In Conversation With: Jeet Patel
Director of Recruitment at Teach For All
Jeet Patel is the Director of Recruitment at Teach For All, the global arm of Teach For America, for the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. He is currently based in Mumbai in India.
Jeet grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, thinking his future career would be in medicine. He lived in somewhat of a “bubble” during his childhood—he attended a high quality school, lived in a nice neighborhood and had friends who grew up in a similar upper-middle class environment. When Jeet went to Northwestern University for college, he was confronted with a very diverse student population, where many of the students he befriended did not come from such privileged upbringings.
It was at Northwestern that Jeet came to realize that there was a serious “disconnect” between his experiences growing up and his peers’. This challenged his pre-existing view of the world and pushed him to become active in the community—it made him want to make a difference. Throughout undergrad, Jeet was involved with community service activities and by the end of his undergraduate career he was recruited by Teach For America. After undergrad, Jeet was placed as a teacher in New York, where he completed his two-year term.
During our conversation, Jeet discussed the fact that many of us in the Asian community, particularly in the South Asian community, have grown up in privilege. Although all South Asians are not “rich,” a large majority is privileged in terms of education, health and shelter. It is something we often take for granted until we push ourselves outside of our comfort zone, Jeet explained.
Jeet was able to break out of his “bubble” in undergrad and through his experiences as a Teach For America teacher in New York. He encourages others to do the same because he believes he would have never ended up in the position he is in now had he not had the courage to “do something different.”
Jeet and I spoke about his experiences working with disadvantaged schools both in the United States and in India. Even though we discussed some of the noteworthy differences between the schools in India and the U.S., Jeet’s overarching message was that children all over the world need the “same stuff” to succeed: teachers that believe in every student, teachers that understand the community and teachers who are committed to preparing rigorous coursework for their students.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a first time Teach For America teacher?
“I had seventh grade science. And one of my classrooms had forty-two kids. Each of the forty-two kids was on a different reading and writing level and yet I was their seventh grade science teacher. They were held accountable for seventh grade science standards…[The challenge is] how do you as a new teacher [teach these students with varying abilities], manage your classroom and connect with the student’s families and community?”
How did you get past the cultural differences you faced as a teacher in New York?
“There was a small subset of Teach For America teachers who were Indian [when I joined the program]. I am not usually the one to create small communities along racial lines. [However], there was something about this experience where I was like: ‘We actually need to come together and talk and process things together. There is some element of shared experience that we are all having.’”
Please discuss some of the similarities and differences between disadvantaged schools in India vs. the ones in the U.S.
“There are a lot of challenges that meet your eye [in India]. In the United States, even in the most depraved communities there is still access to food [in most cases], water, sanitary resources, and shelter. It is still a challenge…but the government provides some mechanism to help people survive.
In India, basic survival elements are not there. There are kids in our classrooms [in India] who sleep on the pavement –[students] who literally just don’t have access to food if they don’t beg for it. There is that visual difference. And that is in terms of resources as well…everything from textbooks to …no bathrooms. The resource differences are massive.
[Yet], when you look inside the classroom and you see what is working with kids, the stuff that is working in classrooms in Delhi is the same stuff that is working in classrooms in New York. The best teachers— who actually believe in every single child—that is something you see in common in classrooms that are achieving [in India] and in the United States. Teachers who have really high expectations for their kids. They plan rigorous lessons. They meet the kids where they are at in their learning and find a way to get them up. There are things that we know work. And when you visit the best classrooms in the worst areas it’s the same stuff…it’s the same exact stuff [that works]. At that point, you realize that there really aren’t that many differences.”
What is your response to those who are critical of Teach For America? I have had education policy professors who have been very critical of this model, which puts inexperienced teachers into failing schools.
“I have different perspectives. From the ground, I definitely understand why there is hesitation to hire and feel invested in Teach For America teachers. In my middle school, it was the first year our principal ever hired five Teach For America teachers. And out of the five of us, three quit before the two years had finished…So if you’re a principal or a community member and you’re hedging your bets on a new teacher and they are quitting, you will want to dig into that… There are a lot of valid assumptions [about] the program where people might think ‘What the heck is this?’ So on one hand, I totally get it when I hear people are concerned.
[On the other hand], of all of my closest friends in the education world, none of us initially ever thought we would go into education. And now seven years out, we are all still involved in education in many different ways [because of Teach For America]. Some have stayed on as teachers into their eighth and ninth years. Some of my friends have become principals. Some of us, like me, have left the classroom, but are impacting and thinking about education from different perspectives. The vast majority of my friends have not left the sector…These are people who had no intention of really giving back to their communities through this sector. It was the experience of the two years that [got] people to stay.
I think that a lot of people misunderstand what Teach For America is trying to accomplish. A lot of my friends are also critics and their perspective is that Teach For America is a teaching program. [But that’s really not what it is]. The actual program is saying that we need to overhaul the education system. In order to do that, we need people from all of these different sectors to be fighting for education. And Teach For America believes that people who have had experience teaching are best suited to then make changes to the educational sector at large. That is to me what the actual aim of Teach For America is.”
What are three things you wish could be improved upon in the Indian education system?
“There has to be something around teacher accountability in India. Like who can actually become a teacher. On any given day, twenty-five percent of teachers don’t show up at government schools. Teacher absenteeism is [a huge problem in India].
Of the people who are teachers, they are [often] the bottom-ranked of their colleges…Even if they don’t pass the teaching exam [many] still get into [the profession]. There is something about teacher attraction that needs to be dealt with.
There is also something really important at the principal level [that needs to be addressed]. School principals often have no support and no training. Often principals are the teachers that have been at the school the longest. Many times this is not the person you want leading the school.
One more thing—it’s about the way we teach in India. When you go to the best schools in India all you see is rote memorization. It is definitely played out at the tertiary education level but it is at all levels. We went to the best public schools [where wealthy students go] but in those classrooms there was terrible education. We have to reconceptualize what education means in India. We have to focus on academics and the values that we want to implement in the classroom.”
What do you look for when you recruit students for Teach For India?
“We are quite selective…We are looking for all sorts of characteristics that we have seen to be really important in the past. Perseverance. No matter what hits you, you will keep going. Critical thinking—everything from your grades in college to just how you are as a critical thinker [overall]. Your ability to build relationships. You have no control over where you will eventually be teaching. You could walk into a community where you have nothing in common with them. Grit…being tenacious. And leadership.”
What is one piece of advice you have for new Teach For America/Teach For All teachers?
“It will get better. It will actually get better! And you will be fine! The thing that I wish I had done immediately and not three months in was getting to know the community. Walking the children home. Meeting the families. Asking the families about their kids. I was so overwhelmed by the logistics of being a teacher that I put that on the back burner. Only when I [connected with the community] did my other problems become resolved—like classroom management. It’s the little things. Don’t underestimate how critical those families and the community are to your success as a teacher.”
“I can’t imagine my life had I not done [Teach For America]. There is a place where you can be really fulfilled and really challenge yourself early in your career where you are really making a difference for others. It’s a great opportunity to do something different!”
Nisha Choksi is the Managing Editor of Universal Mirror. She is working on completing her Master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration (MPPA) from Northwestern University, focusing on issues related to education and economic development. Nisha is an active dancer who enjoys traveling and is obsessed with all things beauty.