We speak with Elsa Van Der Westhuizen, a Lower School liaison and Kindergarten teacher of almost two decades at North Jakarta Intercultural School (NJIS) Kelapa Gading on her experiences in the education industry and the school’s early childhood program.

Tell me a little bit about yourself – your background, career, and your inspiration to be in the education industry

My family and I are from South Africa. I lived there for 34 years before the travel bug bit my husband and I, so we moved around a lot. We first moved to Indonesia with our daughter in 1997 and lived here for almost 11 years before moving back to South Africa. While in South Africa, we realized the education system was not what we wanted for our daughter so we moved to Kyrgyzstan for about two years, where we survived two revolutions and minus 25 degree temperaturs, then moved to Saudi Arabia for a year before my husband was called back to Indonesia in 2011. We remained here ever since.

I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. My inspiration was from my first-grade teacher, whom I absolutely adored. My high school teacher, whom I still keep in touch with till today, was also inspired me. She was an excellent role model and was loved by all of her students. I never considered any other career in my life and even if I had the opportunity to choose again, I will choose the same.

My career started in 1983, where I taught commercial subjects for high school and college students all over South Africa. I joined NJIS in 2000 during my first trip here and left abroad for a short while – where I continued my career as a teacher – before returning to Indonesia in 2011. I have been in NJIS ever since.

What brought you here and why have you chosen to remain?

My husband had a career opportunity here and the idea of island life and access to the ocean and beaches sounded very attractive! Originally we planned to stay for only 2 years but needless to say, it turned out to almost 11 years. We went away for four years before returning here. During our second time around, our family felt pretty much settled and decided to stay for good. So now I have been in Indonesia for almost two decades.

With over 30 years of experience in the industry, how has your teaching style evolved over the years?

Obviously my teaching approach as a High School teacher and now a Lower School liaison and Kindergarten teacher changed over the years because I used to work with mature students who had more understanding, whereas now I work with students who have to be guided and introduced to new things on a daily basis.

Another factor that impacted my teaching style has to do with the changes in the generations. Many years ago, teachers were just teaching, while students were quietly listening but nowadays, students participate in their learning. They are more talkative and curious. Today, teaching is more hands-on, while back then it was simply about memorization.

Can you tell us how does the educational system and culture differ here in Indonesia compared to the Middle East?

I cannot really comment on the differences in the educational system because I taught at international schools in both countries; however, despite sharing the same religion, the cultures in Indonesia and the Middle East are very different. During my time in the Middle East, there was total gender segregation. For example, men and women were not allowed to mingle socially, public spaces had separate sections for males and females, and tutors could only teach students of the same sex as even the houses had a male-only section. So such things did inflict some challenges as a female educator.

What has been the most rewarding and challenging part of your career?

The most challenging part was the shift from teaching High School to Lower School and Kindergarten students. Teaching Kindergarten students is a special challenge because it is important for me to create a love for learning and reading in my students at a very young age. I am building the foundation for a student’s entire school career. At first, I must admit, I felt that I did not know what I was doing. The most rewarding part was teaching my own daughter to speak, read and write in English. It was also rewarding when I was able to integrate my home-schooling knowledge and curriculum into my daily teaching and see the children’s progress.

What is your philosophy in education?

My philosophy is to be the best teacher I can be to prepare my students for the future. I believe in what I am doing, which is to help every child in my class to develop his/her own potential through different learning styles. I also teach my students that they can do and be anything they want, to always be positive, and to never stop trying.

What do you think makes for a great school?

A great school has happy teachers and happy students. If students are happy, they learn faster and better so a student’s happiness should be a priority. Another thing that makes for a great school is when parents and teachers form a team – the one cannot do without the other and both are equally important in helping a student become successful.

What is the most important part of your job?

Obviously, working with my little “monsters” as I love calling them. It is important for me to make sure that my students are happy and comfortable at school. It is also important for me to make sure they develop a love for learning and reading so that they can be successful at school and so that they are ready for their entire school career – they still have a long way to go!

What sets the early childhood program at NJIS apart from your competitors?

First of all, all of our teachers are trained overseas and are qualified specialists. We have a Clinical Child Psychologist or House Counselor, who assists with students of concern and provide input, as well as ongoing support to families. We also have a small teacher to student ratio, which makes our learning environment more intimate and attentive.

On top of using internationally renowned learning materials and incorporating the use of multimedia, we follow a Regio Amelio approach to teaching where it is done according to student interests. Instructions are differentiated, based on individual needs and development. Teachers also provide provocations to further the interests of their students, for example, if a student loves building then they would be given exercises to build an item using a variety of materials. Free play (student lead play with teachers only intervening if/when needed) forms an important part of our curriculum.

Our teaching approach is also very hands-on, which includes creative teaching practices such as baking and science experiments. You will always see our kids actively busy rather than just reading a textbook. Finally, we believe in the involvement of parents. We encourage them to visit classrooms as guest teachers and we also have a support group in school called PAFA (Parents and Friends).

What do you like to do during your free time?

I love reading and cooking. But whenever I can, I love spending my free time under the water scuba diving and exploring the ocean. I am a certified Dive Master and an Emergency First Response Instructor.

By: Divyha Pridhnani-Bhojwani