OPEN LETTER RE: LANGUAGE EDUCATION

OPEN LETTER to DEECD Re Language Education Title Pic

To the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development {DEECD} Victoria,

You probably don’t know me but I have worked for over twenty years in the field of Education, majority of that time I worked for you, either teaching within one of your schools or whilst I worked as a Project Officer and also a Language Advisor in your Central {Head} Office. And when I wasn’t directly working for you, I was still working with the main aim of promoting and supporting Languages Education in Victoria.

Twenty years…that’s almost half my waking life {so far} dedicated to education.

So on saying this, my point is that I have spent the last twenty years {plus some} reading your policies, your visions and your whatever other documents that you have produced, so I do hope that you can take a small amount of time to read my letter to you.

To be honest with you, I never aspired to be a teacher; it was never really on my radar. I wanted to be a writer, an artist, and a photographer. But as the time came nearer to making my university choices; I went with Primary Teaching {really the main reason was because I was able to take up bahasa Indonesia as my major – this was the draw card for me!}. I had also resided to the fact that you reassured me that teaching was a stable career {unlike an art field where one in a million make it!}. As a teacher, I would always have work here in Melbourne, in Australia and also overseas. I would be secure in my career and I’d be set for life.

So, I went with teaching and after four years I came out the other side with a Bachelor of Teaching and a Bachelor of Education with a major in bahasa Indonesia. I was one of very few, of the first batch of qualified Language Primary Teachers in Victoria.

During that fourth year at university {as my classes were mostly off-campus}, I actually began working in two of your primary schools. My first ‘real’ job. I had two part time jobs, two and a half days at each school. Every Wednesday I would travel by bus from one school to get to the other school. I ate my lunch on the bus or skipped it most days if I had prep to do on the way. I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could and get as much experience as I could back in those early days. I was so dedicated to doing a good job for you.

I realized during that year that my Indonesian language skills were not up to scratch. I wasn’t fluent in oral communication. At my very first job of teaching Indonesian, I wanted to introduce an immersion program {I still believe this is the most effective method for language learning!} but I struggled.

Even though I got exceptional grades for my Indonesian study, oh yes, I could pump out a few hundred words on Borobudur {or some other such famous landmark} and almost always receive a High Distinction but I struggled finding the simplest of words when trying to instruct students in a classroom activity. Not to mention that I had never actually been to Borobudur to see it and experience it for myself.

I started thinking to myself; how can I teach students about particular places or things in Indonesia, if I hadn’t even seen or experienced them myself?

This is when the words of one of my most respected and influential Indonesian lecturers came to me…”Julie, if you want to be fluent in bahasa Indonesia then go and live there for at least one year”.

I took on this advice. I wanted to be the best Indonesian Language teacher that I could be. I wanted to know {REALLY know} what I was teaching. So, after graduating, I left your schools that I had been working in and I went to Indonesia. I lived and worked in Central Java for over a year. I immersed myself in daily life, language, culture, traditions, art…and I travelled. I travelled far and wide, from Sumatra to Sulawesi to Lombok and of course throughout the island of Java, from the western tip to the eastern tip.

After one year I was more than confident with my language skills. I had become so integrated into Central Javanese life that I didn’t want to come home. I stayed on over the one-year contract period and I travelled more through Indonesia {and other parts of South-east Asia} so that I could soak up more knowledge and gain a greater understanding about multicultural and diverse Indonesia. Such a fascinating country. Indonesia had become home to me.

Eventually, I did leave Indonesia {with a heartfelt promise that I would be back shortly!} and returned to Melbourne with a bad case of culture shock however, I was confident with my language skills now. Hell, I’ll just say it …I was fluent and I felt fully adept to start my Indonesian teaching career in one of your schools. I felt that I could do my very best job now. And that is exactly what I did…I taught Indonesian language and culture in many of your schools over the years.

I loved teaching Indonesian. I felt such a passion for this neighbouring country of ours that I know my passion was transferred through to those little people that I taught. I saw the wonderment and the curiosity and the wanting to know and learn look in their eyes. Through the use of stories, photographs and visual art, I found that creativity that I thrive for, right there in the Languages classroom. I spent my evenings and weekends developing and creating Indonesian specific resources {there wasn’t a lot around back in those days!} that I could use in each of my classes.

But it soon became apparent to me that Language teachers were not treated as equals amongst their peers. I found myself questioning; Why don’t I have my own classroom? Why is my budget so small compared to others {or even non-existent? I kid you not!} And the big one for me…Why do I have to apply for my job every year? Why do you only give me a one-year contract?

I worked hard didn’t I? … I deserved an ongoing position, didn’t I?

I worked for many years from one contract to another, trying to find a school that would offer me an ongoing position. One that would commit to their Indonesian Language Program, and to me as the teacher/coordinator of the program. I wanted that career stability.

