Teaching English in Indonesia with Don Willis

By | May 29, 2013

I launched my new life as an English teacher in Jakarta, Indonesia. I was as unprepared as unprepared could be. I knew just two things about Indonesia: the president was named Sukarno, and Mohammed Ali had fought Rudi Lubbers there in 1973. I was right about Mohammed Ali, but president Sukarno had long been deposed by army strong-man President Suharto.

I moved into a hotel in Jalan Jaksa, the street of travelers’ budget hotels and Western restaurants, and began job-hunting. So how do you find a job in a teeming Asian city? (I’m talking of the time when the internet had yet to be invented.) You find a copy of the Yellow Pages, look up English Schools, and, CV in hand, trudge the streets to hunt down the schools.

My hunt brought one thing home to me. Asian Yellow Pages are glaringly out-of-date. The addresses I tracked down mostly turned out to be schools that had long gone defunct. So, time for Plan B. I stopped kids I saw on the street who were clutching a textbook, and enquired where they went for English language lessons. After a day of this I had a promising lead: IEC (Intensive English Course). Wearing my one good shirt, I visited IEC and asked for an interview. The upshot: I was hired for a month’s trial as a ‘Model Native Speaker’. The role of model Native Speaker was to circulate around the classes and conduct a 15-minute “free conversation” in each, related to the students’ level and what topic they were studying at the time. Now as IEC had around 50 classrooms, the native-speaking teacher had his or her work cut out.

Teaching English in Indonesia

I began my month’s trial at a disadvantage. Unbeknown to IEC’s management, I had absolutely zero teaching experience. My early lessons were an unmitigated disaster, and my face still reddens when I think about them. But gradually, by trial and error (mostly error) I worked out just which activities worked and which didn’t. I developed techniques to get the students talking, and to shut up those who were talking too much. With a succession of 15-minute stints in the classroom, I developed an acute sense of timing. And I learnt the art of crowd control. All valuable skills which I still put to use today, almost 40 years later. By the time my first year in Jakarta was up, I had appeared on TV twice, been interviewed on my teaching methodology by a national magazine, and appointed judge of a nation-wide speaking contest. Not bad for a raw beginner who was still feeling his way in a classroom.

I discovered early on that Indonesian students are a likeable, cheerful lot, easy to teach and eager to learn. They’re not all that keen on complex grammar, punctuality, or doing their homework, but apart from that, they’re a delight. I had originally planned to spend a year in Jakarta; I ended up staying twenty years. Which in itself is a testimonial to the sheer likeability of the Indonesians.

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