Indonesia’s teachers: Once the nation’s patriots and pioneers, but what about their roles now?

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Illustration: Agung Wahyudi/IO

IO – A teacher is an unsung hero in educating the nation. Everyone is a teacher. Every house is a school. Education doesn’t merely take place at school, but also at home, on the streets, and everywhere else.  

In Sanskrit, “guru” literally means “a dispeller of darkness”. In Hinduism, a teacher is a symbol of a holy place, seen as the source of knowledge (vidya). Someone who is a master or expert in a certain field. In Buddhism, a teacher is someone who guides others toward the path of truth and righteousness, even seen by his students as an incarnation of Buddha or Bodhisattva. This means a teacher plays a central role in the formation of a person’s personality. A guru carries a “weighty” role, beyond simply that of a teacher. In contrast, the definition of a teacher in the Indonesian language is someone whose profession is to teach, educate, train, mentor, assess and evaluate students’ work.  

Teachers in Indonesia have played a central and dynamic role in the long history of the nation. In the ancient kingdoms, teachers had an important role, educating citizens so that they would be familiar with the royal system and decorum, including how to respect the king. Relics found in temples built during the Hindu-Buddhist period, believed to made using sophisticated technology as well as many inscriptions carved in stone and manuscripts written on dried palm leaves, have shown the outsize role a teacher played in ancient societies.  

Even though there is little written about the role of teachers in the era of kingdoms, we can gauge the importance of teachers at that time from the relics they left behind. It is impossible for a book to be written (in Sanskrit) and a gigantic temple like Borobudur or towering temple like Prambanan to be built without the role of a teacher. The role of a Brahman Indonesia’s teachers: Once the nation’s patriots and pioneers, but what about their roles now? is to teach religion, but imparting principles of literacy or mathematics and engineering with sophisticated technology must have been done by a professional teacher.  

Based on relics of a royal past, the role of teachers at that time can be traced. Maybe they weren’t called teacher, but “empu” or master, but their role was the same, namely, to educate the people. If a teacher now educates the citizens, then a master then educated the royal subjects. So “empu” is not just someone skilled in making a kris (a dagger with a wavy blade), but someone who has certain expertise, both in making tools for daily needs, as well as creating works of art.  

During the Dutch colonial era, the teacher was a pioneer in the advancement and independence of the nation. Almost all central figures of the independence movement were people trained to become teachers and graduates of medical schools – or they had been a teacher before, such as Soekarno, who had served as a mathematics teacher at Tamansiswa Junior High School in Bandung.  

Long before the era of Raden Ajeng Kartini and Suwardi Soerjaningrat (later known as Ki Hadjar Dewantara), there was a teacher in Mandailing Natal who played a vital role in bringing progress to North Sumatran society through education. His name is Sati Nasution, and he was popularly known as Willem Iskander.  

Born under a birth name Sati Nasution and noble title Sutan Iskandar in March, 1840 in Pidoli Lombang, South Tapanuli, North Sumatra, he was the youngest son of King Tinating, an 11th generation descendant of the Nasution clan. He only entered a two-year elementary school, established by Godon in Payabungan, while working as a clerk, at the age of 13…  

Godon was a close friend of Eduard Douwes Dekker, a.k.a Multatuli. In 1857, when Godon returned to the Netherlands, he took Sati with him. Sati was initially taught by a teacher named Dapperen, but then continued under the tutelage of Guilaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801- 1871) in Arhem in 1858. It was during this time that Sati Nasution changed his name to Williem Iskander.  

Williem Iskander then obtained a scholarship to enroll in a teacher training school in the Netherlands, returning to his homeland in December 1861. In March 1862, Williem Iskander received a decree which gave him a permit to establish the teacher-training school he had long dreamed of. Together with the Tanabato villagers, he managed to set up three classrooms using simple building materials such as bamboo, wooden planks, and thatched roof. 

 One of Williem Iskander’s pioneering contributions was the establishment of the first teacher training school with cultural center in Sumatra. In addition to training future teachers, his school also translated Malay-language books in into Mandailing so that they can be easily understood by the local community. 

