When teachers don’t speak English

When teachers don’t speak English
Taken from JP; Saturday, April 28, 2007
Jan E. Dormer, Malang

Effective foreign language learning in school requires the presence of a good teacher and textbook combined with appropriate methodology.

Qualified English teachers are lacking in Indonesia, therefore, schools will often use teachers who have very limited English language skills. The textbook then becomes the only language source in the classroom.

If language is learned solely from a book, we can assume that only reading and writing skills in the target language will be learned. Speaking and listening will not be taught, thus, students will not learn to communicate orally. Furthermore, locally produced English textbooks frequently contain many errors. But the greatest drawback in the classroom is when the teacher does not speak English and fails to engage their students in speaking practice. English then becomes a drudgery of bookwork and grammar rules instead of a way to communicate interesting ideas.

Appropriate and effective language-teaching methods are needed. The government has adopted some of the latest approaches and methodologies, including “communicative language learning” and “competency-based” curriculum. Indeed this is a good start, but unfortunately these new ideas are not explained clearly enough to teachers.

I have often seen very puzzled looks on the faces of teachers when asked to describe how their classes are “communicative” or “competency-based”. Many seem to not know what these terms really mean, or what kinds of classroom activities do or do not support them.

Teachers rarely receive sufficient training, and so they often resort to lessons in grammar, which invariably do not result in the students being able to speak, listen, read and write in the target language.

The evaluation system must support, not drive, language learning. Teachers complain that they should not have to conduct communicative activities because “it won’t be on the test”, and there is not enough teaching time to engage in learning that won’t be tested.

Schools rarely have sufficient funding or appropriate personnel to provide testing of oral language skills. Does this mean that oral language skills should not be taught? A bigger problem is the fact that some tests have been found to actually contain language errors. These poorly-designed tests sometimes end up setting the language-learning standard. In education, this is called a “negative washback”.

Is there any solution to overcome these problems?

Teachers need to be given the opportunity to develop their English skills.

The standard of methodology also needs to be raised. Effective language-teaching techniques are not difficult or complicated, and effective training would be very beneficial.

The current national curriculum embraces the teaching of oral communicative skills. However, many teachers do not teach communicative skills because they are not specifically tested. This problem can be avoided if the test writers focus on well-written communicative items. Even though a test may be taken in written form, it can still focus primarily on communicative skills.

Another issue is time. Many experts believe that elementary school is the ideal time for foreign language learning. If this is the case, why not allot more time for language learning in elementary school? In my experience, children in lower elementary school who have one 40-minute period of English per week are largely wasting their time. If the total elementary school allotted time for learning English was concentrated in grades 4-6, giving children 3-4 hours per week, the potential for language learning would increase.

When teachers are able to speak English fluently and correctly and they use good methodology, their students’ English language proficiency is almost virtually guaranteed.

The writer is the director of the Nusantara Educational Institute, which focuses on teacher development, and specifically on the training of language teachers.

Certification vs. competence

Certification vs. competence
Taken from JP; Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta

A certification program for both junior high and senior high school teachers is underway right now. Teachers will soon find out whether they pass or fail the selection process. With a National Education Ministry regulation (No. 18/2007) being the legal basis, a certification test is conducted in the form of a portfolio assessment, a sort of assessment that requires teachers to continuously self-collect any supporting documents relevant to their profession as teachers.

The self-collected documents are assessed against three basic components by two independent assessors.

The first component consists of academic qualifications, teaching experience and lesson planning.

The second component covers education and training, superordinates’ evaluations, academic achievement and professional development.

The third component includes the involvement in scientific forums, organizational experiences in education and social fields, and rewards relevant to education.

Each of these components has a maximum score and to pass the selection process, a composite score from each component must constitute a sum total of at least 850 points. A total score not reaching this figure is deemed failing.

This may mean that teachers will not be awarded with a teaching license and eventually will not obtain a teaching allowance. Instead, they will have to take an additional 36-credit course on professional training through government-appointed vocational educational institutions (LPTK).

As one of the selected assessors in charge of assessing teachers’ portfolio documents, I found that a passing score of 850 a severe condition that teachers must meet in their pursuit of teaching professionalism.

Hardly any documents that I and the other assessor selected reached the figure of 850, suggesting that hardly any teachers are considered eligible for the government-sanctioned certificates.

This sad result was further confirmed by other assessors who also found that the total scores from teachers’ portfolios they assessed were far from the expected passing score of 850.

With such a demanding passing score, it seems reasonable to assume the certification test this year, the first to be held as part of the government’s serious effort to revamp the country’s education system, will more likely bring unpleasant news for teachers.

First, a portfolio assessment is a relatively novel technique of assessment, and not all teachers are probably familiar with it. Information on this type of assessment was passed on to teachers, but in too short a time to allow them to get used to it, let alone to prepare for it. This is evidenced from the incomplete documents they submitted in their portfolios. In fact, many of the required components were left empty in their portfolios.

Second, some of the components against which teachers’ portfolios are assessed are the very components which many teachers might not have expected beforehand. In the components of professional development, for instance, teachers need to attach documents demonstrating their active involvement in writing modules or textbooks and in doing research and having it published in newspapers, magazines and refereed scientific journals.

As writing is not a habit for many school teachers, this required component is extremely difficult for many teachers to fulfill. This is particularly true since almost all teachers being assessed left their portfolios empty of the required supporting documents attesting to their professional development.

What implication does this second point have for failing teachers who must enroll in the additional 36-credit course on professional training? Clearly, the course needs to be exclusively designed to cater to the immediate needs of teachers to boost their professionalism.

Naturally, it should offer a down-to-earth approach that teachers can viably apply in specific situations. It needs to serve as an impetus to stimulate teachers to do research and to have it published at least in local journals.

Classroom action research is one of the best course alternatives as it can help teachers develop a sense of sensitivity toward problems they are encountering is a specific classroom setting. No less important is that teachers will develop a sense of curiosity in systematically finding out the phenomena they are facing via research. This should serve as a first step to nurture the habit among school teachers of doing research.

As there are numerous teachers nationwide who have yet to be certified, the certification program will continue in the future, posing a new challenge that teachers need to face in their pursuit of professionalism.

The writer is chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching. He can be reached at setiono.sugiharto@atmajaya.ac.id.