Sat, 10 Jul 2004

Good education requires good teaching, role models

Rachel Davies, Sydney, Australia

Indonesia and Jakarta in particular, has been making considerable progress in the improvement of its education system. Nobody, with even the most limited knowledge of Indonesia's situation, would question that the task of bringing education to such an immense population is a mighty tough one but progress is being made and this should be acknowledged and appreciated.

However, there are obviously many things yet to be done. Infrastructure and the most basic of things such as schools that do not fall down can even be a problem for such a cash strapped system of education. Recent experiences of ceiling collapses and flooded school rooms only highlight how much in need of good investment Indonesian schools truly are.

But quite asides from all the basic material needs for education there is a great need for investment in and support for teachers to help improve the quality of what is being delivered to the students in the classrooms. This need is reflected in practically every quarter of schools in Indonesia.

Many Indonesian teachers show a quite fabulous degree of commitment to their job which, quite frankly, has to be admired greatly. Many teachers in far more fortunate circumstances (in "Western" countries) grumble and complain about their working lives and yet they have so much more going for them than do their Indonesian counterparts.

The opportunities for personal and professional development are far fewer in Indonesia and the task of being a teacher can be a thankless one when having to face a classroom of more than fifty students and have next to nothing to support your teaching other than a very mediocre prescribed text book.

All of this leaves Indonesian teachers in a quite understandably difficult position. Their opportunities and chances of providing a role-model and example for their students are understandably limited by the pressures and problems that they face.

A short time ago I wrote an article that was published in The Jakarta Post regarding the presence and importance of native speaker teachers of English. The article posed the question of whether or not native speakers of English are really important. Mostly the aim was to highlight that, again, quality is a very important requirement.

Many Indonesians told of encounters that were nothing short of a nightmare. One female respondent spoke of her shock and outrage when she found that her "teacher" from America had problems with quite simple spelling. She was amazed to find that she had better spelling in English than he did!

Unfortunately, too, this kind of encounter is reflected in some of the native speakers of English that responded to that original article. Some native speaker respondents, who pleasingly seemed to take pride in their role as teachers, really kind of let themselves down by including a number of spelling and grammatical mistakes in their messages. Of course, everyone is prone to make mistakes from time to time but the consistency with which native speakers make mistakes must be a concern.

One respondent expressed his concerns in a quite remarkable way that also showed a very distinct sense of humor about the situation. He said that -- no, native speakers are not important at all.

This is a strong and quite comical viewpoint but the point which he was most likely making was that Indonesian teachers of English can probably do just fine without native speakers. This I would not wholly agree with. I would point out that native speaker teachers are, or at least can be, important as long as they are providing a good example of the language.

One respondent to the original article claimed that native speaker teachers are "all just a bunch of backpacking tourists that are getting away with it just because they happen to be born in an English speaking country" and that "they have no teaching credentials or ability anyway." Again this is a strong point of view but it does reflect a concern that we all, including native speaker teachers, should be concerned about.

There is no question that there are some truly excellent native speaker teachers of English at work in Jakarta and beyond, (I have met some of them), and they are a great benefit to the situation but there is equally no question that there are some people working as teachers of English that really have little or no right to be and, worst of all, they negatively influence the image of quality native speaker teachers.

A primary point that was being made in the original article, and one that is worth re-making here, is that quality is a necessary consideration when thinking of the position of teachers.

This has got to be the case when we are considering the example of native speakers as teachers. For many people, the whole concept of their employment and their legitimacy as teachers is the fact that as native speakers they should be able to provide good examples of the language. Examples of how it is used with fluency and accuracy but importantly at a level of comprehensibility that makes it a worthwhile example for non- native learners of the language.

As a native of an English speaking country, it is possible to have many friends who can be understood by other native speakers but who will be totally incomprehensible to learners of the language. There are even occasions when two natives of English speaking countries cannot communicate. A friend from England often has trouble understanding friends in Sydney and vice-versa. This is just a fact that we have to acknowledge.

In Indonesia it is recognized that there is an accepted and appropriate standard of Bahasa Indonesia. In a recent meeting I heard discussion amongst Indonesians of the need to make sure that teachers of Bahasa Indonesia were "modeling the right kind of language and not the slang that can be heard nowadays".

It seems that Indonesian people have a concern and regard for making sure that a good example of their language is taught. There is absolutely no reason why this kind of attitude should not extend to teachers of English.

Good teachers, if they are teachers of a language or any other subject, have to provide good examples for their students.

The writer is Education Consultant.