 William Iskander also wrote poetry and prose, which was later published into a book titled Si Bulus-bulus Si Rumbuh-rumbuk, which contains his thoughts. His works were mostly satire aimed at the Dutch colonialists. In one of his poems, he wrote: Adong alak nuar, Na mian di Panyabungan, Tibu ia aruar, Baon ia madung busungan (There is a foreigner, who resides in Payabungan – Quickly should he leave, as his belly is already bulging)  

Through his verses, William Iskander fought for the freedom of his people. Unfortunately, his life was very short. He passed away at the age of 36. But later his pioneering role as a teacher would be continued by RA Kartini, Ki Hadjar Dewantara, and Tengku Mohammad Syafeii.  

RA Kartini was a teacher dedicated to promoting literacy and women’s emancipation. This can be seen from her correspondence with Mrs. Abendanon which was later published under the title Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang (From Darkness Comes Light). She was mostly concerned with women’s literacy, to enable them to advance socially and be on an equal status with men.  

Meanwhile, Ki Hadjar Dewantara (KHD) was a teacher and freedom fighter. Not only did he found the Tamansiswa school with its strong nationalistic and grass-roots character, he also chaired the Education and Culture Commission of the Agency for the Preparatory Work for Indonesian Independence (BPUPKI) and the Indonesian Independence Preparatory Committee (PPKI) that formulated articles 29-32 of the 1945 Constitution. Concurrently, he also served as the first Education and Culture Minister, albeit for only three months. KHD is also known as one of the founders of Gadjah Mada University (UGM) and a figure who laid out the foundation for national education. For his invaluable contribution to Indonesia’s education sector, his birthdate, May 2, 1889, was commemorated as National Education Day.  

In every generation, teachers play a role as pioneers of the nation’s progress and independence. In the early days of independence, the teachers’ role was crucial in providing political support to the newly-founded Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI),  as the young nation was still facing many foreign threats. 

Through the Indonesian Teacher Congress in Surakarta on 24-25 November 1945, they agreed that all teachers’ organizations and groups based on alumni, workplace, region, politics, religion and ethnicity are to be eliminated, and in their place should be established a united teachers’ organization that could accommodate all active and retired teachers and education personnel for the sake of NKRI. 

The organization is named the Indonesian Teachers Association (PGRI), which was proclaimed at the closing of the congress on November 25, 1945. This is how November 25 was celebrated as the National Teachers Day. Mobilizing the teachers was important to demonstrate to other countries that the newly-proclaimed independent state of Indonesia was also supported by a strong teacher organization. 

The pioneering work of teachers in the early days of independence could be seen in their imparting the spirit of nationalism and patriotism inside classrooms. Every day millions of Indonesian children are taught to be nationalistic by their teachers through the national anthem. This was crucial in motivating students to take up arms against the first Dutch military aggression in 1947 and the second one in 1949. Their sense of duty to guard the independence from foreign invasion using simple weapons and limited resources cannot be separated from the pioneering role of teachers in fostering a spirit of independence and nationalism in every student. 

But over time, the teachers’ pioneering role started to fade. During the New Order regime (1966-1998), especially in the first decade, teachers who served in the regions or rural areas still played a prominent role as agents of village development. Elementary school teachers who were posted in rural or remote areas not only carried out teaching duties in their classrooms, but also acted as administrators of Village Community Resilience Institution (LKMD) and Village Community Institutions (LMD) or as initiators of the Family Welfare Guidance (PKK) program in villages. So they didn’t only teach in class, but were also drivers for rural development. 

That dual role of teachers began to diminish since the late 1980s when increasing numbers of villagers had completed junior or senior high school, with some even with university degrees. Previously, it was difficult to find educated villagers who could take up positions in the management of village institutions. However, in the rural areas and inland or the coastal areas, the dual role was still prevalent. 

