Sajida: A Teacher With Patience

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. High school math teacher Sajida was gracious enough to talk with us and offer her insights into the classroom.

How did you find out about Intalage?

While I was in India, I received the President's Award for teaching. It helped me get noticed by my school director, who put me in touch with Intalage.

It was the first time leaving my family. Pretty unorthodox circumstances for me, since I grew up in a very traditional household. At first, my family did not believe that I could go to the US to teach; engineers and doctors are usually the ones who can travel easily. Even my extended family didn't think I could do it because of the finances required to travel and live on my own.

My mom helped out with getting my family on board, though. She's always encouraged me to be a pioneer. We decided that I would find a husband before I left for the US, so I got married in May 2008 and left for America in July.

On the night of my wedding, I got the call from Intalage saying I was accepted to the program. I told my husband, and he was in disbelief, like, “How is this possible?” I was really excited but worried, too, because of my family. Surprisingly, my mother-in-law thought my going was a good idea, so she also helped get everyone to agree.

What made you want to work with them?

I searched and spoke to different companies that would help me go to the US to teach. There was one that was going to send me to the Middle East, but I had a bad feeling that something was wrong with the situation, so I dropped out. I felt like some organizations were cheating me: asking for $100,000 before I even started teaching, or wanting 15% of my salary. I figured what I earn as my salary should be mine.

Intalage was different. They never took my money. I had a good feeling about them from the start, so I just trusted them.

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

In India, I taught 8th, 9th, and 10th grade math. In the US, in 2008, I started off with 11th and 12th grade Honors Algebra, as well as 10th grade Geometry. Now I teach 11th and 12th-grade AP Statistics and 11th-grade Advanced Algebra.

In what way is the US educational system different from the one back home? Are there similarities? What do you do differently now as a teacher, after having worked in the US?

My first year in America was rough, to be frank. In India, the teacher is considered almost a god, so it was very different to see how students here acted towards teachers. In the US, a teacher is equal to the student. At first I was insulted when a child would ask me a question like, “Why am I teaching this topic?” The principal at my first school helped me understand: students do that here, it's just harmless curiosity.

I had one girl who would fall asleep in my class all the time. It was an early class, but still, it was frustrating. I tried many different things to reach out to her, and then eventually I shared my own story with her, like “this is how I struggled,” so she finally opened up to me. It turned out she was a pole dancer. I didn't even know what that was, but she explained, and I learned her mom made her do pole dancing for money. I was shocked and wanted to do everything I could to help her. I started tutoring her during lunch and after class. She said she felt safe in the classroom and actually wanted to come to the extra lessons. Kids need to be shown trust if they're going to trust you.

I share my thoughts, and the kids share theirs. When I talk about my own experiences growing up in an Indian school, sometimes the kids are amazed. Like I really couldn't talk back to the teacher, we had to stand every time the teacher entered a room, we had to greet him every time we saw him. To not do that would have been extremely rude. *Laughs* Sometimes my students say they wouldn't want to go to school in India.

My mom never had the chance to learn English or math, for instance, so she wanted me to do both. I went to a strict Christian school, a convent, and studied those subjects. It was unusual both because I wasn't a Christian, and also since women don't often study math in India. Usually they study science or get ready to become a housewife.

What did you learn about yourself while teaching in the US?

I learned so much. I used to think kids should be expected to know everything by 10th grade. My expectations were different back then, so I treated students differently. I regret the way I taught this one student in India, who I struggled with. He never learned, he did poorly at math, and failed. I didn't help him as much as I could have because I thought he was weak. I feel sorry about that. Being in the US changed me, so now I know that an 8th grader who isn't doing well in math isn't weak. He isn't being taught correctly, or he's not connecting to the material.

What was hard about the process?

The start of my life in the US was really tough. I brought my family with me of course, but in 2013, I got divorced. I'm still the pioneer in my house; I was the first one in my family to do that, to be a woman and divorce my husband. But that means it's just the kids and me. One child is in first grade, and one is in kindergarten. The third is 3 ½ years old, so he's not yet in school.

People say a woman can't do it. People in my family, even. They got their answer, though, because they thought I would not survive. My actions showed them I was capable.

Also, I plan to stay in the US: it's a very welcoming culture. I want to learn, and keep learning.

What was fun about it? How did it make you a better teacher?

In India, math is normally done with just paper and pencils and that’s all I was accustomed to. Technology and computers are not associated with it whatsoever; that's usually saved for computer class back home. Creativity, especially with regard to integrating technology, has made me a better teacher in the US. Even using simple Excel sheets or a calculator have given me a new appreciation for the subject. For the past 5 or 6 years, I've been getting more and more into classroom technology. Kahoot!, for example, or Quizlet, let me practice with students more easily and accurately, given his or her needs. I can even make a simple animated cartoon to illustrate math problems.

Statistics as a subject can be very dry. Students will often wonder, “Why learn this?” and because they don't care, their grades are low. I really wanted to change that, so this year I tried teaching differently. We were studying correlation and scatterplots, and I had the kids make their own projects about it. They picked out their own topics, formulated their own hypotheses and conclusions. One student compared the cost of a car versus its age. Another studied the price of land versus the area he lived in.

Self-teaching is good for kids. It helps relate subject matter to the child's own life, so the knowledge feels useful. And it worked: they were actually excited about completing their projects. As a result, that process I tried with them is actually now used in other schools and taught to other teachers.

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

Willingness to learn and interest. Some students are not willing to get interested in subjects. They want to understand right away, and when they don't, they give up. You need patience.

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

Last year, I had one 11th-grade student who was fearless. At the start of the year she went right up to me and said, “I don't like math, so I don't want to do anything in your class.” I said, “OK, you can make your own choices.” I gave her some time and adjusted things to her pace. I wrote down the steps for what we were studying and put them on her desk. The first day, she threw it away. The next day I did the same thing, broke everything down for her on paper, and she threw it away again. Third day, same thing. But the fourth day: she kept it and actually did the homework. Her mom came in the following morning and said, “How did you do this? How did you get her to do her homework?” Even the principal was stunned, since the student was so adamant about not learning math. She used to believe she wasn't good at it, but I changed her mind.

I have to say I'm a little proud of that. It's a real motivation for me to keep teaching. The student changed her schedule this year just to be in my class, which is the best compliment I could ever receive as an educator.

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

Go ahead. You are in the safest hands. Though you might not meet Mrs. Haque personally, I know you'll be safe with her. With other companies, it was just painful. Lots of problems.

Intalage gives great training too, preparing you to come to a new country. In India, they helped tell me what America was like. Teachers who'd gone and come back through Intalage helped me get ready, so I felt okay about leaving. I was definitely more prepared than I thought I'd be. Even though I had a problem with my accent at first, I was patient and things got better with time and practice.

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

Math is not hard. Seriously—keep an open mind and practice. Math is just like basketball or some other sport. It just takes patience.

In the classroom, I believe it's important to behave how you behave with your own kids. They're still children, after all. And you never give up on your children.

Take cursing, for instance. So many of my students cursed, it was like second nature to them. I could have started off being mad, punishing everyone, but instead we made a bar graph to find out how many times students cursed in the classroom. It ended up being pretty fun. Students liked counting and keeping track. I had this one student, every time he opened his mouth, he would curse. It was such a habit by this point that he didn't even mean it; it's how he grew up. He had the highest number but I felt that this helped him notice and become more aware of what he said.

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

A student once told me that I break down math problems into easy steps. That I write it out and make it like a story.