Saturday was our first day of teacher training. There are 11 participants – 4 from the local kindergarten and 7 from the elementary school, including the two principals. The teachers vary in English speaking/ writing/ comprehension level from one who understands and can speak, read, and write in a native-like way (which is amazing, considering that she has never studied abroad) to one who can follow most of what’s going on, but does not speak or write much English. The group is young but diverse in so many ways; although many are from Java, they are from all over that province, and some are from different provinces. Only one is from Batam, the closest “large” city in this district. From what I can guess, most if not all are Muslim or some sort of Christian. Faith, ethics, and good manners/ civic responsibilities are highly valued by all members of the group, and are practiced freely and with mutual acceptance.

Teachers here, like students, wear uniforms. Most days they wear a yellow and white (Bintan Resort color) checked cotton shirt and black pants. They also have matching blue and yellow batik shirts for Fridays. On the day when they did not wear uniforms, all wore batik shirts of some form. Dress is conservative but relaxed. I think the uniforms exude professionalism, and the batik highlights the importance of cultural backgrounds and values. A few of the Muslim women cover their heads with scarves, though this is a personal choice and not all do so. When I see them outside of training they dress casually but women’s shoulders tend to be covered. Again – conservative but not fussy.

Because they work in a tourist area, most of the teachers live together in an employee dorm. Some live in employee apartments which are in the same complex where I am staying. As Dina, the Primary Principal said, “They know each other well and they fight well.” This was a well-intentioned poke meant to mean that they are very familial, and spend day and night together – they can bicker like siblings but really are quite close.

Most employees of the Bintan Resort and other resorts in the area live in the “township” area of Bintan about 10 kilometers from the resorts and beaches. The township is small – about four square blocks. There is a market (produce, prepared food and mini-marts); two small shopping centers that cater to tourists getting off the beaten track; a few ATMs; a laundry; a couple of restaurants; a spa; the elementary school and kindergarten buildings; the commissary where most people eat; and some other employee apartments. One restaurant that charges Singapore prices for food and beverage is the only place with free public WiFi; there is no “paid” internet or Internet cafe that I can find. I made friends with the people who work there and they now charge me the “local” price for food and drink, but the Internet is so painfully slow that if I use my iPhone and iPad at the same time I just slow myself down. This place is SMALL.

That said, the smallness of this little township is quite charming. After the hustle and bustle of Vietnam, being able to trust that a smile and “where are you going?” is not going to be followed by “you need motorbike” is refreshing. I can smile back and say something like “just walking” (literally eating wind, if I say it in Indonesian). People are genuinely friendly, curious, and kind. The area is safe enough that bikes and doors don’t need to be locked.

The principals and teachers have been impeccable hosts. In just five days I feel like I have known this group for months. They are giving, helpful, polite, and curious; they participate eagerly in the training and actually know quite a lot. There are very few ideas I’ve introduced that are completely foreign to them. In fact, I find them light-years ahead of many experienced American teachers in their expertise with cooperative teaching methods, best practices, and other pedagogical concerns. They are creative and hard-working; they genuinely care about their students and know those students well. It’s like the “dream class” full of eager learners with great experiences and ideas to share. Resources of all kinds are scarce, but you would never know it. Although some bemoan students’ lack of enthusiasm or discipline, I’m not hearing the bitching, moaning, and complaining I have tended to hear in American educational circles. Perhaps they are saving that for when I’m not around? I somehow doubt that.

This group works cooperatively like a well-oiled machine. They have translated for me and for each other spontaneously and without being asked. They question me and each other and give great feedback and suggestions. They are not competitive, they are naturally collaborative. I don’t know if this is a cultural trait or not. I guess I will find out next week when I meet a group of 70-100 teachers who don’t know one another?

In just two days of training we have covered scores of inquiry-based teaching ideas and techniques; we have written rubrics and used them for self-assessment; we have applied new learning to existing curriculum guides and lesson plans; we have shared ideas and given and received feedback. I have modeled technique after technique to heighten student interest and engagement, teach English, use inquiry to promote learning, etc etc etc. I might be tapped out by the end of tomorrow!

And this group continues to absorb it all like a sponge, eager for more and more, and for opportunities to practice, apply, and evaluate.

My first experience in Indonesia is one that has lain a great foundation to build upon in the upcoming weeks. I feel so fortunate to know and to be working with this group.