Teachers who worked in urban areas, on the contrary, experienced a process of dehumanization, because in the 1970s cities in Indonesia began to grew rapidly along with it rising living costs. On the other hand, teacher salaries remained low. That’s why many teachers had to moonlight in other professions or did odd jobs to survive in the city with their meager salary and runaway cost of living. It was thus not uncommon for teachers to freelance as ojek (motorcycle taxi) drivers. While this was a perfectly legitimate job, when the teachers’ energy was spent more on the streets than in classrooms, they wouldn’t have the time to increase their knowledge and improve their skills, which ultimately affected the quality of their teaching. 

Nowadays, we can say that the pioneering role of the teachers is barely existent. Teachers, on the other hand, have become part of the nation’s problems that need to be resolved. Many of our teachers are unqualified, while the progress of our nation is highly dependent on the quality of our teachers. The future of the nation is at stake if our teachers cannot be relied upon. The population of our teachers is quite large (around four million of civil servant teachers and nonformal teachers paid by honorarium). Even when it comes to sense of nationalism, teachers today are actually part of the problem, because many of them do not exhibit a strong nationalist spirit. 

The loss of the teacher’s pioneering role was followed by the death of the teaching profession. The role of a teacher who also doubles as an educator, mentor, tutor, and motivator has disappeared, and what remains is merely teaching as a means to earn a livelihood and provide for one’s family. 

This is reflected in the behavior of civil servant teachers who have received professional allowances, which means their welfare has also increased. Logically, when their welfare increases, they will be also more committed to become better teachers by upgrading their knowledge and competencies. The hope is that the teachers will use at least 10% of their professional allowance to buy new books, subscribe to magazines that can increase their understanding of the subject they are teaching, watch quality films that can provide inspiration in teaching, and so on. 

But this has turned out to be wishful thinking. It is estimated that fewer than one per cent actually do this. An interesting phenomenon that appears in many areas (municipalities/regencies) is the increasing number of married couples, either one or both of whom are teachers, who have divorced or are involved in extramarital affairs. This is a phenomenon that is seen in civil service teachers. 

Nonformal teachers, either those teaching in public schools or private schools, have a different set of problems. Their biggest problem is welfare because there is no standard income. Presently, there are still nonformal teachers in Java whose monthly salary is under Rp500,000 (around US $35.00), well below the provincial minimum wage, far from decent and humane. However, people still want to take up the job for different reasons. Firstly, to seek social status, especially for university graduates looking for behind-the-desk jobs, regardless of the poor pay (under the assumption that only the school, oneself, and possibly one’s family members know about the salary; his neighbors won’t). Secondly, young teachers hoping to be one day appointed as civil servants and the welfare that comes with it. Thirdly, there are no other jobs available for them if they choose to stay in their hometown/village. 

Their lives are even worse off than factory workers who generally receive regional minimum wages, even though their education level is lower than that of teachers. Permanent teachers in private schools also experience similar problems. Their level of welfare varies, depending on the financial resources of the school foundation. On the other hand, the staff regulations at foundations are so strict that there is no time for these permanent teachers to earn extra income. 

Complicating the matter, our teaching workforce is currently dominated by non-civil servant teachers with various income levels. Based on the Education and Culture Ministry data for the academic year 2019/2020, the number of civil service teachers is 1,288,336 (47.75 per cent) and 420,238 (15.57 per cent) permanent teachers at education foundations. Meanwhile, non-permanent teachers comprise 564 teacher assistants (0.02 per cent), 201,242 regional nonformal teachers (7.46 per cent), and 787,823 non-permanent teachers (29.20 per cent). The proportion of nonformal teachers in educational institutions under the Religious Affairs Ministry is even larger. Of the 750,771 teachers at the early childhood to secondary education level, 624,558 or around 83.2 per cent are nonformal teachers, according to a report by Kompas. 

Based on a survey conducted by the Indonesian Teachers Association in 2020, of the 24,835 nonformal teachers, the majority (64 per cent) earn a salary between Rp250,000-Rp1 million per month. According to the Association for Education and Teachers (P2G), Jakarta is the only city that pays its nonformal teachers the standard provincial minimum wage. 

