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Spartan Alumni Follow Thousands of Paths

Iwan Syahril, Indonesia's director general of teachers and education personnel

Spartan Alumni Follow Thousands of Paths

If 2020 taught us anything, it was to seize every opportunity. Often, it is the tailwind of a challenging year that pushes us in a new direction and reveals who we are meant to be. These rare moments can offer clarity, and if we are willing, we can travel a new path.

A Force for Education

For Iwan Syahril, Ph.D. ’16, the 1998 film “Meet Joe Black” offered more than an entertaining 181-minute escape; the romantic fantasy sparked a life-changing revelation.

 

I never considered a career in teaching, but the film encouraged me to consider how I really wanted to live my life.

 

The film’s intense look at living without regrets compelled Syahril to reflect on his own life and its trajectory, an intrinsic examination that propelled him into his current position guiding one of the globe’s largest educational systems.

“It’s funny how inspiration can strike,” said Syahril, who stumbled into teaching while plotting a potential career in foreign affairs or international business. “I never considered a career in teaching, but the film encouraged me to consider how I really wanted to live my life.”

Over the past two decades, Syahril has tossed himself into scholarship and earnestly championed student-centered education, which he sees as a pathway for Indonesia, the globe’s fourth-most-populous nation with nearly 270 million residents, to become a stronger, more robust country. “Being fully committed to education has allowed me to live my life with purpose,” Syahril said.

Iwan Syahril with coffee
Iwan Syahril, Ph.D. ’16, College of Education is making a difference on the school system in Indonesia that includes approximately 170,000 primary schools, 40,000 junior-secondary schools and 26,000 high schools.
Iwan Syahril giving presentation in Indonesia
Iwan Syahril presenting to teachers in Indonesia.
Indonesian primary school student and teacher
The approximately 3 million public and private school teachers, for whom Dr. Syahril is in charge of creating and implementing policy, are spread over the more than 17,000 islands that constitute Indonesia.
Iwan Syahril typing on computer
Iwan Syahril at work in his office in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Pursuing His Passion

Fully invested in becoming a better teacher, Syahril landed a Fulbright scholarship, which he parlayed into master’s degrees in secondary education and curriculum and teaching at Columbia University before turning to MSU’s globally renowned teacher education Ph.D. program in 2011. At MSU, Syahril found peers and professors who embraced him as an equal intellectual partner as well as an academic program that encouraged his quest for understanding curriculum, instruction and the teaching profession.

College of Education Professor Lynn Paine quickly noticed Syahril’s inquisitive nature and deep commitment to education—“When you called on Iwan in class, you better be prepared for a thoughtful, probing conversation,” she noted—but, even more, his unique ability to identify parallels between disparate educational environments from Indonesia and Canada to New York and Michigan.

“It wasn’t enough to understand things from the school’s perspective alone,” he said. “I needed to investigate the complexities of policy as well.”

That dual focus on pedagogy and policy sparked Syahril’s dissertation on policy sensemaking and teacher certification in Indonesia and, upon his return to Indonesia in 2016, the establishment of the Center for Education and Policy Studies, an independent research institute focused on innovation, educational issues and education policy.

“While the design of a policy may initially seem sound, the implementation of it is often messy as sensemaking is overlooked,” he said. “The two need to be more connected.”

Prepared for Opportunity

In May 2020, Indonesian President Joko Widodo appointed Syahril the nation’s director general of teachers and education personnel, an immense role in which he is charged to create and implement policy for 3 million public and private school teachers and education personnel across Indonesia.

“In my heart, I believe the key to improving education sits with better teachers,” he said. “I want to support teachers to do their job well and help them to see continuous learning as a core cultural element of a complex profession.”

Syahril also hopes to decentralize Indonesia’s existing educational structure by empowering 514 local governments to take a more active role in local students’ learning.

 

Don’t look up to the hierarchy … look directly at your students and their needs. That’s who we serve.

 

“The national government cannot do it alone, especially in a country as large and diverse as Indonesia,” he said.

Committed to the Cause

Though Syahril acknowledges some early skepticism to his office’s reform agenda, he remains steadfast in his mission and eager to shift the mindset of education in his country, one that has far too often favored complying with regulatory standards over attending to student needs.

“I want to put the focus on students and their learning, celebrating all talents and giving each individual an opportunity to contribute. I say, ‘Don’t look up to the hierarchy, but rather look directly at your students and their needs. That’s who we serve.’”

Supported by Indonesia’s Minister of Education and Culture, Syahril stands eager to gather early adopters and create a sustainable movement that pushes Indonesia’s educational system forward.


Contributing Writer(s): Daniel Smith

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