Podcast: From ELL Student to HS Math Teacher with Priyank Bhatt on Teachers in America

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Photo: Noelle Morris interviews Priyank Bhatt in his classroom before COVID-19 results in school closures.

Welcome back to the podcast for a new episode of our Teachers in America series. Our guest today is Priyank Bhatt, a high school teacher at West Side High School in Newark, NJ.

This episode was recorded prior to school closures and the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Lish Mitchell: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments, a production of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I'm Lish Mitchell, and I work at HMH. Today's installment is the first of a two-part Teachers in America episode hosted by HMH’s Director of Content and Programming, Noelle Morris.

Priyank Bhatt is a math teacher at West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey under principal Akbar Cook. When he was a child, he moved from India to the U.S., and learned English with the help of a dedicated ESL teacher and by watching cartoons with his friends. Even while he was grappling with the language barrier, Priyank discovered that math was universal, and began to tutor his friends when they struggled in class. By the time he was pursuing a master’s in education from Montclair State University, he had also begun working in Newark as an urban educator and has been there ever since.

Before school closures took place, we met with Priyank in his classroom at West Side. This episode is our pre-COVID-19 interview. Tune in to the next episode to hear how Priyank and his school district adjusted to the needs of the students who were hit hardest by the virus.

Now, here's Priyank and Noelle.

Noelle Morris: So, Mr. Pri, tell me a little bit about being a teacher here at West Side High School in Newark. You're the lead math teacher.

Priyank Bhatt: I think teaching at West Side High School is, just like teaching in general, challenging at times. But I enjoy working with the students. The population that we deal with, they come with a lot of baggage. So the goal that we have is, “What can we do to help them be successful, not just in academics, but also in social skills? How do we help them become successful if they're not focused on going to college?”

For example, we just learned that we're going to have a cosmetology teacher who's going to be teaching classes to those students who are interested in cosmetology. I feel like a school like this has those opportunities where it's not available to many schools that I've been to before.

Noelle: I noticed too, walking down the halls, you see quotes, anywhere from Drake to Martin Luther King Jr. And every message is inspirational. Every message is about you being you and you recognizing who you are and appreciating that. So tell me a little bit about how you notice students appreciate the environment that has been set here at the high school.

Priyank: That kind of goes back to when we first moved to this school. In the beginning, I was actually with another principal at a different school, called Newark Early College High School. The goal of that school was, we would offer a dual credit program and then they would be also earning their associate’s or taking a college level class.

After about a year, we were invited to come and take over West Side High School, because the school wasn't performing at the level the district wanted it to perform. So, myself, along with other teachers and the principal, we came and we took over West Side. And we actually saw that there was a lot of disengagement between the students, they were not motivated, they were not engaged. Many of the teachers were not teaching at the level the students wanted them to teach at. And there were also some students who were just not interested in school, so they spent their time walking around the hallway.

The principal right now, Mr. Cook, also came in with us and he was in charge of the NLA program, which was over-age under-accredited program for a lot of the students. So when we came together, we had a vision for what we wanted the school to be.

We put in policies that you see in place now. It's something allowing opportunities for students to be taking classes that you don't see at normal high schools. This is a whole business school now. We have a lot of students who are taking opportunities to take business classes at our school. We just had a deal with Rutgers to allow for some students to actually take classes off the site and go to campus and take classes over there. So a lot of students see that we're involved more.

We saw that the culture of the school started to change, along with Mr. Cook's initiative of building the community. He's all about, “How do we get the community involved? How do we help the kids feel safe, not just inside, but also outside of the school?” So, the program he started was the afterschool program, where the kids can come and we have food for the kids, we have games for the kids. Instead of being on the streets, they can come and hang out at our school.

We have video games and [other stuff] the kids can engage in. I think the students realized that there was more involvement from the adults, that we were really trying to help the kids as much as possible and we wanted them to be successful. Success for some students is going to college, for other students it’s finding a job or pursuing an opportunity that's not college or career, it’s just something different. You know, it could be business related.

So it was something that we wanted them to be successful in. I think the students started to appreciate that and their behavior started to change, along with the behavior of the teachers.

Noelle: And I noticed when we walked in, from the moment you enter the building, everyone is, “Hello.” It’s almost like you're part of the community.

Priyank: Yes. We try to include you in our family as much as possible.

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Noelle: Which was appreciated. When I came in, I noticed Capital One Bank. Tell me, is that part of your financial literacy program? Is It part of bringing the community in?

