work life

Life so Far: on Being a Teacher

Sorry blog, I haven’t been paying attention to you as much. You’re so deserted that when I logged into my account, bats flew out of my laptop screen.

My days have indeed been filled with teaching, teaching, teaching. I have two lab courses and four lecture courses to tend to this semester. All of them but one involves team teaching, but still, since this is my first year back, I have to create all of my lesson plans from scratch. I’ve been sustaining myself with lots of coffee and googling for in-class activity ideas. Sean has also nicely contributed his input from a fresh, non-science point of view.

Despite all the stress and high work demand, I am still happy with my role as an educator. There have been moments in and out of class where I felt, “Yes, this is why I left my comfort zone and I came back to Jakarta.” Of course, there have also been moments where I just want to quit and let my partner-in-crime be the sole bread winner of the family, but the positives exceed the negatives, I think.


Some doodles created by my students. On a bad day, I’d look at them and feel slightly better. 

One of the questions that my students ask me quite a lot is why I wanted to be a teacher. And every time, I would say that it has been my long life goals since I could remember.

It’s true, ever since I was a kid, I have always been drawn to teaching. I was that nosy kid in class who kept trying to help explain things to my friends, regardless of whether or not they asked for help. I like creating a one-page summary for all school subjects and using it to simplify things as well as to teach my friends. After a while, I kind of had this reputation as the go-to girl if anyone ever felt the need for extra help in class.

I think one of the most defining memories I’ve had about my desire to teach was in junior high school. In my school, everybody had to take a music class. Granted, I can’t play any musical instrument even to save my life, but there was a particular part where we were talking about one concept of musical notation, which surprisingly involved simple logic and math. Math was the name of my game, Ladies and Gentlemen. Anyway, a friend of mine, who was also in the race for top three ranking in class with me, was really struggling. She just didn’t get it. Because I was among the first few students in class who understood the concept, our teacher asked me to help her out. I did. She ended up scoring higher than me on that test. I was so pissed off. To me, my grades and being on top of class were of ultimate importance, so naturally I was unhappy for being beaten by my competition because of my own doing. However, after a while I realized, “Hey, this person shifted from the state of not knowing anything to getting the highest mark in class, and I was a part of that. That’s pretty cool.”

It was a revelation. I decided from then on that I wanted to continue participating in such learning process.

That’s why I did not hesitate to apply for a job as a faculty member of my undergraduate university. I turned in my application literally the minute I completed my thesis examination. My thesis committee announced that I passed and I gave them my resume and cover letter right in that exam room. I knew I’ll never make any money out of this job, but at least I will get that work satisfaction everyone craves for.

If you ask me, I did not do a Ph.D. because I wanted a Ph.D. I did it because I knew I would need it to further my career as a teaching staff at the university level.

And how is teaching so far? My students have been wonderful. They are surprisingly open to new ideas and have been very receptive towards my teaching style. Since we have a big class, students were split into a group of 4-5 people and take turns answering questions in class. They also do in-class activities as a group. Based on the mid-semester evaluation, most students agreed that the group system did help them better understand materials we discussed in class. My best days were when someone asked me a question that demonstrated their understanding on the topic and curiosity as to what’s next. Those five-hour marathon, back-to-back classes suddenly felt worth it. Mid-term is coming in a few days and I’m quite excited to see if their enthusiasm is reflected in the final assessment.

As naïve as it may sound, my idealistic side is still currently soaring. I think to become a great educator, it is important to recognize the diversity of knowledge and thought processes represented in the potential target audience: my students. As I have just started teaching again, I’m also only starting to get to know my students. I am keen on understanding who they are, how they think and what helps them learn. This will help me achieve cultural competence and identify how I can be an effective teacher for people who may not share the same personal characteristics with me. These characteristics may include a variety of things, such as culture, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation, to name a few, so you can only imagine that the possibilities are endless. How can you implement customized learning?

One of the challenges to come is how to gradually change the mindset of what a class is supposed to look like. Picture a typical class in Indonesia: the professor stands in front of the class and does the talking the whole time, while the students take notes. Most students expect this to happen. I myself am a product of a generation that is so used to being told how to think. I have almost never participated in active learning until I started graduate school. Therefore, it will also be challenging for me to move away from my learning experiences and to apply new concepts of teaching. Will I be able to achieve that shortly? Will it take years? I have no idea, but I am happy to know that I am now aware of what needs to be changed and that I have started doing something about it. My next step is to encourage others towards improvements.

Fellow skeptics, you may think I’m being overly optimistic. I won’t deny it, some part of me is worried that this flame is going die off as my workload keeps increasing and my priorities may shift. I can only hope that the motivation, both within me and from the outside, will keep on coming. Until then, I’ll continue to burn the midnight oil and work as much as I can to come up with different games I can use to explain the concept of carbon cycle and whatnot.



4 thoughts on “Life so Far: on Being a Teacher

  1. Hey Messa

    Very inspiring story. So much so, it inspired me to send you links to two of our videos: One on farmers learning from farmers; and the other on a form of the carbon cycle.

    Dunno if they will be any use to you in class but you might find them interesting nonetheless.

    Be good to catch up soon but now it seems your turn to be super busy!



    1. Very cool, Rob! Thanks for sharing the videos. Is the first one your project? We do not to catch up if we could somehow find a crossover between you being in Jakarta and us not being overly stressed with classes 😀


  2. I train new people at work and yesterday, the trainees welcomed me with this sentence: ” Ailsa, we miss you. Do you miss us as well?”. That was the best thing I’ve heard from my class.

    I do hope the flame is not going to die, because out there, there are people who are grateful for your ability and skills to transfer knowledge to them.


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