After at least five or six schools {I lost track a little bit}, I finally found that school. After one year of working there, I was offered ongoing employment and the Principal even increased the hours from one hour per week to two hours of Indonesian for every grade, every week! {Wowza! This is a smart Principal!}

And…I was even given my own Indonesian classroom! {Albeit an old, crappy portable stuck out away from the main building and next to the dumpsters, which nobody else wanted!} This meant that I didn’t have to carry books and resources around with me from room to room anymore, as I had been doing for many, many years. I could finally set-up my own classroom, I wanted to decorate it with all my Indonesian artifacts that I had been collecting over the years such as; batik and ikat materials, masks, puppets, posters, wonderful dragon and butterfly kites and so many other treasures from all over the Indonesian archipelago.

I felt like I’d won the lottery that day – it was the best offer I’d received in a government primary school since starting my teaching career.

I happily worked at that primary school for five years, the longest stint I have ever done in a school. I developed a strong and high quality language program. I regularly integrated content learning with other specialist learning areas such as; visual arts, performing arts and music. {Way before I ever heard about CLIL!}

One year, I developed an integrated content-based unit on ‘wayang kulit’ – shadow puppets. The students learnt all about the cultures and traditions of wayang in Indonesia, we read many Indonesian traditional folktales and wayang stories, then the students collaboratively wrote their own stories and scripts, designed and created their own shadow puppets, learnt to move their puppets and gain understanding of creating effective use of light and shadows, developed instrumental music for their story and created a shadow puppet performance for the whole school. It was great…I wish you had of seen it, I think you would have been really impressed with my efforts, but also {and even more importantly} the students’ efforts. They were awesome – they learnt so much and they had so much fun!

I stayed at that school until a new Principal started up and decided to cut my Language Program in half. All the hard work of building up and establishing a high quality language program over five years had just been slashed.

Not long after that, I left that school.

After that experience, I decided to take leave from you. I went and did another stint of working in Indonesia, this time at an International School in Bali, where I was able to expand on my general classroom teaching skills and also immerse myself in the Indonesian language and daily life and culture in Bali.

When I returned home, unfortunately I was unsuccessful in attaining a job in one of your schools. No one seemed to want me and I was unemployed for several months. Fortunately, after several months {of pulling my hair out} I landed myself the position of Indonesian Language Adviser at your Central Office. I thought I’d found my dream job…my life calling had just landed in my lap. I was getting paid by you to manage projects in relation to Indonesian Language Education. It wasn’t all plain-sailing, I worked long hours, travelled away from home often and had tight deadlines but…I loved it and I actually felt for the first time ever that I could combine all of my skills {i.e. teaching plus Indonesian language and culture} and accomplish positive outcomes for Indonesian Language learning in Victoria. I feel I accomplished a lot in that time, although I was back at that game of re-applying for my job on a yearly basis.

After four years, you finally gave me an ongoing position {I was ecstatic!} however, it was taken away from me within days due to your departmental restructure. And although I had to re-apply for my position yet again {for another one-year contract}…I was successful – thank you. But in accepting that position, I also took two pay cuts. I still cannot understand why you did that to me. That wasn’t just degrading to me and my professional skills, knowledge and experience; it was degrading the Indonesian Language Programs and their importance in Victorian Languages Education.

During that final year working in your Central Office, I have to be honest with you again, and tell you that I quickly became very bored; you took away my budget and in this you also took away my projects. Didn’t you realize that this meant for very long boring days sitting in front of the computer; limited to who I could see and talk to {you put a lot of restrictions on me!}? I felt hopeless and completed. I wasn’t advising students or teachers therefore I felt that I wasn’t successfully completing my job. I wasn’t doing anything.

I hope you can see DEECD, that it wasn’t right for me to continue working for you. With all the budget cuts in schools, I’d have preferred it if you cut my position again and gave my salary towards supporting schools with their Language Programs, rather than me getting paid for doing nothing.

When that contract came to an end I decided not to re-apply that time. I think you just expected me to, just as I had done for all those years. I was tired of re-applying for my own job, a job I had done for the last five years and a job that I know I did well, and I couldn’t sit at a desk all day and do nothing. Oh, I know many people would be quite happy to get paid to do nothing but DEECD you need to know that I don’t work like that. I need to be pro-active. I need to be creative. I need to make a difference. And if I’m not being stimulated by knowledge and creativity…I may as well be gone.

Thus, I left you again DEECD without as much as a goodbye from you.

And although I’d left my job with you, my aims and goals were just the same; to promote and support the teaching and learning of Indonesian, in whatever way I could.

