The Nitty Gritty: Back to Work

Having spent two weeks in training and two with my students, I’ll go ahead and deem myself sufficiently wise in ways of all schools Asian.  Yes, it’s high time I compare the Indonesian schooling apparatus to the home-cooked variety I left back in Missouri.  Isn’t a month, after all, plenty of time to know plenty of stuff about pretty much everything?

OK, so I admit I’m shooting from the hip on this one, but I’m going ahead and stacking up the competition: east and west in the educational showdown.

Ummm…. does that necessitate a rowdy “Yeeee-haaaaw” or a polite bow?

1.) the curriculum

My former school was small; in fact, I was the English department.  That’s right, all of it.  And that was definitely a plus.  I got spoiled working at my own pace, calling my own shots, setting my own tests, holding my own self accountable for whatever did or did not come out of our assessments.  And that was the case for me from Day 1 of my teaching career:  I’ve never known otherwise.  My principal left me alone, and I was my own boss.

Here?—well, I actually have to be a team player, stick to a published schedule, align my lessons with common assessments across a half-dozen campuses: grim realities most teachers know all too well but which I’d managed to avoid in my little world.  Here, meetings run rampant.  Here, sticky emails pile up and clutter inboxes in a matter of hours.  Here, I have to think much more widely than my lonely little classroom.  I’m finally part of a department.

No doubt this adjustment owes as much to the size of the school as to any inter-cultural discrepancies I might dream up.  But still, I’m going to miss being my own loose cannon—a sniffle and time to grow up, I guess.

2.) the format

In the good old days, I ruled my own fiefdom, master of a white-walled classroom blank for imposing my own will.  I had an exclusive computer to configure and a singular room to decorate and a private empire of cabinets to fill with what I desired.  I could arrange desks as I pleased and posters as I saw fit and the students were summoned thither to do my bidding.  They entered my space and sat where I assigned and I oversaw all, property manager of my prime location of education real-estate.

Those days have come and gone.

Most schools world-wide long ago saw far too many problems allowing hallway time between classes.  Think about it: whose idea was it to corral hundreds of hungry, grumpy, hyper-hormoned teens into a narrow bottleneck of humanity every hour, charging them not merely to arrive at the following class on time but also run an overstuffed backpack (repository of hopeless messes) by a jam-packed locker (prime location for contraband, disorder, and danger), stop off at an equally crowded latrine, and be in their seats ready to work when the bell rings?

All that is to say that here the students stay in an assigned room and the teachers travel to each class.  My schedule used to be a simple list; now it’s a chart complicated enough to program a NASA rover.   I am made to understand that’s the way most of the world’s schools work.

Maybe it makes sense why teachers nearly everywhere have never known the commodity of a personal classroom.  Maybe I’m out of step with reality.  Maybe it’s time for another sniffle for me, and another cinching up my britches for one more day of packing up my bag and laptop to humbly trudge between my students’ classrooms.

3.) teaching materials

I can fit all my textbooks in a single bag.  No, I’m not talking about the airport-style checked bag. Not even a carry-on—everything  I need to teach slides snugly within a simple should-slung briefcase.

“Impossible!” cry those raised in the States’ business-conglomeration of education—the likes of which features pallets of textbooks and workbooks and readers and enrichment guides and remedial resources, content DVDs and audio CDs, subscriptions to online learning suites, software for vocab, software for games, software for assessment and assessment tracking, and three dozen other supplementary resources—all to be had at astronomical prices.

Yes, States-bound teachers accustomed to the above may scoff at my claim to carry all I teach in a briefcase.

But I like it.  I feel relieved.  Back home my class was packed with crates and closets stuffed with stuff I never taught—never had a moment free to teach—in five years of working with that series.  Here I rely solely on a reasonable workbook in hand and the internet at my back and a crafty mind for tricking kids into learning—what do I lack?

I like the lean supply of textbooks.  I never liked waste.

4.)  technology

What technology?  Kids use that stuff on their own.  If they ain’t taking exams on the computer, don’t go crying for lab time.

OK, that’s not exactly the response I got, but I’ve received more than a few funny looks when I said I’d like the kids online at least weekly.  “It’s just not gonna happen,” a colleague told me.  “It won’t work here.”  I spent the better part of an afternoon hauling my jaw up from the floor and coaching myself to breathe calmly.

Yes, imagine my surprise—the guy who cut his teaching teeth on theories that every lesson ought to bring in relevant digital angles, ought to force kids to think in the cloud, ought to get fingers out of last century’s pens and papers and onto this century’s keyboards (or touchscreens), ought to lean toward notebooks with bluetooth and wi-fi, not college- or wide-ruled, options.

Not that I was ever the tech-guru, smartphone-savvy, gadget-hip know-it-all flaunting Apple products and speaking through his nose to mortal PC holders.  No, I was never that guy.  But I did and do think any education worthwhile today simply must invest heavy in tech.  It may take me a few months and a few tries, but I’ll see what lab time and online presence I can coax from the system here.

