Indonesian schools are very different from schools in America. Adjusting to the Indonesian education system has been, perhaps, my greatest challenge so far. My American expectations of professionalism in schools, how teachers should interact with their students, student conduct, and school administration have not meshed seamlessly with the Indonesian reality.

In no way is my experience representative of all schools in Indonesia. Just like in America, there are many different ways schools can operate in Indonesia. I have been less than thrilled with many of the practices in how Indonesian schools are managed, but that is not to say they are bad, or even worse than the schools with which I am accustomed, just different.

Education in Indonesia

Indonesians must attend school through the twelfth grade. The cost is only covered by the government through the ninth grade; grades ten, eleven, and twelve must have students pay some fees for their education. English is only required in middle school and high school and thus Peace Corps Indonesia only sends volunteers to middle and high schools. I teach at an SMKN, a public technical high school.

Schools are overseen by either the Ministry of Education and Culture or the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Obviously, religious schools, be they Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian, fall under the Ministry of Religious Affairs. There are public schools and private schools in the jurisdiction of both ministries.

The students seen here are about to enter their first year at an SMK.
The students seen here are about to enter their first year at an SMK.

Classes

At my school the classes range in size from eighteen students to almost forty. Students come to school and stay in the same classroom, with the same students, for the entire day. At my school they are divided based upon what educational track they’re on, either automotive, computer programming and networking, marketing, or accounting. Teachers move from one classroom to another as the day progresses. This means all classroom and teaching materials a teacher wishes to use must be brought to each class, each day.

There are twenty-seven classes at my school and close to eight hundred students. The tracks are divided into their respective class-groups based on how students performed on standardized tests. This leads to one class being full of exceptionally bright students and another class being full of the students who may struggle with the learning process a bit more. I find this aspect of the education system difficult to stomach because, as reading some basic books on behavioral psychology will tell you, even with the most well-intentioned teachers, the students in the poor-performing classes will receive an education inferior to their peers in the “advanced” classes.

My CP and I were scheduled to teach two classes at the same time so we combined the classes. Teaching five people a language is difficult, teaching fifty is near impossible.
My CP and I were scheduled to teach two classes at the same time so we combined the classes. Teaching five people a language is difficult, teaching fifty is near impossible.

School day

School starts at seven o’clock in the morning across Java. The school day lasts until one or two in the afternoon with an abbreviated day on Friday as it is the Islamic holy day. The length of a school day varies greatly depending on the type of school and the class. My school has some classes that will start their days at seven and have lessons until four o’clock in the afternoon; however, a different class on the same day might be finished at ten o’clock with their scheduled lessons.

School does not finish at a set time. Different classes will get out at different times on the same day and the same class will get out at different times on different days throughout the week. Schools are in session every day of the week except Sunday. One teaching hour is forty-five minutes and Peace Corps volunteers are required to teach a minimum of twenty hours a week. The rest of our time is to be focused on teacher development and secondary projects such as extracurricular activities. Classes are at least two teaching hours in length so the typical class is ninety minutes long.

School year

The Indonesian school year is divided into two semesters. There is no extended summer break like in American schools, but there is a two week break between semesters as well as a week-long break in the middle of each semester. There are also breaks for national holidays throughout the year. Ramadan, because it moves forward ten or eleven days each year it’s difficult to create a permanent schedule around a moving holiday. Typically schools will all but shut down for a month whenever it begins.

Schedule

The school calendar is determined by provincial officials, though a significant amount of autonomy is left up to the administration of each school. Schools can cancel class as they see fit. The oddest reason for cancellation I have heard about is “ghost sighting.” And because school is in session does not mean there will be class. This was a difficult concept for me to grasp.

The class schedule is created by individual schools and this has been the most difficult hurdle for me to trip over and slam my face into the pavement on. The school year began on the eighteenth of July and next week, on the first of August, we will finally have a class schedule to follow. For the first week of school there were no classes, so far as I could tell. This week we have been using a schedule which seems to have been arranged by someone who could only refer his questions to a magic eight ball.

In the original schedule my counterpart was scheduled to teach two classes simultaneously on four different occasions. It probably does not help that there are only two English teachers for my school of nearly eight hundred students. In the new schedule she is only double-booked twice. So, even though volunteers are supposed to always teach with a counterpart, I will probably be teaching those classes on my own.

Students looking at the board practicing some dialogue I came up with. Didn't know I would be teaching this class but managed to throw together a pretty decent (in my opinion) lesson on the fly.
Students looking at the board practicing some dialogue I came up with. Didn’t know I would be teaching this class but managed to throw together a pretty decent (in my opinion) lesson on the fly.

Teachers

Teachers are much respected in Indonesia. There is no sense of “those who can do, those who can’t teach” here. A teaching job is seen as a very good job and it is very stable. There are some problems with how the government handles teacher compensation and accreditation but I can’t really get into that here because I barely understand it myself. But here’s a good (but poorly titled) article to explain some of the issues.

Student-teacher relationships in Indonesia are substantially different from student-teacher relationships in America. Students refer to their teachers as mom or dad regularly. There is a strong sense of kinship between teaching staff and students. One teacher even had his car washed by students last week. I’m not sure the conditions under which the washing was arranged, but regardless of the circumstances, I doubt it would be acceptable for a teacher in America to have students wash his or her car.

Students

Indonesian students are generally well-behaved. They are certainly more capable of autonomy than American students. Classes are regularly left unattended by an adult and there are zero incidents with students getting into trouble. Students are respectful to their teachers though they are not always as nice as they could be to their fellow students.

When a student is called upon by a teacher and gets an answer wrong the rest of the class will erupt in laughter at the wrong answer. This leads into one of the biggest challenges volunteers face when trying to teach here: shyness. Indonesian students are incredibly reluctant to speak up because they fear being wrong. Ridicule from their peers, or their teacher, is a certainty if the incorrect answer is given.

Schools are typically laid out in a campus fashion with many buildings, each building housing around three or four classes.
Schools are typically laid out in a campus fashion with many buildings, each building housing around three or four classes.

Teaching

The methods Indonesian teachers implement differ greatly from what I experienced going through the American public education system. Teachers present almost all material by lecturing. The learning process is a passive one for the students. Understandably, this setup can be exhausting for Indonesian students who often will sit in the same chair for several hours each day listening to lecture after lecture.

When students are interacted with they typically respond as a group. A teacher will ask a question and the students will work together to figure out the answer. This is mostly a cultural thing. Cooperation, teamwork, community. An individual’s intelligence does not have as much emphasis in Indonesia as it does in America, at least, not in the classroom.

When assigning homework the tendency for Indonesian students to work in group can be a very difficult to overcome. They do not see sharing answers and helping each other complete assignments as Americans do—they don’t see it as cheating.

Religion in school

The school day will begin and end with a prayer. Religion in schools here is much more prominent than in America. There is little effort to provide a completely secular learning environment. Religion class is required for Indonesian students from first to twelfth grade. Each student will attend a class which focuses on his or her respective religion. Since there are no Christians at my school there is no class that teaches about Christianity, only Islam.


Despite all the tremendous differences between Indonesian and American schools there are similarities that run much deeper than class schedules and administrative practices. Indonesian teenagers are like American teenagers: they love selfies, they’re a little awkward, and they don’t like homework.

One thought on “Indonesian schools

  1. Teenagers are just teenagers, no matter where! I am so happy you will not have to deal with disrespect issues. Very few things get under my skin, but lack of respect can get me pretty hot under the collar!

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