Priyank: Capital One Bank was something that started a couple of years ago and they had two major impacts. Definitely, we wanted the community to come in. The other thing was the opportunity for students to have jobs. We actually have two students who work at Capital One Bank. What they do is they attend their classes and then the days they work at Capital One Bank, they make up that work for whatever they missed.

It's a great way to get the students ready for the real world, because you have to multitask, you have to be able to do multiple things at once.

This is for juniors, but mainly seniors, and we choose which students will be in this program. And as students are told in advance, this does not mean you get to be basically free from the work or you're excused from any work that you missed. It's just that we want you to have the experience, what it feels like to have a job. And then we want you to be able to, for example, think about when you go to college, most people will be working while they're in college. We want you to be able to have that experience.

The other thing was, we also wanted the students to think about saving money. One of the initiatives, one of the programs that we have with Capital One Bank is, students can open up an account. All they need is their ID and a dollar. And then once they open up an account, the Capital One Bank also matches that or puts in some money, as well. And that way students get used to saving money because we want them to also start the habit of saving money. Because many of them, when they get some money, their first response is to spend that money on something.

I think in the end, it is a great program for the students and also for the community.

Noelle: I think that it's amazing to have that opportunity to work and still do your schoolwork. I know I didn't learn that until I graduated college.

I mean, I know that I had different means. I didn't leave college without a lot of debt because of some of my circumstances.

Priyank: I think it's a great way for them to think about finance because we are a business school. That's a great thing to think about: “Well, I have this money now, how do I save it? What do I do with this, so that I'm making the most of my future?” That was the initiative behind it.

We have a lot of students who took that challenge on. And I think we have a great responsibility to help these students make better financial decisions than they might see in the communities around them.

Noelle: I noticed, getting to watch your sophomores in that math class, [that] you do not bring down or slow down your style of delivery. I want to talk a little bit about the pace and the style and the questioning that I saw from the moment students enter that classroom.

I think I only heard you direct one time, “Remember to get your notebooks.” And then the rest was all academic discourse. Tell me, how have you established that, and how have you taught your students to work towards that pace?

Priyank: The establishment of the norms that I have set for my classroom is just, every single day, you review those norms, you discuss those norms, you have students practice those norms. Because they have seen the same norms repeated throughout the day, they know it. When they come into my classroom, they know where their binders are, they know where to get pencils, if they need calculators they know where to get calculators. I think everything's been established from day one, and I repeated myself several times, of course, in the beginning. Because you know, you say one thing and 30 seconds later, you have questions like, “Wait, what did you just say? I don't remember what you just said.”

So, for example, let's say a kid forgets something. My expectation is for that kid to ask somebody before they ask me. And because I've set the expectation, the students know by now that instead of coming to me, they're going to ask somebody [else] first and if none of them can figure it out, then they have to come to me.

I think it's all about establishing those norms early in the beginning and being consistent with it. I think many teachers forget [that] if you are not consistent and if you fall through or just forget about it, then the kids will, of course, take it easy and you have to kind of start all over again.

And in regard to the way this classroom is set up, we started from an 80 minute class to a 40 minute class. Not only do I want to make sure that I'm covering what's important and what my students will be tested on, but also I want to make sure they're comfortable and confident in their ability to do this kind of math. And for them to be able to be confident, comfortable, I have to give them time to practice it.

A lot of this stuff, I spend at least a couple of hours going through it myself. And I stop to think about, and ask myself, “Where do I see my students getting stuck?” Because if I know that they're going to get stuck, I need to make sure that I have something set in place for that.

For example, the problem today, I knew they were going to get stuck with the equations themselves. So that's why I said, “Okay, now that I have the equations, now I want you to think about these equations. Think about how they were set up. Think about what method they used to set these equations up and talk to each other.”

Because me just telling them is not going to help them. Sometimes I've noticed, and I'm sure many teachers have noticed the same, if I explain it to them a thousand times, they probably won't get it. But if another student explains it, they'll get it right away. So that's why I allow students to explain it to [each other] more than I explain it, because that way, I feel, a lot of them do understand it better.

Noelle: And they're listening. Because one of the things I noticed from where you're delivering instruction and moving, it's almost stealth. I mean, they don't hear you, they don't notice you're there. But you also allow multiple points of entry, and I noticed that hoods on or a head down or not directly making eye contact with you does not make you immediately think they're not engaged.