5.) assessments

Whoever in the West has ever complained of teaching to the test has, I’m sorry to say, very little room to talk—as in no room.  As in, unless you’ve been to this hemisphere and seen for yourself the weight of the exams, please do not complain that standardized assessments matter too much.

Teach to the test?  It’s encouraged. It’s expected.  Why would you ever do otherwise?  Aren’t we in the business of producing results?  “These are the only tangible results we have,” I was told by my boss.

I gasped at the blasphemy.

Homework I assign is practically worthless, and the grand sum of all that happens within the walls of my classroom the classrooms I visit is less than half of the final grade.  Most of that comes from tests I’m expected to assign.

Everything rides on the tests—students’ current grades, students’ hopes for future universities, students’ self-worth and well-being, students’ family honor or shame, and if in some way a student’s afterlife could be tied to his exam result, I have no doubt it would be applied.

It’s another sniffle and another adjustment for me—a guy who always thought himself forward-thinking for emphasizing projects over tests, performance tasks over one-shot exams.  Here, the exam is the king.

6) classroom management

After two weeks of introduction meetings and conferences and conversations , I couldn’t wait to meet my students.  You can tell me all you want about the school environment and the classroom realities and the daily grind, but until I know whom I’m working with, well, it’s all only so much talk.

The much-anticipated first day arrived, and the school year began with the principal berating a student—in front of 700 of his peers—for a haircut which dripped ever so slightly over the ears: detentions all week.

All the new North American teachers glanced at each other.  This was certainly different.

Then we all—students and teachers alike—proceeded to stand in rank and file, at stiff attention, and mumble through Indonesia’s anthem and the school’s song.

Our daily assemblies feature public shamings for infractions that would scarcely raise a Missouri eyebrow—forgetting to get a slip signed, failure to bring a note explaining an absence.  Over 8,000 discipline referrals were issued last year, the head of the discipline committee told us.

Tracking of classes is unabashed, and teachers are routinely asked to come down hard on any mildly troubling student.  What’s the result?  “My worst class here is like my best back home,” a colleague told me.  “The kids don’t mess around.”  Another’s testimony: “I can’t get my students to smile.”

There was a time, my first years teaching, in which I subscribed to a similar motto: “I don’t care if the students like me, but they’re going to work and they’re going to learn.”  We worked, and we learned.  We had more than a few tense classroom moments, I gave more than a handful of F’s, and I worked like mad keeping pace with it all.

Somewhere along the line, though, the thought came to me that I wouldn’t like my class. I mean, I would hate to sit through it and I would make fun of me, the teacher, and I would never love the literature taught or do a moment of writing outside English lesson. I would learn from a class like mine, but only until it ended.

The last few years I’ve tried to take a different stance—a stance featuring more work for fun, more encouragement, more compliments, more eyes turned to learning something for life.  I decided I wanted a class that kids wanted to come to.  I decided I wanted students who didn’t mind the work.  I decided I wanted my love of reading and writing to trickle down to a new generation.

What’s the result?  Less failing grades and more memorable projects and standardized test scores higher every year.

Were my classes perfect?  Absolutely not.  Did some student skip by with less effort?  I’m sure.  Did I fall into the trap of American-education “coddling”?  Probably.  But kids liked their English class, and I saw some amazing writers.

I also saw more than a few native English speakers graduate with written skills below those I see in English language learners here.

Here, I see already I have students with amazing potential.  I see already I’ll have to wield a switch more readily than I’ve been used to before.  I see I’ll be trampled if I ease up too much, don’t hold noses to grindstones, or fail to keep a sharp eye for students made sneaky by years or totalitarian teaching.  I’m not sure how well the famed laid-back, coffee-sipping, feet-on-the-desk, chat-around-and-call-your-boss-by-the-first-name American workplace attitude is going to cut it in a world defined by so many cultural strictures and so many years of discipline-riddled classes.

“We have to find a balance,” the principal confided to my department—one particularly heavy on North American teachers—“between the East and West.”  He shook his head.  “That thing with that kid and his haircut was ridiculous.  But I needed something to set the tone for the year.  They expect that here.  They need that.”

From two weeks of class, I see already there’s plenty left for me to learn.

7.) the conclusion

So there’s the breakdown.  It’s based on far too little in-Asia experience, I’m sure, to make a truly balanced comparison to the US system I’ve grown up in, but it’s just a first impression.

Perhaps these observations are due more to my individual schools and are not fair representations of whole hemispheres of pedagogical practice.  That’s probably true.  But then again, it’s all I have to go by.  It’s certainly not my intention to compare and contrast my current and former employers.  This is merely meant as a reflection on cultural differences in the realm of education.

I’m wondering what’s going to work best.

Education, after all, isn’t really that complicated—it’s doing what’s best to enable a younger generation to carry forward the best ideas we have as humans.  We’re just trying to figure out how to do that most efficiently.  More books or less, students move classes or teachers mover classes, computers or papers, strict or relaxed—in the end it’s only about finding what’s best for this group of humans to grow.

I just hope I’m competent to figure that out and get it in place.  I just hope I’ll be wise enough and work hard enough to make good on my task, and see some learning happen.

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