Interview with Pak Nur Hadi: An Unconventional Educator’s Journey

By Felicia Hanitio

Teachers are some of the most influential yet under-appreciated leaders in our society. Consider this. In what other profession do all fresh graduates instantly have the responsibility of managing 30 human beings on a daily basis? And managing not just their performance, but also their social-emotional wellbeing, behavioral interactions and parental expectations? For better or for worse, teachers - especially those we interface with during the foundational years of our lives - play a crucial role in the shaping of our identities, belief systems, and perspectives of the world around us.

The entranceway to SD1 Bulungkulon in Bulung Kulon village, Kudus district, Central Java province.

The entranceway to SD1 Bulungkulon in Bulung Kulon village, Kudus district, Central Java province.

On a sweltering Monday morning in November, I venture with several colleagues to the outskirts of Kudus toward Bulung Kulon village to seek some fresh insights from a good friend, Pak Nur Hadi, about the role teachers might play in building interfaith and intercultural understanding and tolerance in Indonesia. As we admire the quiet countryside surroundings from the car windows, we almost miss the turn into the SD1 Bulungkulon school compound—three cream-painted, burgundy-shingled buildings peeking out in a U-shape formation amidst emerald-gold rice fields. We enter the school grounds, pass by a jumble of haphazardly parked motorcycles spilling over from a tiny bicycle parking lot, and head toward Pak Nur’s classroom, one door over from the principal’s office. The door is slightly open, and Pak Nur’s musical voice greets us before we spot him, a petite yet energetic figure rotating between groups of students to offer a smiling word of encouragement, pose a question, or demonstrate a concept with animated hand gestures.

Today, it is increasingly rare to find educators in the Indonesian public school system that fully grasp and treasure the life-changing calling entrusted to them. But my friend Pak Nur Hadi, a native of Kudus, is one of these gems. I first got to know Pak Nur through Djarum Foundation’s effort to find and recruit the best educators throughout the district and equip them as master-trainers. A grade six public school teacher in the village of Bulung Kulon, one of three least-developed villages in the district according to 2015 census data, Pak Nur is passionately devoted to his craft. Undaunted by the contextual challenges he and his students face, Pak Nur is committed to shaping his students to become mature, confident global citizens. During his after school hours, Pak Nur also seeks to grow his impact as a teacher-trainer, author, and aspiring entrepreneur.

Pak Nur inspires other teachers during a workshop on creating and utilizing whiteboard animation as teaching aids, organized by the Kudus Teacher Learning Center.

Pak Nur inspires other teachers during a workshop on creating and utilizing whiteboard animation as teaching aids, organized by the Kudus Teacher Learning Center.

Pak Nur in action at school.

Pak Nur in action at school.

Pak Nur’s classroom is an intriguing amalgam of the conventional and unconventional, cluing us in to his ability to creatively maximize his surroundings. The rusty blackboard and mahogany-tinted furniture are reminiscent of my parents’ schooling days, though the desks and chairs are now arranged in table groups and are set against a vinyl beach-scene backdrop covering the entire back wall of the class. Students’ entrepreneurial creations decorate the lengths of the classroom, but today they are also joined by cardboard boxes and measuring tools of various shapes and sizes. Pak Nur spots us and enthusiastically beckons for us to come in. “We’re learning to calculate volumes today,” he explains. We introduce ourselves to the sea of excited faces and throw a few questions at them. In their red-and-white school uniforms, Pak Nur’s students look like they could be from any Indonesian public elementary school, but unlike typical village children we meet, they confidently introduce themselves and converse with us. We find out from Pak Nur that several of them have recently won poetry-reading and art competitions, though to Pak Nur, all of them are uniquely talented.

After the class ends and we wave our reluctant goodbyes (or see-you-later’s) to the students, Pak Nur invites us to pay a visit to his home, leading the way on his motorcycle. We sit crosslegged on a tarp mat on his front porch as he brings us water, biscuits, and deep-fried risoles pastries that his wife has just fried. I thank Pak Nur for having us over on such short notice, and ask if I could ask him a few interview questions for a collection of blogs I am writing on everyday leaders and their efforts to build interfaith, intercultural understanding. Pak Nur listens and nods, smiling with his gentle eyes, and responds that it would be his pleasure. Sipping our tea and enjoying bites of our snacks, we begin to learn more about Pak Nur’s story.

(The following are edited excerpts of our conversation, translated from Bahasa Indonesia).

Can you tell us a little more about your background? Were you always a teacher, or have you ever dabbled in other professions?

Actually, miss, my dream was always to be a teacher. But I didn’t grow up in an environment where that was common. My parents, grandparents, and extended family were all farmers—and farming was all we knew. The first time I went to college, I pursued a degree in agriculture in order to help the family trade, but after I graduated I found it was difficult to sustain a stable living from farming alone. And so I worked as a door-to-door salesman and cigarette production laborer for several years.

 After four years, as grateful as I was for my job and the living it provided, I was itching to try something that could challenge my creativity and bring greater impact to others. At this time, I was reminded of my childhood dream to be a teacher. Thankfully, my employer was supportive and encouraged me to go and pursue this calling. He even provided a scholarship!

