My story into education is a unique one and very much tied to my culture. Interestingly, my grandparents were teachers in Gujarat, India. Growing up, my parents were immigrants and they worked very long hours. As a result, It was my grandparents taking care of me. As educators, they taught me life skills such as how to sew and tend to a garden as well as how to ride a bike. They also encouraged me through helping me learn English and mathematics. I have a very vivid memory of learning multiplication with crayons.
During my mid elementary school years and throughout high school, there was a lot of family dysfunction happening in my household and so school became a safe community to learn and grow. The school I attended as well as my teachers provided me with the stability I needed to be a successful student and person.
It was while I was in high school where I took a class entitled “Working with Young Children” at a preschool that was run by our high schoolers. I quickly discovered that I loved the lesson planning aspect of this class and would spend extra hours preparing and planning. This class also provided me with a strong sense of self-confidence. Many individuals stopped me in the hallways to tell me how extraordinary my lessons were in addition to my game creations and the way in which I interacted with the children through my knowledge of developmental theories. Financially, I did not have a lot of extra curricular opportunities in high school, so it was incredibly rewarding to be recognized for something that I was really good at, and it began to plant seeds in my head in terms of what I wanted to do with my future.
I always had a zest for knowledge and my parents wanted me to pursue medicine. I decided I would become a pediatrician and then teach medical school classes on the side. I received a full scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh to pursue this career path. However, early on during my college years, I knew that this was not the pathway I wanted to take. I found the CASE program (Combined Accelerated Studies Program in Education) at The University of Pittsburgh and decided I wanted to enter into the education program. When my parents found out, they were not happy about it. In fact, I ended up leaving home, becoming homeless during my college years and became financially independent for this reason while receiving assistance from the university. Shortly thereafter, I ended up getting my CDA degree from Penn State which allowed me to work with children and toddlers/infants in order to make money on the side.
My first two years within the CASE program were quite challenging. Not only were my parents not on board with my decision, but I was surrounded by a sea of white teachers and as someone who is South Asian, there were certain experiences that I could not relate to. I also had educator instincts that were not as conventional as a typical “white female” teacher. For example, I value quality time more than I value words of affirmation or physical affection.
I began to think that maybe my parents were correct. My mother’s words still echo inside my head when I told her I wanted to be a teacher. She immediately responded and said, “No one is going to give you a job because you are Indian.” After much back and forth, I made the difficult decision to leave the program and began to consider social work, law school and even counseling. Everything I considered were spaces adjacent to the classroom, but I still felt myself wanting to remain inside the classroom. This yearning for classroom life simply wouldn’t go away.
Eventually, I contacted the director of the program to rejoin. However, I realized that with a summer camp opportunity that presented itself, it would be best to join the Primary Plus program and transfer my credits. The University of Pittsburgh really allowed me to rejoin in a way that would be most beneficial for me.
I grew up in a household where I couldn’t make a mistake and this perfectionism is certainly something I have struggled with since making the decision to become an educator. In other words, I had to unlearn this need to remain perfect. This is something I still work on daily.
Surrounding myself with supportive people is certainly something that has shaped me and allowed me to continue on my journey. I have always made sure to have good mentors surrounding me. Education is a very person-oriented field and as a result, I am constantly exposed to the identity of others and my own identity is exposed as well, and I have learned to become more comfortable with that fact.
I have also learned that though our initial pathway may not be straightforward, everything happens for a reason. Though I initially left the CASE program and then rejoined a different program, a lot of my credits transferred such that I was able to make room for more STEAM credits. This summer, I will be completing my STEAM certification and digital media for learning. A lot of my research has been connected to social justice as well as the social justice standards within education as well. This is something I am passionate about.
I have had countless talks with my parents who have since come to accept who I am and what I am doing. Growing up, I always heard more about the schooling and teaching in India than America. I realized that they were apprehensive about my vocational choice because they only had their frame of reference. They had very little way to interact with the American education system because no one really communicated with them appropriately during my years in public school. Over time, I have asked myself so many questions to think more deeply about their perspectives. How much do they value teachers? Why is it that my parents seem to value education more than they value the teachers? In terms of thinking I could do “better” as an individual, I often ask myself “What does better actually mean?” Would they rather I be a mediocre pediatrician whose heart is not really in the field?
Along with this, I have found that being a South Asian teacher in America is very interesting. My home life was certainly not centered around the typical “American public schooling.” I was held to very high expectations, and I try my best to communicate these high expectations to my students. Knowledge is power and this is certainly something that was instilled in me at a very young age.
I used to want to work in educational policy, work my way up the educational ladder and grow in success that way. Ironically, I feel very strongly after all of my career explorations that the biggest change happens inside the classroom. My goal for myself is simply this: I want to stay in the classroom for the next forty years and create positive change on the ground-level. My mentor always tells me to “never settle” and “never stop fighting” to make the systems better for our future leaders. I intend to follow her advice and continue my journey wherever it should lead me.