My grandparents were refugees into present-day India from East Bengal (present-day Bangladesh), my parents are immigrants to the United States from Kolkata, India and I am a transplant to New York City via a few stops in Irvine, CA, Cambridge, MA and Mumbai, India along the way. Though I’ve been raised with stories of achievement being proportional to effort, I remain wary of most variations of this formula.
From what I can remember I’ve always had a penchant for mystery so I was naturally drawn to mathematical and scientific processes of inquiry in school in an effort to demystify. My own questions in both these disciplines were reserved for my parents (sometimes just myself), as school environments seldom offered space to explore these conundrums. When I enrolled in my undergraduate engineering program, I came to understand that I’d achieved success in high school without understanding much Math or Science at all. My course work employed both abstract mathematics and modeling/problem-solving tactics. The former mainly to design and optimize programming algorithms, and the latter to understand the behavior of and optimize physical and virtual systems and protocols. Though I could reproduce what others had discovered, I felt challenged by the exercise of creating new knowledge in my field because most of my educational experiences had been focused on other peoples’ reasoning rather than developing my own.
This growing doubt in our models of teaching and learning and low participation of under-served students and women in STEM programs led me to the classroom as a Physics and Mathematics teacher in the Boston Public Schools. What I quickly learned (and you all know) was that success on standardized assessments serve as the ceiling for our urban students (whereas it was the floor in the suburban district I attended as a student). The education of low-income children felt like a city-wide compliance exercise. Finding myself unequipped with the sensitivities, knowledge and skills to truly serve the diverse student populations of Boston, I trudged ahead to ensure that my students didn’t suffer the consequences of my inexperience. I stayed on pace at any cost, and made sure my students weren’t punished by the system. 100% of my students passed the state test (the city average was significantly less than half of that in Physics at the time). I knew that it would perhaps help them get through the door of post-secondary institutions, but little to ensure their success once they were there.
In addition to a confounding assessment culture, collaborative infrastructure for teachers across the city felt close to non-existent from the perspective of a new teacher. Therefore, professional improvement became a solo activity, with the help of the internet. Though my entry point to the field came from a place of providing a high-quality K-12 STEM experience for student populations who continue to be marginalized in these fields, my attention shifted to the greater climate and institutions that preclude growth and development of schools.
With a newfound resolve to develop enduring systems for school improvement that serve our most vulnerable student populations, I moved to Mumbai, India. There were a myriad of questions that we were confronted with given India’s stage of development. What does access to education mean for children of migrant communities that are fleeing rural parts of the country in search of economic sustenance? How do we preserve native language and culture in schools given English is the language of commerce? How do we break down destructive socio-cultural perceptions of our students such that once educated, there is a system to feed into that will acknowledge and honor their potential? How do we recruit and continuously support high quality teachers in an arena where teachers are paid 1,500 Rs/month ($23) to 30,000 Rs/month ($459)? How can technology be harnessed in such resource-constrained settings without being a detriment to learning? What I’d come to understand is that we in the US were also grappling with the same questions. Though the economic divide between these two countries, there was a lot to learn and share.
Over the past few years, I’ve been focused on elevating professional learning communities of mathematics teachers here in the US while exploring what it means to transform the mathematics classroom to one that affords the opportunity to students irrespective of socio-economic class, predilection, experience and starting point. In my current position, I seek to build an equitable and coherent system to identify school needs, design and provide tailored support, and create the conditions for schools to sustain the work once the support has been offered.