The Ethics of English Education (in a Tourist Town)

I’ve been dreading this post. As cathartic as I find writing to be, it has proven to be quite difficult to muster up the courage to publish this. First off, I don’t believe that I’m qualified enough to write it. I’ve only been living in Indonesia for a little over 2 months and I know that there is much more to learn about its school system. Second, this post might offend someone in one way or another. I’m going to give you my candid opinions because I think it’s important for you to know how I feel about what I’m doing every day. My apologies in advance if I piss you off, but feel free to call me out on it. Finally, there is just too much to write about! I’m going to try to keep this post at a bearable reading length for both your sake and mine, so here it goes…

A Brief Overview

Fulbright ETAs in Indonesia teach at three different types of high schools: SMA, SMK, and MAN. (Since I know that almost all of you don’t speak Bahasa Indonesia, I won’t bother writing out what they stand for. Sorry!) A SMA high school most closely resembles high schools in the United States. SMK high schools are vocational schools. These types of high schools don’t really exist in the US, but I think that a BOCES program is the closest thing to it. There are MAN schools, which are Muslim high schools. Another name for this type of school is madrasa. There is one ETA teaching at a pesantren, which is a Muslim boarding school.

Now that you have some background information on the Indonesian school system, I’d like to introduce my high school: SMK Negeri 1 Labuan Bajo. If you’re interested, here is the link to my school’s website: SMKN 1 Labuan Bajo. My school is a state-run vocational high school. From discussions that I’ve had with Indonesians in Labuan Bajo, going to a state school means lower tuition fees and higher state funding. My students must take an entrance exam and select a concentration in order to attend. There are five different majors at my school: tourism, restaurant business, hotel accommodation, software engineering, and computer & network engineering. All but one of my classes are in the tourism department, that being restaurant business. My counterpart, or the teacher at my school who is responsible for me/ is the sponsor for my visa, is the head of the tourism program. The tourism department has the highest enrollment rate, and I believe that it receives the most funding. All of my students are in either 10th or 11th grade.



(My students love selfies! Here I am with some of my 10th grade tourism students).

Tourism in Labuan Bajo

I love teaching tourism students, especially since I live in Labuan Bajo (LBJ). LBJ is a tourist town due to its close proximity to Komodo National Park. Komodo National Park is the number one attraction listed in Lonely Planet, so I see tourists almost everywhere I go. This is both wonderful and weird. I often enjoy the benefits of living in a tourist town i.e. access to alcohol, Western food, and the ability to dress how I want. However, it can be frustrating to be constantly mistaken as a tourist.

Teaching here makes me feel as though I’m a part of something special. If you were to do research on LBJ you would find various articles about how this small city is adjusting to a surge in visitors. As a matter of fact, there is a NGO involved at my school that is working to help prepare students to meet the need of this high demand. My students are very motivated to learn English, because if they don’t, they won’t find a job. This makes my job as a teacher both easier and more exciting. By having a teacher that is a native English speaker, my students get real life experience that they will use in future jobs. They’re excited to interact with a foreigner and learn about American culture, because they know that this knowledge might help them later on. I can only hope that my school, and other schools in Labuan Bajo, will have Fulbright ETAs in years to come.

A Very Brief History of the Indonesian Education System

Overall, I love my job. I love working with adolescents, and I feel like my work here is being executed in both an ethical and sustainable way. However, I often wonder if the Indonesian educational system is failing as whole. If you’re interested in reading more about the Indonesian educational system, please refer to this article: A fellow ETA shared it with our cohort, and although I find the name of the article to be incredibly offensive, it does provide some important cultural context and history.

To summarize, Suharto was the second president of Indonesia following Dutch colonialism and Japanese encampment, holding office for 31 years from 1967-1998. The aforementioned article states, “Suharto’s New Order, which treated teachers first as agents of the state and only second as educators, entrenched the bureaucratic mindset”. This article argues that Indonesian educators are focused on the benefits of being a civil servant, but don’t demonstrate the effort needed to be a successful teacher. In my opinion, this is a rash generalization. Most of my English co-teachers seem to be passionate about English education, and I’ve met various other educators in LBJ that portray the same enthusiasm. However, there are many times when I question how my school as a whole values education.

From discussions I’ve had with my fellow ETAs, classes are cancelled or postponed very easily in Indonesia. Last week was especially frustrating for me because I only taught about half of my scheduled classes. Classes on Thursday and Friday were cancelled to watch our school compete in a soccer tournament. If a teacher is sick or unable to make it to class, students are left untaught. There isn’t a substitute teacher system here, most likely due to lack of funding. Sometimes teachers don’t show up to class because they have family obligations, and sometimes they don’t show up because they don’t want to. There isn’t a way to hold teachers accountable for attendance. As a result, students can sometimes sit in classrooms without a teacher for hours on end.


I often question the effectiveness of SMKs, and I often question my right to criticize this model of education. In the United States, esteemed academia is a track of high school, college, and then graduate school. In the US, vocational educations are highly practical for some students, and can even result in higher pay grades. Teaching in Indonesia is forcing me to unlearn my prejudices towards educational systems.

However, I can’t help but sometimes think that SMKs are setting students up to not reach their full potential. For many of my students, graduating from SMK Negeri 1 Labuan Bajo means working in a restaurant or tourism agency for the rest of their lives. These jobs often aren’t stable and do not have very high salaries. Sometimes I wonder if it makes sense for students to spend three years studying a profession that people in the US don’t even go to school for.

Here’s an anecdote: last week I asked for some of the hotel students to come and clean my classroom (my counterpart had instructed me to do so). The 11th grade students who showed up weren’t able to vacuum my room because this wasn’t something they would learn until 12th grade. This was mind-boggling to me. I’ve been vacuuming my house since my mom decided I could walk. I had to take a step back and realize that this reality was due to poverty. I haven’t seen any homes with carpet in Flores, only tile. Vacuums are expensive and hard to come by because there aren’t any shopping centers where we live. Yet again, I found myself having to unlearn.

The Patriarchy

Cultural norms also play into teachers’ lack of presence. For example, I’ve invited two of my female co-teachers to various English related activities after school, but they can never come. They told me that they “are housewives when they are not teaching, and that comes above anything else”. I don’t find this to be a good or bad thing, just different. In the United States, work is often valued above family. People are incredibly self-determined and value their success above others’. This is not the case in Indonesia. Collectivist societies value family above all else. Indonesia’s patriarchal society is difficult and frustrating to navigate, but I’m starting to learn a new definition of feminism; one that empowers women by stressing the importance of their role as the foundation of families.

New Hope

I am not the only person at my school that often gets exasperated with the Indonesian school system. My counterpart and my bahasa Indonesia tutor often express their frustrations to me. Both of them have spent over three years working with foreigners to help develop infrastructure at my school. My counterpart developed his own textbook for the tourism students, incorporating important English grammar, vocabulary, and other relevant terms to the tourism industry. It’s clear to me that these two men are very passionate about education. They dedicate endless hours each week to developing new in-field tourism internships and experiences for students. They stress the importance of being on time and working hard. And when classes are cancelled for reasons they can’t control, they get as frustrated as me. It is people like them that make me confident that Indonesia will continue to grow into the powerful nation that it has the potential of becoming. They give me hope for the future.


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