Teaching English in Indonesia is something I never expected to be doing, but find myself doing it anyway. It is quite different from graphic design, which is what I studied at university, but teaching is very skill-based and you definitely learn a lot on the job. How to speak when everyone in the room is looking at you, how to improvise and how to pass on information to children who don’t necessarily want to learn. The more you teach, the more you learn.
I often get asked this question: “how do you teach English using English?” It’s a fair question. I mean, if the students can’t speak English then how do they understand what on earth you’re talking about? Well, here in Indonesia, English is taught in schools from a young age, so almost everyone at least has a very basic English ability. Nevertheless, when you’re teaching, you have to try all sorts of techniques to get your message across, such as using hand gestures and simple words as well as speaking loudly and clearly. Doing things like pointing at your eye when you want the students to “look” or putting up five fingers followed by two fingers when you want the students to go to “page fifty-two”. As long as the students understand about 60-70% of what you’re saying, it’s generally fine. And then when you’re conveying knowledge and information, you as a teacher have all sorts of media to do the actual teaching; flashcards, videos, diagrams and things like that. I mean, if you signed up for a Spanish class, and the teacher showed you a picture of an apple, pointed to it and said “una manzana”, you’d immediately understand, right? That the Spanish word for “apple” is “una manzana”. That’s kind of how it works.
Although, when I’m teaching, I’m fairly confident that a lot of the time the students do understand what I’m saying, it’s still good teaching practice to make sure the students have understood. The thing is though, as a teacher, it’s generally not a good idea to ask “do you understand?” Why? Because if you ask that, children will generally just nod and say yes — even if they haven’t understood. A better idea is to use “concept checking questions” or CCQs, for example: if the activity is to choose five animals and write short descriptions of each one, rather than asking “Everyone understand?”, it’s better to ask “Okay, everyone. How many animals do you choose?” or “are we writing short descriptions or long ones?” to check that the students know what to do.
With higher-level students and more complex grammar and stuff, a lot of it is about getting the students to learn through doing rather than listening. It’s why a lot of my job is coming up with activities and games for students to do in class. Unsurprisingly, a lot of teenage kids come into class with no motivation whatsoever and just want to sit there and play first-person-shooter games on their phones. And therein lies the most challenging aspect of the job — for me, anyway: how do you get teenagers to care about something that they don’t even have to be at? Because the thing is, I don’t teach at a school. I teach at a private language course where the kids come in after school or on a weekend. So they don’t have to be there; they’re usually there because their parents force them to come. One approach, I’ve found, is to make it competitive. It can, quite remarkably, make otherwise inactive students get out of their chairs and be totally engaged in the lesson. I mean, I know they’re only engaging in the game or activity to beat the others in the class, but at least they’re engaging. And through that engagement, they might actually learn something, albeit indirectly. It beats them sitting there staring at me blankly for the whole class, anyway.
Still, I do think being a teacher in a country like Indonesia is amazing. Not just because you get a whole bunch of benefits and perks1, but also because teachers are very respected in Indonesia. I have never ever had a student act rudely or aggressively towards me. I mean, they’re kids, so of course they will mess around, but they’ll never do anything that would disrespect me as the teacher.
It can be hard to find your thing in life. I did graphic design at uni — which I chose to do after a very catastrophic career at high school/college and I wouldn’t even say “chose” because I basically had no other choice other than go all-in and risk a career in art — and my degree was fun, however when I graduated I didn’t really feel ready for the world. I did all sorts of internships and went to interviews all over the place, but overall was not very successful. It felt like my skills weren’t good enough and employers were looking for something more. So, after a series of events involving me going on a soul-searching trip through the misty mountains of... nah, I’m joking. I basically just decided to switch careers again and go all-in with something else. This time teaching English in a far away land. I had been to Indonesia before, but it was for the most part an alien country. And I think it worked out fine. So, my advice — even though it’s not like I’ve got life all figured out yet — is that you should always go out and try. Just try anything that comes to you because sitting there and waiting for opportunities to come to you will never, ever work out. And if opportunities don’t come, then make your own opportunity2. Which is what I did with this magazine that you’re reading right now.
So being a teacher is, indeed, a very interesting experience. And I hope that you find this issue of Kanis Majoris equally interesting. In this issue, we’ll be resuming the fun that started last time in Kanis Majoris No. 1 and learning more about all sorts of weird and wonderful things, talking about music and short films and, of course, solving more riddles. Welcome back.
1 Benefits as a TEFL teacher generally include a free round-trip flight to the country you’ll be teaching in, a sponsored visa, a good salary and, at times, a place to stay or housing allowance. These are very general and it of course depends on where you go, what kind of company you get employed with, etc.
2 Based on the quote by Milton Berle: “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”