The problem is that as nonformal teachers have varying level of welfare, it is unfair to expect them to carry out the same duties and responsibilities as their civil servant counterparts and apply the same success indicators, such as minimum completion criteria (KKM). The gap in the quality of education must be resolved by reducing the gap in teacher welfare, especially between civil servant and non-civil servant teachers. 

The crisis of civil servant teachers The teacher problems we are facing today are not merely the fading pioneering role, but also a crisis of civil servant teachers. We do have an excess of teachers, but they are nonformal teachers whose salary and competency standard varies, as mentioned above, so they can’t be relied upon to spearhead the quality improvement of national education standards. Based on the statistics mentioned before, we are lacking civil servant teachers, as they only constitute 47% of the teaching workforce. The remaining 53% are permanent teachers at education foundations and nonformal teachers who teach in public and private schools. There is a shortage of civil servant teachers not only outside Java, but even in municipalities/regencies in Greater Jakarta. 

Meeting the need for civil servant teachers is very important and urgent considering that teachers are the cornerstone of success in education. A poor curriculum in the hands of good teachers will produce good graduates and vice versa. Education in Finland is also known to be top-notch because the teachers there are of the same quality as medical school graduates. Finnish teachers have the same intelligence as doctors and engineers. This means that if national education is to progress, the quality of its teachers must first be upgraded. 

Quality aside, the quantity of teachers is also important, because if the number of teachers is not evenly distributed, there will be gap in quality. Unfortunately, we are faced with a teacher crisis, both in terms of quantity and quality, especially civil servant teachers. If someone says that we have more teachers than we need, then that person is certainly ignorant about the actual problem in the field. Before 2012, we had sufficient numbers of teachers but afterward the number of civil servant teachers continued to shrink every year. 

The teacher crisis is one of the crucial problems in our education system, considering that information technology can’t yet replace the role of teachers, as the pandemic has shown. As teaching moved online, students, teachers, and lecturers alike are starting to feel bored studying from home and crave in-person teaching. Students also complain that the instruction they receive over online teaching is different from in-person teaching. This confirms that a teacher’s role is irreplaceable. Therefore, when there is a crisis of civil servant teachers, it becomes a very crucial issue, because it will hinder learning. 

The government has announced that it will appoint one million teachers with the status of state employees with employment agreement (PPPK), but considering that those who have passed the test in 2019 have not yet received an appointment decree, people are starting to doubt whether the government has the budget for this program. 

Considering that the crisis of civil servant teachers is a serious issue, the government needs to prioritize the measure and policy to fill this need. Advancing the national education without a sufficient number of teachers is unrealistic. Also, we need not compare our quality of national education with that of other countries, because the characteristic of the problem is also different. The number of students in Indonesia is far greater than the total population of Australia, let alone Singapore or Finland, whose population is only around five million people. As our country has diverse geographical barriers, so does the quality of our education. Indeed, we also have many schools whose quality is on par with schools in Singapore, Finland, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, USA, Britain, and so on. 

The proof of this can be seen from our graduates who continue their education overseas. Most of them didn’t have to go through matriculation and graduated with outstanding performance. This shows that the quality of schools in Indonesia is at the same level as schools in their study destinations. But schools whose quality is far below standard are also numerous because our population is indeed large and diverse. 

Educational quality is greatly influenced by many factors, such as students, teachers, infrastructure and facilities, the learning process, as well as the parents’ involvement in their children’s education at school and at home. Education is a joint responsibility of parents, teachers and the school community. This synergy will create a good learning ecosystem and will eventually produce a good quality education. 

Good schools are not known and choosen for their smart and diligent students, but also by parents who indeed care about their children’s education. In contrast, beleaguered inner-city private schools are often characterized by parents who are indifferent to their children’s education because they are too busy making ends meet. (Ki Darmaningtyas)

Ki Darmaningtyas is an education observer and member of the Association of Taman Siswa Family (PKBTS), Yogyakarta