When I graduated from the teacher’s college in Semarang and was accepted into the civil service, I made a commitment to myself and to God that no matter where I was placed, I would not take my “civil servant” status for granted but would instead always strive for excellence and integrity in serving my students, community and country.

Wow, what a journey! Can you tell us a little more about what excellence look like in your profession? What do you hope to achieve in the classroom?

Most of my students come from farming backgrounds like I do, but most of them will not stay in the village and become farmers. And so my hope for them is that they can grow up as mature, creative young people who can adapt well in many diverse kinds of working environments and go after big dreams. Many people cannot keep a good job because they’re unable to work with or under other people who have different beliefs and values.

That’s why I try to implement multicultural education in my classroom: encouraging students to be curious and appreciative about other cultures and faiths. My shelves at home are full of religious books from other faiths, and I often discuss what I’m reading with my students. Kids are very inquisitive, you know. One of them asked me once: if humans are the same despite our differences, why do we even have different religions and cultures at all? I offered my opinion, that perhaps it’s like the colors in a rainbow or watercolor painting: life is more beautiful with all of them included.

We love that you are so passionate about multicultural education. What has your own experience with multiculturalism been like? Do you find that others in your community - including other teachers - ever oppose what you are trying to do?

My family and I are all Muslim, but I grew up in a village which has a very multi-religious and multicultural makeup. I have neighbors and relatives who are Protestant Christian, Catholic, and Hindu. And we trust and feel safe around each other. Do you see? None of us lock our doors. Many of us, including my family, come from the Samin[1] tribe, and in our tribe we have many sayings that teach us to avoiding anger and live in peace and harmony with ourselves and others.

 As a native of Kudus, I’m also inspired by our long history of multiculturalism: just look at Menara Kudus[2] or Kudus people’s habit of eating buffalo meat, and we remember Sunan Kudus’s centuries-old teachings about religious tolerance. I have observed that in Northern coast of Java, we tend to be influenced more by the culture of the “Wali Songo” (Nine Islamic Saints of Indonesia) who preached a moderate and multicultural Islam, as opposed to some other cities that are more influenced by strands of hardcore Islam coming from the Middle-East war zone.

 But of course, to answer your other question, there are always a few here and there who think differently. For example, one of my friends, a lecturer in Semarang, has become more and more extreme in his views in recent years, and quite often posts non-tolerant messages on his social media platforms. We see these kinds of shifts happening in some mosques and schools, too, but it’s usually more pronounced in the big cities (not necessarily Kudus). In my opinion, these people’s motivations seem mostly political, not religious.

 So how do you respond to people like this friend, who disagree with your vision of multicultural education and interfaith tolerance?

To be honest, it can be quite discouraging when these kind of people ridicule you time and time again for your views. But when you truly believe you are doing the right thing, it helps you persevere in the long run. Many times, I turned to God in prayer when I felt discouraged, and He reminded me of the commitment I made to keep pursuing excellence and truth. And God has been faithful to answer my prayers. I have met many other friends who support me and share the same vision, like my colleagues at the Kudus Teacher Learning Center (Pusat Belajar Guru Kudus), and the community of educators I’ve met through different competitions and research conferences.

You mentioned the idea of “doing the right thing”.  How would you summarize your personal mission? Does your faith influence this mission?

Very simply, I believe that the best thing a person can do, what God intends and enables us to do, is to be someone who does good for others. So my core mission is to serve and be useful to others in as many ways as I can: whether in the classroom, through the books and blog I write, or in designing and organizing training for other teachers. My hope is that together we can prepare a generation of young people who can also be useful to the people around them and the world they live in.

Last question: You know, the government’s numbers tell us that Bulung Kulon is one of the “least-developed” villages in all of Kudus. But visiting your class and talking to you here today, it seems to me that you all have discovered some priceless nuggets of truth here that the rest of the world can learn from. On behalf of Bulung Kulon, can you share a word of wisdom for the rest of us, in the face of the various issues and conflicts that our world faces today?

No community is perfect. But here, we know that true wealth is not in material possessions. To me, poverty is not about money. Someone is poor if they have one of two conditions: one, if they are sick; and two, if they are in debt[3]. In our village, we may not have much money, but we also have little sickness or debt, and many good relationships. And so my encouragement would be, wherever you’re from and whatever your profession is, recognize and fight for the truly important things in life.

[1] The Samin people are an indigenous community of Central and East Java who descend from followers of Surontika Samin, a 19th century peasant farmer who preached nonviolent resistance against Dutch colonialism and social norms of the time, including colonial taxation, state education, the use of the Indonesian language, and adherence to one of five officially recognized religions in Indonesia. Though stereotyped as being resistant to change and “behind the times”, they are also known for their tradition of benevolence and peaceful protest against social and environmental injustices.

[2] The iconic local mosque which blends characteristics of Hindu and Muslim religious architecture.

[3] Unknowingly, Pak Nur has reminded me of the beauty of the gospel message: that though all of us are sick and in debt from the disease of sin which deserves eternal death, God in Christ has come to heal us and pay our debts through His work on the Cross, offering new hearts and life to the full for all who trust in His name. But this is material for another blog post.