Teaching English in Sumatra, Indonesia: The Unexpected Gifts


Yesterday, I was full of emotion as I presented a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) workshop to about Indonesian English 35 teachers here in a local school district near Payakumbuh in Western Sumatra, Indonesia.

When I walked into the room and saw them waiting for me, I felt a brief surge of apprehension.

Some of the workshop attendees

Looking Official

All of the teachers looked official and ready to get to work as they were wearing their school uniforms; each had a pen, notepad and folder. Some had traveled over an hour to be there for the workshop. It was obvious that this professional development opportunity was very real for them; they truly wanted and needed it.

Could I deliver? Teach them how to motivate their students—to get them to overcome their fear/shyness and speak English more? Would the methods and techniques I’d learned over the years and in other countries be useful to them?

And more importantly, did I truly understand what they needed and would I be able to give it to them?

I had my doubts. I’d only been around for several days, observed just a few classes and taught a couple of them when the headmaster of the district asked me to do the 4-hour workshop. Yes, 4 hours. And…only 24 hours to get ready.

As crazy as it sounds, I agreed. It seemed that was the one day when she could get everyone together and perhaps I had seen enough to know what to do. What I didn’t count on, the night before, was the electricity was out for a few hours. This made things a bit challenging.

Remembering How/Why I Became an ESL/EFL Teacher

But now, in the moment, I put those thoughts aside and got to work. I was motivated by my remembrance of how I’d become a teacher, why it was the best job I’ve ever had and the fact that it turned out to be an unexpected gift, one that changed my life in positive ways.

I took a deep breath, said hello and got started…

And at various points, when I stood before the workshop attendees, I flashed back to 1995 when I first became a teacher while living in Ecuador. Back then, I was a former reporter turned corporate employee (writer/editor at a pharmaceutical company)—a native speaker who happened to know grammar and punctuation rules.

I didn’t know a thing about teaching and I certainly didn’t see myself as a potential teacher; it was something I fell into. A neighbor who ran a language school needed help asked and I said yes because I needed a job.

Little did I know that it would be more than a job and, on some level, an actual gift. Not only was there the realization that I had a natural ability to teach, but along with it, there was/continues to be the actual love of doing so. And as a result of it, my life would change.

After falling in love with teaching in Ecuador, I returned to school to earn an MA in TESOL, taught in Spain and China (for a summer) and made the career a professional and full-time one in my home state of New Jersey, which is where I now work. It’s not an easy job or one that pays a lot, but it’s rewarding (and I have time off to travel). And that’s what counts for me.

So…during the 4-hour long workshop, I did my best despite fatigue that set in around hour 3. We played games with dice (and even Bingo) and talked about the best way to approach reading and vocabulary acquisition.

At various points, I had the teachers act as students—with me as the teacher—so they could experience my techniques/methods firsthand.

Nelly, Headmaster of the local district, and Eti, the English teacher and friend I'm staying with

Close to the end of the workshop, I taught some reading techniques using a story called The Gift. The subject: a boy who suffered from headaches and suspected he would die young who ended up donating his heart to his best friend, a girl who needed a transplant.

And then, just as with a class, the workshop came to an end…

Nearly all the teachers said thank you, and several of the gave me immediate and positive feedback. I thought it had gone well, but wasn’t 100% sure.

At the same time, I noticed the teachers being secretive and collecting something—money perhaps—at the back of the room. I figured that it was to pay for the workshop. I had no clue.

An Unexpected Gift

And then, a few of them approached me and said, “We want to get you a gift.”

“A gift?” I didn’t know what to say. It was so unexpected.

“We want to buy you a shirt. With the batik design. Traditional clothing.”

“That’s really nice of you, but that’s not necessary. Thanks, but…”

“No, we insist. We want to take you to the market.” OK, I knew they had me. Culturally, I had to accept. But the truth was—I was exhausted. The night before, I hadn’t slept more than a few hours. All I wanted to do was go back to my friend, the teacher, Eti’s house. It’s in a rural and quiet area. We were now in the city.

