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Teaching the Teachers


Teaching the Teachers By Lisa Smulyan


Lisa Smulyan '76 is professor and chair of the Department of Educational Studies. She plans to offer a new course in the 2007-08 academic year that will focus on international issues in education and will include case studies from around the world, including Indonesia. Write to her at
n Indonesia, everyone has a story. It's the story of how they survived the tsunami - e.g., by climbing on top of the mosque - whom they lost - children, parents, siblings, friends - and how they continue to live until homes and lives are rebuilt.

For the last two summers, I have traveled to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, with a team of educators as part of a tsunami relief effort. On the first trip, coordinated by the University of Pennsylvania, I worked with the International Rescue Committee and focused on training 100 teachers to be mentors for new teachers needed to replace some of the 6,000 lost in the tsunami. There was also an expectation that our work might help rejuvenate a system of teacher centers, or gugus, that had been established but never fully developed in the early 1990's.

On the second trip this past July, we worked again with the IRC as part of a more coordinated, long-term plan to engage teacher educators, teachers, supervisors, and school heads in collaboration and mentoring processes that they could then incorporate into teacher development at the universities and through the gugus system.

One of the mosques in Banda Aceh where people climbed to survive the tsunami.
This summer, we started by visiting schools and talking to teachers and school heads. It was the first few days of the new school session, and that, combined with schools still in a state of flux - rebuilding, relocating, in temporary quarters - created some sense of disarray. But it was good to see teachers and kids in action.

Most of the schools we visited had been severely affected by the earthquake and tsunami. They had lost buildings, sometimes more than half of their students, and often half to all of their former teachers. Classes were much smaller than they had been before the tsunami - we often saw 10-15 children in a class that would previously have had 30 students. Teachers lacked enough government-issued textbooks for all students and made do with a blackboard and chalk as their primary means of instruction.

After Lisa taught this class to sing "When You're Happy and You Know It" in English, they sang it back to her in Bahasa Indonesian. 
The teachers were sometimes tired - transportation to the schools was a primary concern for many of them because the roads were often impassable and many teachers were coming a distance - but dedicated to their work, and the children were big eyed to see us and engaged. In one class, as we waited for the teacher to arrive, I did an impromptu English lesson. We ended with me singing, "If you're happy and you know it clap your hands,"  which I chose because a rough equivalent exists in Bahasa Indonesian.

Indonesia has a national, hierarchical system of education, developed in the post-World War II independence movement as one of several tools to unify the country under a coherent ideology. Teachers receive, and are expected to implement, a national curriculum through government-provided materials. Teachers themselves were taught through rote processes and, until recently, taught their students in a similar way. The Ministry of Education hires and directs both teacher supervisors and in-service providers who tell teachers what they need to change and how to make the changes.

Lisa and her translator during one of the workshops she gave to teacher educators.
During the past 10 years, there has been some attempt, through both the Ministry and outside agencies such as USAID, to engage teachers in approaches to teaching that are more student-centered and that draw on the local context for curriculum. A new competency-based curriculum encourages teachers to engage students in actively exploring their world in order to develop knowledge and skills. Teachers, school heads, supervisors, and teacher educators, however, have not received the significant training they need in order to be able to work successfully with these ideas. Our work the past two summers has been focused on helping educators develop the skills they need to implement some of these new approaches.

After visiting schools, we did one set of workshops for teacher educators at two universities in Banda Aceh and a second set of workshops attended by teachers, heads, and supervisors from four subdistricts of Aceh. In both, we introduced participants to teacher-centered processes of mentoring and to approaches that use teacher collaboration for professional development.

"The teachers were at their best when teaching one another," Lisa says.   
We knew that mentoring across roles in a hierarchical structure would require some work for our participants. So we asked them to mentor each other in role-plays and to work in collaborative planning and analysis groups. Often, teachers and supervisors separated themselves into different groups in order to avoid the possibility of a teacher mentoring a supervisor. Heads of schools and supervisors were more often (although not exclusively) male; this gender dynamic also contributed to a hierarchy of power that teachers, supervisors and heads had to negotiate.

Despite these structural and cultural divisions, we felt that the workshops provided the participants with a sense of the knowledge that teachers bring to their own professional development and an understanding of the value of fully including teachers in the process. From participants' work, interviews, and feedback, we know that their views of mentoring and collaboration developed, as did their skill in working with these approaches.

Two girls in class. 
Banda Aceh itself felt much more vibrant this summer than last. There are more stalls in the markets, more goods sold, more restaurants, more shops, internet access. Fewer earthquakes and tremors each week. No more big water tanks on the street where people come for water. No more kiosks on the street with the faces of hundreds of missing children posted. People continue to talk, as they did last year, very matter-of-factly about who and what was lost and where they are in the rebuilding process. While we had the sense that the rebuilding process - physical and psychological - would take generations to work through, it really seemed like a people - and an education system - thinking and moving ahead.