visitors to upgrade their competence and cultural knowledge. Yet thousands of Indonesians teaching English have never visited the Anglosphere.

Lie has some solutions: “I’d like to see major exchange programs where Indonesian teachers can go to Australia and Australians come here.

“At the end of the day the government is responsible for education, but there’s no way it can do so on its own in this huge country. 

“Businesses, philanthropists, non-government organisations and citizens must be involved.   Education has to be a concern for the whole of society.”

That includes pushing the next generation to drop the myths and take up teaching.

First published in The Jakarta Post 24 August 2019

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