First Semester is a Wrap!

I’ve been at site for nearly 6 months, and I’ve just wrapped up my first semester. We did a lot of things. Honestly, it’s kind of a blur, so going through the photographic evidence feels cathartic. My body is 70% fried foods and 30% sunscreen at this point, and my brain is kind of fried, too. But maybe that’s just because I’m running a fever as I write this? Here’s an attempt to sum up this chunk of time.

grade 10 clean up day

Every Monday morning starts with upacara: a flag ceremony. Indonesia won independence from Dutch colonial rule—followed by Japanese occupation— in 1945. The nation consists of more than 17,000 islands filled with people of different cultures, languages, and beliefs. So upacara is one tradition that unites all public schools across the country in the spirit of “Unity in diversity.” Depending on the occasion, the ceremony can last the better part of an hour. Teachers stand under a roof, but students are out in the sun. Sometimes four or five students faint during upacara.

But don’t freak out-—there’s a student Red Cross team ready to carry them off on a stretcher. I know what you’re thinking. This would cause outrage in US schools—parents would be calling administrators to end this risk of heat stroke. But then, the US still hasn’t passed common sense gun legislation in response to school shootings. So I’d argue that Indonesian students are better off, safety-wise. I mean, let’s be real.

The principal or a teacher usually leads the upacara. The student on the left passes him the “Pancasila,” which is like the philosophy of Indonesia. He reads it and usually gives a speech. There are lots of speeches here.
The girls stand in rows to the right of the flag. They wear wool berets over their veils, so you know it’s toasty out here. The boys are across the pavement, on the left, in short sleeves.

Following upacara, we sometimes have hour-long staff meetings while the students hang out in their classrooms. (People really love meetings here almost as much as speeches, and meetings are essentially hour-long speeches.) The students hang out in the classrooms while this is going on. One big difference between schools here is that the teachers change classrooms, rather than the students. The students stay in the same room all day with their designated class—they’re not categorized by “phase” or “level.” So one of the challenges for teachers is managing multi-proficiency classes, and adapting lessons for students who are at different levels.

Overall, teachers in Indonesia seem to get a lot of respect. There is a big distance between teachers and students—hierarchy is taken seriously here, and age is also a factor. Many teachers can qualify as government civil servants by taking the PNS exam. They earn a higher salary than non-PNS teachers. And there’s a special khaki uniform that government employees wear, and teachers wear this every Monday. Not to mention, we welcome students with a “picket line” each morning. Students salim each teacher. Whereas a soft handshake is appropriate between adults, a student instead brings a teacher’s hand to her face, touching the teacher’s hand to her forehead, cheek, or lips as a sign of respect. Not gonna lie, I’ve gotten some open mouths to my hand by some kiddos, and it is wildly UNCOMF. But, well, lots of things are uncomf. We try to roll with it.

As a teacher-trainer my main role is to co-plan with my Indonesian counter-parts and lead the lessons together. We try to incorporate classroom activities that get the students to work in pairs or groups and move around the classroom, for more student-centric learning. Most class sizes are 35 students, and many rooms have big desks that take up a lot of space. So we try to get creative. This semester I taught with 3 other English teachers, and they have been so flexible and open to trying new things—not to mention, much better at classroom management than I am.

Grade 10 students race around for a dictation game.
sem group work3
Grade 11 students work on reading comprehension.
grade 11 singing
The end-of-semester project was to perform a song in English. There’s a stereotype that Indonesian students are incredibly shy. But I don’t really get it—give anyone a mic; everyone here loves to sing!

Working with these students has been the highlight of my first semester. They’re so creative and full of energy. They’re also not afraid to ask for GAMES. As long as it’s a competition, you know they’ll be focused. In my first month at school, I surveyed all 10th grade students by having them write an “About me” paragraph. In each, nearly every single student wrote that they wanted to be either a police officer, a pilot, or a soldier. When asked about their goals for the future, almost all students say the same thing: “I will make my parents proud.” There’s a lot of emphasis on respecting your elders in Indonesia, which I have a hard time relating to. A lot of the time, I’m grateful for the teachers I had who challenged me to challenge them, and to look at authority figures critically. Other times, I just think, wow, I was a terrible teenager. Sorry mom and dad!

grade 10 birthday
Students helped me celebrate my birthday earlier this year.
grade 10 lol
This is what happens when you let them borrow your phone. Hati-hati.
Students practice marching after school sometimes. They pass in front of my house. This is the pramuka, or Scouts, uniform. (There is a different uniform for each day of the week.) In Indonesia, the Pramuka program is for girls and boys together—it’s not separated like in the U.S., as with Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.
My counterpart brought me along with other teachers to the senior prom. The students got dressed up, and there was a sit-down dinner. It’s kind of like prom in the States, except without the dates and the dancing.

There were a lot of opportunities to travel with my school and for Peace Corps this semester. I joined a few school programs, to Banyuwangi back in December, and Malang in May. I took six students to Jember for IGLOW, and joined my counterpart for a conference in Surabaya. We were on the radio, too.

Earlier this year, I joined my counterpart and two students on a local radio program. I was nervous but the kids were chill. When they leave campus, they wear the blue military uniform because it’s a military boarding school.
malang school trip
The school guidance counselor and I accompanied students to Malang for their interviews for the AFS YES scholarship program. They hope to study abroad in the US for one year. We drove away at 3am, so I brought a pillow. If there’s one thing I’ve learned here: always bring a pillow. You never know when you might find an opportunity to nap.
new teacher friends
Making new teacher friends in Malang.

My counterparts and I just finished grading exams—all 400+ of them. Students have two separate breaks: one for Idul Fitri (to celebrate the end of Ramadhan, the fasting month), and one for end-of-semester, before the new school year starts in mid-July. In-between, there will be school activities, but no regular classes. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but that’s how most things go. Figuring it out as we go.


I also joined the Information Resource Center committee at Peace Corps Indonesia’s office, which brought me back to Surabaya again. Basically, we run the volunteer library and online resources so that volunteers and their counterparts have access to teaching and learning materials. Sound boring? It’s okay. We like books and spreadsheets.

And finally, a throw-back to my very first upacara (flag ceremony) experience:

PST dress code
This photo was taken during Pre-Service Training back in November, when I joined other volunteers from my training village for School Practicum at a middle school. In a lot of ways, Pre-Service Training was far more stressful than my actual service has been. On this day, I was written up for a dress-code violation for “Exposed Collarbones” and I was NOT having it (if you can’t tell from my face). And no, I didn’t yell at anyone. (Although I may’ve said, “I’m being hazed.”) As is customary here, I tried to smile the rest of the day. But as you can tell from our expressions, we were trapped in a string of speeches at an upacara. Thank sweet Jesus, those days feel so far away now.

I think that’s all for now. Thank you to my counterparts and students for your patience, and for making this semester such a welcoming experience. Indonesian hospitality truly is something. Thanks to Peace Corps Indonesia staff for your constant support. And shout out to Lyd for graduating from college, Rebecca for finishing her first year of social work school, Seleste for her new job and new life in the big city, and Genna and Peter for their teeny weeny baby! Can’t wait to meet little William. Miss you all a whole lot. ❤

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