I’d like you to know that I was very quickly offered a position in one of your primary schools, where I was under the belief {after a two hour meeting} that the Principal wanted to introduce a high quality Languages Program, which would involve two hours of language lessons per week from Prep to Year Two, and the inclusion of an introductory Language and Cultural Program for the Kindergarten. We planned on extending the Language Program each year to ensure it was sustainable into the future. It was just as you would have wanted it DEECD but unfortunately this wasn’t the case at all. This Principal had no intention of working towards a quality Languages Program. I was so disappointed. It was the same old; one hour of Language lessons per grade per week. {Blah-blah!}

When I realized this; I very promptly declined the position because…why after all these years do I want to be back doing the same as I was doing when I first started? I was frustrated with one-hour lessons per week back when I was a graduate teacher, why on earth would I want to go down that path now as an experienced educator?

I refuse to implement a half-arsed so-called Language Program for one hour per week in one of your schools. What’s the point? Yeah, students will learn a little about the Indonesian culture and learn a few words and phrases but they won’t reach their full potential and thus they will never feel success and/or satisfied. How would you feel about learning English for one hour per week? Do you think you would be very successful? How many years would it take for you to become fluent?

I’m sorry DEECD but I just couldn’t sign that contract…I couldn’t work for you on this one as it went against my language learning beliefs. And if I don’t believe in it then I wouldn’t be doing the language program justice and I wouldn’t be doing the students any justice and I wouldn’t be doing myself justice either.

I decided then and there that if I could find a school that would take a Language Program seriously and invest the time and money it needed to be a successful and sustainable program, which follows departmental recommended guidelines for a quality Language Program, then I would happily go back to teaching and to join your workforce yet again.

If only I could find that school that you {DEECD} always refer to; the one that offers 150 minutes per week of Language lessons and has a substantial budget for quality resources needed and has all the ICT equipment needed etc but…I have not found this school yet, certainly not in Melbourne, and not for Indonesian.

So, after a year of working for myself as a freelance Indonesian Language Educational Writer and Consultant; and working on some of my most exciting projects to date, such as; Education Services Australia’s Indonesian Language Learning Space, the Rasa Bahasa App and Inanimate Alice Language Journals – Jakarta and Kalimantan {Now come on, you have to admit it, they are pretty awesome projects and a first in language learning to incorporate digital comic books!} … I now begin to think about the new year.

I guess I’m at those crossroads again, a new year and new paths to take but which will I choose? Should I continue to search for that illusive school wanting a high quality Language Program? Or do I take my passion and drive and go off on some other obscure path? There are so many options!

Time will tell. All I know is that if my heart is not in it and I don’t truly believe in it then I cannot do it. And it’s as simple {or as complicated} as that!

So, what I want to say to you DEECD, is that I feel like I held up my end of the bargain, I got qualified, I got accredited, I got registered, I put in the years in your schools and in your Central Office, I travelled to all regions across Victoria to visit teachers, students and schools, I travelled interstate to network with other Indonesian Educators, I travelled and lived abroad for that life experience and authentic language immersion and I continue to travel to Indonesia annually to ensure effective language maintenance. I even fully believe in your requirements of a high quality Language Program and live by it…but…what have you done to live up to your end of the bargain? What have you done for me? And why is it that I’m starting the new year of 2015 unemployed?

I was present at Parliament House the day you launched the ‘Languages – Expanding Your World’ – Plan to implement the Victorian Government’s Vision for Languages Education 2013 – 2025. I’d like to quote;

The vision centres on 100% of government schools providing a Foundation {Prep} level Language Program by 2015.

{Hmm…} So how’s that target going? We are in January 2015 and school started back today for Victorian government school teachers. I wonder how many schools have plans to implement a new Language Program this year?

Lastly, I just wanted to say thanks DEECD for the years and no matter what career path I decide to venture upon this year and into the future, whether it be teaching, writing educational resources or something totally different, I will be paying close attention to your next policies and visions, just to see how Language Education is unfolding for Victoria’s future because no matter what I do, I will always believe in the importance of Language learning, particularly the language of our closest neighbor; Indonesia.

Yours sincerely,

Julie Newnham

Comments

  1. Casey says

    Julie,

    You must come and teach at my school! Ok we are a high school but for Years 7 and 8 we have Indonesian four, fifty minute lessons a week. Year 9 is 3 fifty minute lessons for the year (it is a year long elective) and at Year 10 our students are studying Units 1 and 2 and Yr 11 studying units 3 and 4. The students who chose Indonesian love the subject and I hope that I can inspire my Year 7’s to follow the language through to Yr 12. I am teaching three Year 7 classes this year and can’t wait to start.
    I love it so much! I am self taught and really want to extend my own language skills so I am looking for language schools/courses that I can undertake, in the hope that I can eventually become fluent and qualified.

    • indospired says

      Hi Casey – thanks so much you are lovely! Where do you work?
      Although my love is primary teaching, I have also taught secondary and adult learners too over the years. 🙂
      Sounds like your school has it together re: time allocation, and I’m so happy to hear that your students love learning Indonesian! Just as it should be! 😉

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