Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Caught Red-handed

My school does a lot for me. They check on me if I’m sick, they give me rides anywhere in Limboto or even to Kota or a nearby beach if they know I’m going. My headmaster looks for reasons to cover my cost for things, eager to always make sure I am happy. One by one the teachers bring me lunch and sometimes breakfast everyday I’m at school, and sometimes even when I’m not at school. The headmaster assigned a rotating schedule to the teachers so that I am feed by them every day and don’t have to worry about food. They are so generous.

They even go above and beyond the duties the headmaster encourages them to undertake, paying for my groceries if they run into me at the supermarket or paying for my angkot (mini bus) if they happen to be riding in the same one.

As you can see, I owe a lot to these teachers.

So, when I started teaching at MAN Limboto and they asked if I would have an English course after school on Wednesdays for the teachers, I naturally obliged. It was the least I could do.

But where should I start? These teachers of Economics, Religion, Bahasa Indonesia, English, Arabic, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology were at such varying levels of English that I struggled with what to teach them. Surely I would bore some and very quickly lose others. Moreover, since I knew they came of their own free will to these after school courses with the purpose of being able to speak in English by the end of the year, I could not very well start them off with the basics of grammar. They would be bored, leave shortly and not be able to speak any more English than what they had started with.

What might be most upsetting is that at some point these teachers all took English for many, many years and were able to pass a very stringent national exam covering English. What had happened since then? About half of these teachers cannot say more than, “Hello Miss, how are you today?” to me, and yet, at some point not that many years ago they could apparently analyze texts in English and come up with appropriate ways to sympathize and give advice. For many of them this was just 5 or 6 years ago. They really should be able to say more.

But whatever parts of lack of repetition, improper memory storage and the recent uselessness of English had brought them to me with their degraded English skills, it was my job to forgive their memories and progress forward in teaching them how to communicate using English.

Thus, it has become tradition that every Wednesday I teach teachers English. I could not have anticipated how difficult this task was going to be. I have begun to have new appreciation and understanding for the cliché, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It’s not that these teachers are even that old. Many are in their thirties, married with children, and eager to learn English. But, being teachers, they each have their own way of teaching that they have grown accustomed to, and after many years of viewing only their own teaching style, they find mine hard to swallow. It may be only a few that really don’t prefer my teaching style, but then the others do not respect me as a teacher. They respect me as a woman, as a person and as an American, but not as a teacher. I am cute, and beautiful, not intelligent and disciplined. The atmosphere in the classroom ranges from unruly to blasé to playful mocking. My age does not help my case. These women think of me more as their niece or daughter rather than their peer.

But again, what can I really do? This is not a class, I am not giving them a grade; they are in fact my elders, I cannot discipline them; and they are more experienced in the classroom, why should they take my teaching seriously.

So, I have had to accept their attitude and the classroom atmosphere. Please do not misunderstand however: they all want to be there, they all want to learn English, and they all really do love me dearly. They simply do not respect my classroom, my style or me as an authority figure/ teacher.

That was the set-up. Here’s the story.

Two Wednesday’s ago they were looking blasé again, and I found myself struggling to review the seemingly boring topic of body parts in English, reminding them for the eighth time the word for ear. The class was dragging more than usual, and I realized that I needed a real way to encourage them to retain the information we had already learned and reviewed for the last 5 months.

Then, a teacher eagerly suggested having a test.

I thought about it, and agreed. This would finally be a chance for them to see just what they had learned in the last 5 months, and get them to finally retain what I had been going over ad nauseam.

Immediately after going over what would be on the test there was a buzzing in the air. The women, and few men, looked excited. They started chatting with each other about when they would study together. They told me excitedly that they would ask permission from their husbands to start a study group together so that they could do really well on the test.

Yes!! This is what I wanted!! I got them excited about English – finally! They had asked for this test, so surely they were ready to be challenged on their English skills.

As a Fulbright ETA I am not allowed to create or grade tests while teaching my students at MAN Limboto. So, this test for my teachers was the first test I had ever made. Ever.

My first test….I put careful thought into the test’s format, carefully crafted the questions, and made sure the test covered all the appropriate subjects. The test involved pictures, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank and short answer. Just so they would have plenty of ways of succeeding at the test I even included a significant bonus section on the test. I made the test challenging at their request, and looked forward to them taking it.

A few days before the test was to be administered Pak Yunus, the young 22-year-old teacher I now work with daily to teach the 11th grade students, related to me the fears of the teachers. They were afraid that the test would be too hard for them, and they feared failing. I told them, and he translated back, that they need not worry about their scores. The scores were only to give them an idea of how much English knowledge they actually possessed.

Still, they told Pak Yunus that they were worried the test would be too hard, and jested that they would, “have to cheat like the students,” looking at each other’s test for the answers. During this “joke” the Ibu concerned imitated a student cheating as she chuckled to herself sheepishly.