“OK—sure, let’s go.”

We hopped on motorbikes and headed over. On our way, there was a special event in which candidates for local government were being announced. There were dancers, a marching band and official looking people. And a mini traffic jam. The motorbiking got tricky. A few times, I closed my eyes.

We arrived at the market and…no luck. The shirts all had long sleeves and were made of thick fabric and some looked like dresses.

Shopping at the market

It’s not that I was being picky, but I figured that if they were going to buy me something, I wanted it to be just right. Something I could wear here and in front of them should we meet again, which is likely. Many are coming to Eti’s house to visit in few days.

So, we headed over to the local mall. And sure enough, we found the right store. I tried on a bunch of shirts, many of which were tight (here in Asia, as many of you know, the sizes run quite small).

Finding the Right Shirt

Finally, it was down to two shirts. One that was sort of tight. And one that was sort of loose. I went with the slightly loose one. One of the teachers said she could tailor it. She loves to sew. I was relieved. I found a shirt!

Me in batik

But then, Eti approached me and said, “Get two shirts.”

“No, really…one is enough.”

“I think you should get two. We want you to. It’s a special gift.”

I heard the insistence in her voice and then complied. To have said no would have upset her, it seemed.

So, I found a second shirt. Here it is.

“We are very happy now,” the teachers said. “This is our gift to you for the work you did today, for what you shared with us.”

“Thank you,” I said. The fatigue from the night before and the long day was still there, but so was a feeling of gratitude and appreciation. My work had meant something to them.

Today, when I went to school, I wore the one of the shirts—the short-sleeved one. The students smiled and one said, “It is beautiful.”

I smiled back and while teaching, I found myself getting back into the moment and feeling a certain joy that reminded me of why I’d become a teacher in the first place.

And the gratitude for remembering stayed with me all day and is still there now.


Your Thoughts/Experiences?

Have you received any unexpected gifts–literally and/or figuratively–that meant more to you later on than in the moment? If so, what were they and what did they add to your life?

Are you a teacher? ESL? EFL? Or something else? If so, how and why did you become one? Do you also feel it’s a special job? If so, please tell me/us more!


PS:  I wanted to run some photos of the teachers who took me shopping–and the other shirt–but due to slow Internet, I wasn’t able to send iPhone photos to the desktop I’m working on. :(

23 Responses to Teaching English in Sumatra, Indonesia: The Unexpected Gifts
  1. Aurora
    June 8, 2012 | 4:05 am

    batik definitely suits you!!!!!


    • CB Driver
      June 8, 2012 | 10:29 pm

      Thanks–I like it a lot. And I’m sure I’ll be buying quite a bit when I see other parts of the country!

      • Sysilia
        June 9, 2012 | 5:34 am

        Lets go Batik shopping in Yogyakarta, Lisa!

        • CB Driver
          June 11, 2012 | 12:54 am

          Yes, please…let’s go!!! I just saw some gorgeous things yesterday (bought two bags) in Bukkitinggi. Wow! I can’t even imagine what there is in Yogyakarta.

          PS: I’m thinking about buying a lot of things and selling them back home to help pay for my ticket. Will be interesting to see what prices I might get for bulk. The challenge, of course, will be shipping. Perhaps I’ll just allow myself one bag’s worth and carry it to Bali, then Singapore. We’ll see. :)

          • Sysilia
            June 11, 2012 | 1:03 am

            LOL, no worry, you can ship them!it takes a month though :)). My friend shipped goods to US,the cost was about $50 😀

          • CB Driver
            June 13, 2012 | 11:15 pm

            Good to know!

  2. Grace Kennedy
    June 8, 2012 | 6:15 am

    That was a really great job you did. And oh, the batik looks so good on you. You look gorgeous!!

  3. Naomi
    June 8, 2012 | 7:36 am

    Ha ha, I see internet hasn’t improved!! Uploading photos is a nightmare! Seriously Lisa, they’re all like this, so generous it is humbling. Enjoy!
    Naomi recently posted..I’m no number cruncherMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 8, 2012 | 10:28 pm

      Hi, Naomi. Yeah, it’s a bit…spotty here…lol. I’m looking forward to Bukkitingi, where I hear there’s wifi. That will be a treat!