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Noelle: Tell me, teacher to teacher: How have you become very comfortable with that communication norm? Because one of the first things I had to learn is, just because I was taught to make eye contact does not mean that that's every culture, that that's every student.

Priyank: Correct. I think it comes down to knowing the population and knowing your students very well. For example, if I have a student who comes in and he or she has a hoodie on and they sit down with the hoodie on, I'm not going to make a big deal about it, only because it could be because they have a bad haircut or it could be because they're just, some of my students, the way the lights are, it may affect him or her, so that the hoodie on helps them to concentrate better.

Another student of mine, she just recently moved from Nigeria, where it’s disrespectful to look directly at the teacher while he or she is talking. So some of them might look down, they might look at their notebook while a teacher might say, “Well, I want you to look at me while you're talking.” For them it’s like, “That's not what I was growing up with so I can’t do that.”

I think when you know the student population, when you know what they're bringing with them, the culture, the backgrounds, and you adjust to that, it makes it so much easier to not only teach and meet them where they are, but also use that to your advantage.

For example, if I have a student who has her head down, she's comfortable enough to approach me like this: “I’ve got my head down for five minutes because I have a headache or whatever, but it doesn't mean I'm not paying attention. I'm listening to what you're saying. And I'm copying down what you're saying.” Which is perfectly fine with me. I don't get upset when a student has his head down or her head down, because when I go to them, like the student who had her head down today—I just approached her, I said, “What's wrong?” And she told me, “I just have a really bad stomach ache, but I'm copying down what you're saying.” That's cool with me—if you're feeling sick or whatever, just let me know, give me a signal and I'll let you go to the nurse. But she was fine. She was engaged afterwards.

I think once you build that relationship with your students and when they feel comfortable talking to you, most of them, if you tell them, for example, please pick your head up or take your hoodie off, they'll do it. But it doesn't bother me because it's not about that. I feel like that shouldn't stop me from teaching or getting through to them or helping them understand. What the majority of them need help understanding is, “How do we apply this math to the outside world?” Or “How's it going to help me in the future?”

Noelle: And feel confident and feel that they're into this content, they're understanding and they're able to use the equations and figure it out.

I also loved at the very end that you didn't shy away from not giving the answer. And I saw several write down the answer, not in a way that they were answering it in their problem, but that they were going to finish what they were doing and they were going to double check.

Priyank: Right. I know that if I don't show them the answer, they're going to constantly bother and come back and be like, “This is what I got. Is this what you got? Is this what you got?” The reason I showed them the answer is because, like I said in my classroom, it’s about the right answer or your answer—I want to see your thought process. Because I know math is about getting the right answer, but that's not what I'm here for. I’m here to help you understand that thought process and help you get to the answer and help you realize why your answer isn't the right answer, because that will help you get the right answer.

And if you notice the classroom norms I have, a lot of the norms don't discuss “You can’t wear a hoodie, you can’t do this.” It's about the norms of simple things, like, “Be polite, you know, someone's talking, listen to them. And if you have any questions, raise your hand.” Stuff like that.

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Noelle: One of the focal points in the room that I was drawn to is your accountable talk. And I thought, how important is that? And how amazing to see that in a math classroom. And I loved the one question “Can we both be right?” So how often does that dilemma and that conversation happen in your classrooms?

Priyank: Well, it's always interesting when you have students arguing back and forth. The reason that I had the ACARA math talk is because they're good at speaking, but in their own language. So when they discuss a lot of these issues or the problems they're having, they use terminology, which, if you're talking about getting them ready for standardized tests or anything like that, that's not the language they use. The reason of that poster is because I want them to get used to that kind of language. So when they see it, they know how to answer those kinds of questions.

And I feel like that's a great way for them to discuss with each other the disagreements they have. Whenever I have two students who argue, literally it's them arguing, but they're not really talking about why one of them is correct, the other person is incorrect. They just argue and their main reason is, “I'm correct, because. And that's it.” And I'm like, okay. The reason for the ACARA math talk is, “Tell me why you're correct. Give me a rationale for it. And is it possible, like you say, can both of us be correct?” And then, if they go back to the rationale and then use analysis and use the problem-solving skills that I've taught them, then they can prove why they're correct.

It's all about justifying your response. That's what math is about. Yeah, it's possible for me to be wrong and for you to be right—as long as you justify that rationale to me, and if you prove it to me in such a way that I change my own thought process and change my own thinking, to believe what you're saying is correct.

