Amrita: A Teacher with Balance

Intalage reached out to several teachers it has placed in US schools to learn more about their lives, their teaching styles, and what their time with Intalage has been like. 8th-grade math and special education teacher Amrita was gracious enough to talk with us and offer her insights into the classroom.

How did you find out about Intalage?

I was visiting North Carolina when I heard about a chance to work in the US through my family friend. He knew Intalage's owners. I went and talked to them, and here I am.

What made you want to work with them?

Nasreen was extremely approachable. She had an end-to-end solution for bringing me over. She was the first person who told me exactly how the process of coming to America worked. Everyone else I spoke to at other companies was vague and iffy. But Nasreen told me, “If you can become qualified in special education, there is a lot of hope for getting you to the US.” She was right.

What grade(s) did you teach? What subject(s)?

8th-grade special education and math. There are many children with hidden disabilities, so I always say to look beyond what you see. You never know what a person is going through. I used to be a teacher for meditation and yoga as well in India, so I believe people need to know how to manage their minds.

What did you learn about yourself while teaching in the US? What was hard about the process? (i.e., new culture, confusing system, difficult students, etc.)

I learned a lot through relocation. Culturally, everything was so new … it was information overload. The school system too was certainly different. But I discovered I was capable of adapting.

What was fun about it?

The activities and celebrations were so fun. Class moms would just come in and hang up decorations sometimes, things like that. That element of looseness or joy in the classroom was very new to me, but I like it a lot. It helps make a comfortable, positive environment.

How did it make you a better teacher?

It's very well-structured here in the US, more systematic. They understand how to treat special education students, for instance, to give them the support and care they need. This system definitely helped widen my horizons, because India, by contrast, has no well-defined special education program. Working here has helped me see how to effectively teach special education students.

In what way is the US educational system different from the one back home? Are there similarities?

Discipline and respect is part of the Indian education system. There is a greater respect for elders there, which certainly applies to teachers. As a student, we would always stand when the teacher entered. You greet the teacher whenever he or she passes by. You would never talk or slide around in your chair. The discipline is greater. This rigidity can certainly be toned down—there is always a balance that's needed. India has a system of not retaining students because it's pass/fail there. This can create certain problems, but it does mean students tend to try hard because they don't want to fail. They don't want to seem like they couldn't do it in other people's eyes.

In the US, many students are nonchalant about failing grades. They know they'll move on to the next grade even if they fail. And they may say they didn't try to learn because it was hard. Since they don't have to push to succeed, it can create a feeling of indifference. Expectations for behavior are more casual here.

Of course it is scary to fail. Maturity is needed to understand failure, and it's often hard for a young student to understand the meaning of failure and how it doesn't make you a bad person. You can't glorify it, of course, but it's not the end of the world. Kids need to learn that.

What do you do differently now as a teacher, after having worked in the US?

General classroom management. I approach students much differently now. I can handle more situations, and I have more confidence. At first because of the cultural differences, I didn't know what was acceptable, what I could do as a teacher. I've definitely adapted now.

Do you have any stories of working with an especially receptive or nice student that you look fondly on?

Recently there was this child who was inattentive during class and who didn't do his homework. But he loved painting and drawing. Whatever talent a child has, I've learned to make an effort and connect my teaching to it. So I framed the importance of doing homework as developing a certain quality of perseverance in yourself. I told him if he wants to be an artist, someone may ask him to make a painting with a deadline, say by tomorrow. The homework I assigned is helping him learn how to finish things on time. To practice following through on things is a skill useful even to an artist.

The next day, he came into the classroom calling my name: he'd finished all the work. It's your self-image that really defines who you are. It determines how you see yourself, so I try to help students have a self-image that validates their ability to do things, so they can accomplish what they need to do. There is a quality of brilliance in each student I want to bring out. Healthy competition with oneself is important. The number of people you actually beat doesn't matter, but no matter what you need to put in your 100% and feel accomplished. That's what's important.

School is really about building qualities as a human being, not just learning individual subjects like physics and math. That's what I try to teach.

What qualities or tools do you think students need in today's world to succeed?

How to manage your mind. It's easy to be disturbed by events, or politics, or other people making fun of you. It makes you not try and put in that 100%. Try to respond instead of react. You can do it if you practice. Anger and reactivity come from seeing an intention in someone where there might be no intention at all. You assume the other person meant to hurt you, when in reality they didn't intend that. This psychological balance is important for success.

Also, don't work to receive happiness. You cultivate happiness on your own.

What role do you think one's cultural or personal background plays in education?

Family background and upbringing really impacts students' behavior. I was shocked to learn what kind of homes some children come from, but then it helped me understand why they might behave a certain way or do things differently from the rest.

With respect to my own upbringing, I think some of the strictness of the Indian classroom, as well as the culture, has helped me be resilient. It taught me to treat others with respect, always, and not to react impulsively and say whatever I want to say. I don't want to offend others, and I try and take things in good stride, which definitely helped me acclimate to America. Life is really very short, so I want to respect everyone while I'm alive. I value that.

What would you say to a teacher who was considering working with Intalage?

Your “why” must be very clear. This reason will fuel your experience in the new country. There are 7 or 8 people I know who got inspired and went with Intalage, too.

My daughter was the one who wanted to come to the US. We were in Dubai for a while and she was sick of it. She was seeking an independent environment, so she wanted to be here. At the time I was recently divorced and wanted to start life afresh, so Intalage seemed like a good idea. My daughter's in high school here now, and it was totally worth it. She wants to be casting director. Despite a pretty traditional Indian upbringing, she's very Western in how she looks at things. We call her “The Iron Baby” because she's young, but very perceptive. She doesn't miss a thing.

Do you have a message for the specific students you worked with?

Persevere. Stay connected to yourself. There's definitely an intrusion of the media in people's lives now, so it's easy to lose yourself with all the technology available. Stay connected to yourself, inside.

What was the nicest thing a student said to you while you were teaching in the US?

In India, I taught social studies in a high school. The kids there hated it, so I had them debate. I asked them how they felt about a topic and encouraged discussion instead of just lecturing to them. At the end of the class, many of them said, “You've made this our favorite subject.”

In the US, a student told me that when I smile, everything becomes easier for him. That's really good to hear. I think Charlie Chaplin said, “You need power only to hurt and harm. For everything else, love works.” Now, I can feel that to be true.