I decided to laugh this off, and again emphasize that no cheating would be necessary because there were going to be no consequences for doing badly on this test, it was only an assessment to see what they had retained. It was for their benefit only.

Test day arrived, and I found myself wanting to push through my classes with my 10th grade students, actually looking forward to seeing my teachers challenged, and anticipating with my pride the viewing and taking of the first test I had ever written.

The teachers settled down in the library, and before the test was handed out, I explained the directions. As I was explaining, I noticed that these teachers had taken their usual seats around our main table. It occurred to me that this arrangement was not adequate for taking a test. I needed these teachers to be much more spread out, as I did not want them to be tempted to cheat.
I moved many teachers before handing out the test, to make sure they were as far away from each other as I could make them.

Then, taking in a deep, excited breath, I handed out the test.

The following hour and a half were the worst hour and a half I can remember having in a long time. I NEVER stopped moving, I never stopped hovering like a hawk, I never stopped telling them to be quiet, and I NEVER STOPPED stopping them from cheating. Their cheating seemed endless. In fact, they never really did stop.

My hawk-like watching was maddening. I had to constantly move my head, knowing full well that as soon as I turned away from one set of teachers their cheating I had just stopped would soon resume, often the second I turned me head away from them. I repeated, “Diam!” (Silence) so many times that I felt the word had lost its meaning.

I used myself as a physical barrier between them, trying to prevent them from cheating, but it would sometimes continue (subconsciously?) even in my clear presence.

I moved a few teachers whose cheating was their only means of answering questions on the test, but most would giggle at or denying any recognition I made of their cheating. They were never truly ashamed.

I was forced to ask myself, had they no shame?! Was this not a moral issue?! A matter concerning religion?!

What had happened that made cheating on these tests acceptable to these teachers?!!
I was shattered when the test finished. I was angry, hurt, disheartened and confused. My first test and every single person had cheated. Did this have something to do with their lack of respect for me as a teacher, or their lack of respect for my class? I would prefer these answers for why they cheated then believe that this is standard for any test.

But these were teachers!! Teachers should not condone cheating, but rather should harshly punish cheaters. They should set a good example, and know without me saying that any test should not include cheating. What, I had to ask, did they allow in their classrooms?

Thankfully when I got back home Alexa reminded me that this is a very collective society and it is considered arrogant and selfish here to not help a fellow student or friend in need. You want success for the collective group, not the individual. Just as with the Mennonites, individuality is not praised, but efforts to promote the collective community as a whole are applauded. Alexa reminded me that any teacher who did not help out another teacher to do well on the test was being self-centered, greedy and a bad friend.

But when did helping a friend allow you to overlook the obvious breaking of a moral rule? I know that they meant no harm by what they had done, and no doubt do not feel bad for what they have done, because their acts no longer fall into the category of something odious. They have become so accustomed to small amounts of cheating that they regard ‘some’ cheating as acceptable in certain situations. Clearly my unimportant elective class falls under the category of a situation where cheating is acceptable, whether I condone it or not.

Now I am left with a problem.

Tomorrow is Wednesday. It has been a week since the fateful test was taken, and I do not know how to proceed. Do I grade them, give them back and reprimand them for cheating? Do I give back tests to only the few teachers who cheated the least on the test? Should I give them a lecture on how I feel about cheating, what I expect in an academic setting, and then proceed to make a new test which I will administer again, this time with the clear pretext of no cheating (yeah right)? Can I give up now? I honestly don’t want to teach these teachers again after the way I felt about that test and the very little respect I feel like I was shown.

But then, this is a cultural difference, and I need to be sensitive. I know that. But they need to know that I’m hurt, and I think they need to know how this would be understood and dealt with in the United States, had this been a real classroom. But can I do that? Do I have the conviction and guts to stand up to these teachers, my elders, who feed me every day, and reprimand them like children? Do I have the gall?! I’m afraid I don’t.

Please, I implore you all. What should I do?


  1. Saw your comment on Facebook and hunted down your blog. Obviously a tough situation to work through. My thoughts are more brainstorming than direct suggestions. If they help you find a solution, great!

    Thought 1: Since they approached the test as a collective, give the group a collective grade. In fact, you could praise them as a group in developing their collective knowledge. This acknowledges their cultural pattern of supporting one another.

    Thought 2: The original purpose of the test was to help them assess their own knowledge of the language. It appears clear that your class switched to an objective of "high scores". Perhaps instead of focusing on "cheating" as a sign of dishonesty or disrespect, you might point out that none of them really know how much they have learned.

    Perhaps you could use/create a parable or fable. That is, a story where someone had a test and had lots of help passing the test. But then the situation was to be applied and help was not available.