      Re: the people…OMG…so wonderful. I feel that I’m part of the extended village family here. Last night, a man who says, “I’m just a farmer” invited me to his house up on the mountain. He’s actually brilliant and speaks wonderful English, which he learned on the radio. I’m honored that he invited me and I hope to go soon!

  4. Tripper
    June 9, 2012 | 8:15 pm

    I visited Sumatra four times on business and used those visits to also teach English. Amazingly wonderful experience the people in Medan Sumatra were warm and welcoming.

    • CB Driver
      June 11, 2012 | 12:52 am

      Nice that you taught English here, too! I haven’t been to Medan yet, but may be there in a few weeks. It does seem that the people of Sumatra are very warm and welcoming. I’m happy to have the opportunity to get to know them!

  5. gantamuchtar
    June 10, 2012 | 4:18 am

    omagad omagad! I’m happy to see a foreigner (re=bule) who have careness with indonesian education. Looking forward for your action! I bet it is called your deeply passion. Hope you get what you wanted for, and be happy for years ahead in indonesia :) regards: love from Jakarta, Indonesia. Trisakti University

    • CB Driver
      June 11, 2012 | 12:51 am

      Hi there and thanks for writing! I’m a “bule”? OK, good to know! I’m enjoying helping out here because the teachers care and the students really want to learn. It feels good to be sharing something I have to offer–my teaching skills–because I know people here really appreciate it. And because it’s needed. Thanks so much for the kind words! :)

  6. Gray
    June 10, 2012 | 12:58 pm

    Love this story–and the shirt!
    Gray recently posted..The Thrill is Gone: An Airport RantMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 11, 2012 | 12:45 am

      Thanks, Gray. It was a long day, but ultimately, rewarding! And the clothes are so gorgeous here. I look forward to some serious shopping later in the trip. OK, well, I must confess–I already bought two gorgeous bags. I’m thinking about buying up some things and selling them when I’m back home to help pay for my ticket. We’ll see. :)

  7. Melanie
    June 10, 2012 | 10:11 pm

    Great post– I’m glad to read about another teacher who fell into teaching and feels gifted by it in many ways.
    A student gave me angel trumpet plants that he had grown himself. They emit a wonderful perfume at night.
    I’ll be growing them again this year from cuttings, so I appreciate the gift much more now than when he brought me the seedlings. Hummingbirds flock to these plants, so they really are something special, just like the student who gave them to me.

    • CB Driver
      June 11, 2012 | 12:44 am

      Hi, Melanie. So glad you liked the post! And thanks so much for sharing your story re: the gift from your student. It’s so sweet…I felt emotional reading it. Very touching.

      I think that we share so much more with our students than meets the eye.

      (PS: Just wondering how you found my blog…on Twitter? Or Google? Thanks.)

      • Melanie
        June 11, 2012 | 10:35 am

        Hi– I found your site through Twitter, and it may have been on a re-tweet of your post from another Twitter-er.
        Have a great day,

  8. […] although the main goal of my volunteering here was mostly educational, it’s turned into more of a cultural exchange. Eti has taught me about her people and what they […]

  9. Prime
    July 4, 2012 | 4:17 am

    I have no inclination, at all, to teach. But reading your post allows me to understand why being a teacher is indeed a gift and teaching is one way to give.
    Prime recently posted..HerStory: Make My Spirit Fly –My Farm in Maryland [part 2]My Profile

    • CB Driver
      July 8, 2012 | 12:51 am

      Thank you, Prime. Glad you appreciate what it is I was expressing…!

  10. Workers of the World #6 | The Working Traveller
    December 20, 2012 | 7:04 pm

    […] Teaching English in Sumatra, Indonesia: The Unexpected Gifts Lisa Egle presents a TEFL workshop to 35 Indonesian English in Western Sumatra. […]

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