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Talk Time: A Top Teacher Facilitates Learning

By Poornima Apte Email By Poornima Apte
September 2016
Talk Time: A Top Teacher Facilitates Learning

(Left) President Barack Obama greets Revathi Balakrishnan of Texas, during a photo line in the Blue Room prior to an event to honor the 2016 National Teacher of the Year and finalists in the East Room of the White House, May 3, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Revathi Balakrishnan, originally from Chennai, was a systems analyst for years before she decided to take up teaching. A top-performing math teacher at Patsy Sommer Elementary School in Austin, Texas, where about 30 per cent of the students happen to be Asian or Indian, Balakrishnan was selected as Texas Teacher of the Year 2016. At the White House, President Obama recognized her at a special ceremony for all such teachers.

What got you to teaching in the first place?
I've been teaching only for 10 years. Before that I was a systems analyst for 12 years, but I've always been interested in teaching. I also like change.

Why pick teaching if you wanted a change?
I was curious to see how a school functioned, how kids learned. Also, I knew that I was a good teacher, from feedback on my work while I was a graduate assistant at Northeastern University—and I’ve never regretted the decision to make this change.

You must have had to take some training?
Texas State University has a very good Teacher Recruitment Program, which takes people who switch careers. It was a nine-month program complete with classes as well as immersion in the classroom.

You were brought up in India where teachers are granted a certain amount of reverence. How is the attitude towards teaching different here?
It's good the way the public questions public education, because I think that gives a check and balance, but there are a lot of assumptions that teaching is an easy job. Really, we’re on a nine-month salary extended over 12 months. There’s an illusion that we’re getting paid for doing nothing, but really I don't have a single summer off. I force myself to take a week off.

Teaching is an art, and not many people can actually do it. We're all professionally trained to work with students. People in the teaching profession don’t come there for the money. They come because they are excited and they feel they add value to a child's life. I think the big mistake we're doing is when we have so many eager teachers coming into the profession immediately after college and we don't do anything to retain them. We don't provide mentoring. They walk into a classroom and are expected to perform like a 20-year veteran. That is not expected in a company, is it?

You are focused on the gifted and talented group. Is there any common misconception for that particular set of students?
The perception is that they are very smart and they don't need help, and they can get everything on their own. That is not the case. In fact, the students are sometimes socially awkward because their brain is moving in one direction, but bodily and behaviorally they are still either with their age group or probably not even caught up.

There's also a sense of underachievement because they have moved into a classroom where they are challenged, but so far they've been where things have come easy. Then there’s stress from the parents and society. They are expected to outperform everyone else because they're considered smart, and that's why I don't like this term ‘talented and gifted.’ It's not that they are above the regular classroom; it's just that they learn in a different way.

People think my job is very easy for the same reason [that they don’t need much help, but] these kids learn in a different way, so I have to modify my lesson plan.

How do you have to modify your lesson plans?
I don’t ‘teach’ them. I facilitate. Each kid comes with their own challenges… gifts. I see what they are interested in, and so every lesson is an exploration rather than telling the concepts. I try to pique their curiosity so that they're learning even when they are not with me. They don't need the teacher to tell them what to do. They just need a facilitator who will pull materials together, find out where they are struggling, and then step in and help them over the hurdle, because discovering for yourself is the most fascinating process.

What grades do you teach?
This year I am teaching third, fourth, and fifth math.

How did the President Obama recognition come about?
It's part of the national Teacher of the Year program, so all the state teachers of the year were invited to Washington to meet with President Obama. I never expected to go to this level because I've just been doing what I've been doing for the past nine years. The recognition started when my school chose me to be School Teacher of the Year and then I was Texas Teacher of the Year.

It is not an easy job. You've got the principal over one shoulder. You've got the parents over the other shoulder, but you still have to teach. Administrators and superintendents are also operating under so many constraints. I just gave a speech to the entire leadership, and I told them that we have to look at our conscience and say, “Are you implementing programs because it makes us look good, or are we implementing it because it is for the greater good?”

Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor. Learn more at WordCumulus.WordPress.com.

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