    Rumpelstiltskin would be a good example IF it were written so that he did not appear the second or third time.

    Here's a quick attempt at such a fable:

    A great hunter was looking for an apprentice. He had found a group of lads who really wanted this coveted spot. A test was set to see which of all would be most qualified. One lad really wanted the spot and convinced some more experienced friends to help him out. One task was to read directions from the stars. One task was to catch fish from the stream. And one task was to start a fire. On each task, the lad relied on his friends to achieve success.

    Pleased with the results, the hunter accepted this lad as his apprentice. "You will now learn how to track." The hunter led the lad into the woods. "Follow my trail to obtain my hat. Bring it back to the camp." And the hunter left. The lad was now left in the woods.

    What will happen to this lad?

    Good luck on your predicament. I'm glad to hear you are having an (otherwise) enjoyable experience in Indonesia.

  2. I think Brian's first two points are good. I'm not sure about the need for a parable.

    In any case, maybe you need to design more small group exercises. Make worksheets and divide them into groups of 3-4, and have the groups compete against each other. Just make sure you divide the groups fairly.

    Thanks for posting.

  3. I too think Brians points are spot on and from my experience punitative methods don't work anyway. I would return the tests and go over the test out loud and discuss answers. Then at the very end point out that the quiz you tried to administer was conducted cooperatively and while that is OK it does not let them or you what know their skill level.As Brian points out there are times when you must be able to rely on yourself and not have a community to help. Also the community may be wrong. Love

  4. You should tell them each that if they wish to continue taking up your time each Wednesday, they will have to meet with you to take a one-on-one, oral test. It can be a short test, so it's not too time consuming for you, and obviously it should be a different test for each teacher. (How many teachers are in the class, anyway?) Hell, I'd even put a minimum passing score requirement on it.

    I understand that in their society what they did might seem fine, but in your classroom they should show you the proper amount of respect. Don't let them continue to waste your time.

  5. From Dad

    I know I mentioned this before, but I will reiterate. Have them sing songs in English and then have them discuss the meaning of the words in the song. You have many songs to select.

    That doesn't help with the immediate problem, but it may help in the future.

    What you want them to do is learn English. In some classes group learning is encouraged as a learning methodology. That's the way you should view the test - as a group learning experience.

  6. I am all for cross cultural sensitivity, but a test is a test no matter if it’s in America or Indonesia. There’s a time and a place for group assessment, but this was not it. You had told them upfront that the goal of this particular test was to assess their individual knowledge of English. Therefore, I think you should tell them today that you learned nothing about their individual levels of achievement from this test since they “misinterpreted” it as a group assessment. Offer to give them another test in a few weeks’ time, stressing the importance of working independently on the test and warn them in advance that anyone who is caught cheating will have their papers ripped up. It’s frightening to think that these cheating teachers might also be very tolerant of cheating in their own classrooms. I understand your hesitation about reprimanding them like children, but honestly, that’s exactly what they behaved like, so why not? Even though your Wednesday sessions are informal and unofficial, that is no reason for them to disrespect you and your classroom goals. If they can’t respect you and what you’re trying to accomplish, you might want to consider ending these sessions. If they do indeed value them, they will then protest and agree to abide by your standards. Good luck!!

  7. I think I have to agree with Julianne for the most part, Sarah, but I would frame it in the way Brian suggested in his second thought: perhaps they misunderstood, but the bottom line is you know nothing (and they know nothing) about their individual understandings of English. I think you owe it to them at least to tell them how you feel. Respect is respect, the world over. You need to make it clear what you personally expect in the classroom. It doesn't need to be American vs. Indonesian teaching. It should be a matter of "this is my classroom that you came to voluntarily, and we're going to run it the way I see fit." But that obviously needs to be said with some sensitivity and grace.

  8. Don't leave us hanging. Let us know how you handled it and how it turned out.

  9. Tell them that although you'd planned on this being a test (and a test can be a good thing) in fact it turned into a group activity (which is also a good thing) and because of this you can't grade it. Group activities are given support and feedback but not a grade; tests cannot be done with help from others in the class.

    Let them know that you were disappointed in the experience as a test but that as a group activity it has merit, and this pleases you. Let them know that you won't be able to spend so much time designing tests especially since they seem more interested in doing group activities.

    Ask them to help design the next such group activity and maybe consider having 2 or 3 of these for different levels. Ask them to choose questions designed not to make many students fail but to include material that they feel they need. Also make sure that whatever formats they use (multiple choice, fill in the blank, etc) are formats that they've already had experience with in your class.

    For some of the weaker students, you might try something like "Easy True Stories". You can also sometimes match students with others in their same skill level and at other times break them up into pairs with stronger students matched with weaker ones. This will give them the chance to be teachers and students and lessen the prep time you'll need to do.