Neeltje Sutandjati: Managing teachers for a better future

By Ruth Ninajanty. Published in The Jakarta Post.

Childhood educator Neeltje Sutandjati puts emphasis on teacher development to improve her schools.

Early childhood education is more than just teaching young children about words and numbers but also introducing them to every aspect of life. When School Director Neeltje Sutandjati started iSmile in 2007, she wanted the school to make a difference for society and the nation.

‘€œSetting up a school should be founded foremost on a passion and calling to make a difference. It’€™s a tool for impacting lives and preparing future generations,’€ she said.

Taking the Reggio Emilia approach, iSMILE emphasizes the children’€™s rights to develop their own potential through experiences of touching, moving, listening and observing. The curriculum encourages children to share their thoughts and opinions about everything. The environment is perceived as the third teacher.

‘€œWe practice an eclectic curriculum, we implement what has been backed by research. We have a Montessori program, a right-brain approach, a Vygotsky Key to learning the UK curriculum, a physical program, a Kindermusik program, the Reggio-Emilia approach and others,’€ she explained.

Team Player

When it comes to early childhood education, one of the most important factors is human resources. ‘€œTeachers are the people that make things happen,’€ Neeltje said. ‘€œYou can always train people, but loving children is something you should already have when taking the job.

‘€œUntil today, I personally handle the hiring and recruitment of teachers as I believe getting the right people on the bus is crucial,’€ she said. ‘€œI want people who are team players, have a love for young children, a good command of English, a few years of teaching experience, but most importantly a teachable spirit. Then we can develop them to be the best and most creative teachers in a matter of years.’€

Teachers are not simply educators. They are also managers who can lead projects like school plays, she adds. ‘€œFor example, when I introduce a teacher to other people, I would say that she’€™s my art director.’€

Just like how every child is special, Neeltje, who is often addressed as Mei by people close to her, manages her teachers with extra care. She puts for efforts to celebrate the teachers’€™ birthdays, showing how special they are. She also invests a lot in teachers, sending them to Singapore for training and creating a career path for them.

‘€œWe should take care of our educators and equip them with knowledge and the skills to teach. The school invest highly in teachers’€™ continuous professional developments. We share openly and generously with them the techniques and the rationale behind it, so they know how to avail our resources at their disposal. When our teachers are equipped, every child in the school will learn at a high level.’€ She also prepares her teachers to be leaders who can lead the school’€™s new campuses when the time comes.

After its first school in Belleza, Permata Hijau, iSMILE opened a center in Plaza Indonesia in 2009 and expanded to Bandung in 2012. The following year, the school welcomed its sister school called iSHINE in the Mall of Indonesia. Now the Reggio-Emilia school is looking forward to opening another branch in the Sunter area this year. These schools are equipped with a hall and Reggio Emilia inspired learning centers as well as gyms, outdoor gardens and play areas.

As a school director, which is focused on early education, Neeltje said one of her primary tasks was making sure everyone is on the same page. ‘€œIn my experience, we have to continuously share with them why we adopt certain approaches and also listen to what they have to say for they are the ones on the ground. When they see we are fully committed to working alongside them, the results is you will have everyone on board having the same vision.’€

Learning is a never-ending process. When the children are learning, the teachers gain knowledge, too. ‘€œI still continue to pursue learning myself,’€ she said, adding that last year she joined her teachers in a weeklong training session in Vygotsky Key to Learning with curriculum writer, Galina Doyla.

‘€œI believe in continuous improvement in all areas. I’€™m never contented with where we are and there are many areas that we can still improve on and we have to make it happen. We also do not forget to congratulate and celebrate teachers’€™ success and teams’€™ small victories.’€