Welcome Back, Miss: First Days of School

Students may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.



“Shall we?” I ask Pak Burhan, motioning to my watch. It is 8:10 Monday morning and time for our first class. While he gathers his papers I hold my work-in-progress activity binder close to my chest, hoping its ready-made contents will calm my beating heart. It is my first day of school, which is always an exciting and nervous time no matter which side of the desk you sit on.

“Okay, let’s go,” he says with a nod a few moments later. We exit the office and make our way across campus to our first class: X IPS 5*.


“Class! I have one question for you today,” I prompt from the front of the room, ignoring the whispers and giggles as I write my question at the top of the board: “HOW ARE YOU?” Finished writing, I turn to the class. “How are you?!” I exclaim as if meeting long-lost friends.

“I am fiiiine, and youuuu?” the students of my afternoon class — X BHS — intone, just as expected. “I am excited!” I answer while writing “fine” in the center and add “excited” to the right.

Then I prompt the class, “What other words can you use to answer this question?” While talking, I draw a horizontal line across the board. It takes them a second, but finally a brave soul calls out “Happy!”

Can't finish class without a goofy selfie or two.
Can’t finish class without a goofy selfie or two.

“Great!” I reply and write “happy” between fine and excited. “What else?” “Excellent!” “Good!” “Sick!” “Tired!” “Hungry!” the students laugh, thinking of other words. I add them all to the emotional spectrum: frowny face on the left and smiley face on the right. The class collectively supplies a few more ideas, and once the flow slows down, Bu Nisa (my stand-in co-teacher for my last class on Monday since Miss Ony was sick) and I pass out word cards. Each card answers the question HOW ARE YOU with less commonly used words like “fantastic,” “miserable,” “peachy,” and “stressed.”

I see dictionaries appear on desks, and meanwhile I ask “Who knows what your word means?” A boy sitting near the window is the first to raise his hand. I walk toward him and he shows me his card: “Angry.” I hand him a board marker and he dutifully adds his word to the left side of the board. Before long, all of the students are clustered in the front of the room, passing the markers along like batons. Miss Nisa and I collect their word cards, which I will save for the next class.

Once all of the words are on the board, we group them by their meaning: words like happy, joyful, and cheerful are placed in groups.**
I then instruct the students to write the new vocabulary in their notebooks and tell them that for the rest of the year when I ask “How are you?” they are not allowed to say “fine.”*** We practice this immediately in my favorite part of the class: mini-introductions.

While the class is writing, I walk to the back of the room and sit down next to the girl in the far back corner. She leans away and looks at me with wide eyes. “Good morning!” I say to her with an encouraging smile. “G-g-g-good morning,” she stutters back. “What is your name?” “Putri,” she whispers. ” “How are you, Putri?” “I am fine,” she responds. I raise an eyebrow. Her friends listening in whisper furiously. She squints at the board and looks back at me. “I am happy,” she says with more confidence. “Good! Great to hear. Thanks Putri,” I smile at her and move on, repeating the conversation with each student…


As I write this, it is the end of my second day teaching. I work with three different co-teachers this year: Pak Burhan, Bu Amaro, and Miss Ony. Each one works differently than the others, and I have much to learn from all of them. It will definitely be a challenge at times coordinating schedules and negotiating lesson plans, especially since the first two co-teachers have many other responsibilities as wakils [vice-principals] at school.

Although frustration and miscommunication are bound to arise while I learn to work in this new environment, one thing keeps me going through thick and thin: the students. Even though I am just now beginning the true work of teaching, the students have been the most open and welcoming people I’ve met thus far. In these first few days, the quote at the top of this post is never far from my mind: Students may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

From the very beginning I am consciously trying to make my students feel good in English class even if our first lessons aren’t that well planned. By far my favorite moment in class has been one-on-one with the dozens of students like Putri. While I may not remember all of their names at first, taking a moment to smile, make eye contact, and give everyone a chance to use their English with me will (hopefully) set the tone for the fun and interactive English classes to come.

Some of the many musicians who jammed out with me.
Some of the many musicians who jammed out with me.

Outside of class I have also been making an effort to connect with students who I do not teach: the students in class XI and XII.

During my downtime Tuesday afternoon I ventured out of the teacher’s room and followed the auspicious sound of a tambourine. I walked down a hallway in the back of the school, poking my head into classrooms as I passed. Students were in various states of relaxation, playing on their phones and eating and chatting. After passing three classrooms, I found the source of the sound: a girl in class XII was absent-mindedly tapping the tambourine against her leg. She and her friends were surprised to see me. I asked them (in English) if they were playing music, and everyone giggled as they whispered to each other to form a response. The one boy in the group spoke up with a smile: “Miss! After break, we play. Okay?”

I flashed him a smile and two thumbs up. Okay! They did not disappoint. We had a full setlist, with yours truly singing a couple songs. The highlight was a song called “Laskar Pelangi” by Nidji, which is an inspiring, upbeat tune that every Indonesian student knows. I filmed a short clip of the impromptu concert:

Overall, I am thrilled to be teaching at SMA Wachid Hasyim 2 Taman Sidoarjo for the next nine months. I am excited to teach and even more to keep learning. I am sure that come May next year, this is an experience I won’t want to trade for the world.


* In Indonesia classes are listed first by grade in roman numerals, then track, then class number. Thus, X = grade ten, IPS = Social Studies track, class number 5. Other tracks are IPA (Science) and BHS (Language). At SMA Wachid Hasyim 2, there are six IPS classes, six IPA classes, and one BHS class in grade ten alone. I teach almost all of them.

** For the first few classes I grouped words by drawing bubbles around all of the words. Moving forward, I will have to think of a different strategy because I have already accidentally drawn a bulbous rendition of the state of Oklahoma (read: penis) in a few classes… This is not a good idea in a room full of teenagers, and ESPECIALLY not during the first class. Thankfully the worst I’ve gotten is just a few snickers.

*** Thanks Grace for inspiring this lesson!

10 thoughts on “Welcome Back, Miss: First Days of School

  1. Hello, Kelly!

    My name is Madeline and I came across your blog a couple of weeks ago. I have been searching for personal blogs of Fulbright students heading to Indonesia. I studied abroad in Spain my past semester of college and since I have returned home to Indiana, I have been planning where I want to apply for the Fulbright Scholarship at. I would be leaving in the Spring of 2019- so quite a ways away! Indonesia is top on my list so I have your page book marked so that I can follow your entire journey! Good luck! I can’t wait to see what all you do!



    1. Thanks Lisa! Lord knows I try my best… This year’s students are particularly lucky because they are benefitting from everything I learned last year. 🙂


  2. You have such a familiarity with the culture. This will give you a very rich experience this year, and the students will benefit so much. Very happy to know you are already getting in the groove. You GO Kelly!!! Love you lots.


    1. Hi Dad,
      I can’t believe it is already mid-October! I’m grooving as much as I can, mainly by learning new songs. Karaoke in my kitchen–all day every day. 😀


  3. Hi Kelly….your story is so much fun to read…are you still in Pangkal Pinang? We have an english course here, when you have free time, maybe you can stop by here for sharing your experience, that would be nice, I guess 🙂 let me know whenever you are available, you may email me at ditha_s@yahoo.com.

    Enjoy Indonesia!! 🙂


    1. Hi Ditha,
      Thanks for the comment! Unfortunately I am no longer living in Pangkal Pinang. Now I teach in Sidoarjo, East Java. I wish you and your English course every success!


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