I want them to get used to that because it's not about just math. If they're going into the real world, if they're doing anything, they have learn to think critically and make themselves be like that, where they're trying to convince the other person to take their side.

Noelle: Tell me how you came to be a math teacher. You emigrated to the States yourself at 11 years old, which is middle school. Let's talk a little bit about… “interesting” is the most boring adjective I could think that might describe how that experience was. So tell us a little bit about you as that 11-year-old moving to the United States.

Priyank: My family moved to the United States, of course, you know, for better opportunities and better education. We did not speak English, which was definitely a challenge for us. My brother, who's a year younger and my two sisters who are a year older, were all placed in public schools. So it was definitely a challenge growing up and being in an environment where you don't speak the language.

The culture was definitely a little different where a lot of the things that you see now in public schools weren't happening back then. They would just put you in the classroom and then you didn't speak English. They’re like, “Oh, we'll figure it out. Here's your book anyway. Just try to make out some words here and there.” The best way I learned English was hanging out with some friends and watching cartoons. That's how I picked up English. I was just like, “Okay, I really like some of these shows, I have to figure out what they're saying. I'm going to just figure out some of these words and here's a dictionary. I’m going to try to figure out what these words mean.”

The teachers were helpful in some way, but I feel like, you know, just like any normal classroom, you have so many kids to deal with, it's a little hard to deal with the student who doesn't even speak the language. Their best response is, “Well, here is paper and here is a dictionary. And if you need help, let me know.” And I just was like, “I just have no idea what you said, but I'm seeing a book and paper. I'm going to try to figure out what I'm supposed to do with that.”

Math was something I was good at, of course, because math is universal. Technically you don't really need to speak a language. All you see is numbers, operations, and you can figure out what you have to do. I actually was really good at math. What I did notice was a lot of the friends that I made were not so good in math.

What I would usually do is, I would finish my work early and I would get up and walk around. And I would see my friends and I would just sit next to them and help them out with their problems. And then what would happen was that they were able to understand my thought process more than the teacher's thought process. A teacher would spend like, maybe 20 minutes going over a problem, and they'd be sitting there and they'd be trying a problem on their own. They would have no idea what's going on and I'd be walking around and they're like, “Oh, Pri, come here. You see this?” I'm like, “Yeah, I'm done.” [They’re] like, “How'd you do this?” I would just be saying, “Well, think of it like this.” And then I would just explain to them, and they'd get it little by little.

And also I was thinking it was more of the interaction, the one-on-one thing, which the teacher wasn't able to do. Because of that experience that I had from early on, I just was like, maybe I should think about pursuing a career in education, because I liked helping out students, I liked helping explain some of the concepts they didn’t understand.

I liked how once I was done, they were able to grasp and they were able to be like, “Oh, now I get it.” So that led me to pursue a degree in education. I actually was thinking about doing finance first, but one of my professors pulled me out. And she actually said, “We're doing a program where you can get your Master's for free, if you teach in Newark for three years.”

And I was like, “Well, I don't know if I want to be a teacher yet, but you're paying for my Master's?” And I think I got a stipend on top, so I was like, “Sure, why not?" So I did it. And then I actually liked working in Newark. I like working with the students in Newark. So I've been here ever since.

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Noelle: See, I find that amazing. There's a lot of nitpicking back and forth with teachers on how we come into our career. I had a lot of my student loans paid back because I taught in an area of need and because I agreed to start to teach at an at-risk and alternative education. But that might've been one of the reasons why I was like, okay, I'm going to do this. But had I not found my passion and the desire I could have easily said, “You know what? I'll figure out another way to pay back my loans.”

What are your thoughts on that, with [regard to] teachers’ decisions on taking those opportunities for a Master's if [they] teach in [a district that is in need] or to pay back [their] loans if [they] teach? What would you encourage if someone doesn't think it's the right way in to becoming a teacher?

Priyank: I feel that there is a stigma when it comes to teaching at schools that are highly in need. For example, schools from urban backgrounds, poverty schools. I think for people who are having second thoughts about it, it’s because either they're scared or they're just like, “I don't know if I'll survive this.” But if they just take a chance—you never know, like when I first started, it was difficult. But I got through it because one of the main things I learned was, it starts with building a relationship with your students. And once you get to know the students, once you have relationship with them, once you have that trust with them, it does become much easier. I think a lot of these educators who are in the field who are having second thoughts about it, [should take] the time to say “You know what? What have I got to lose? I’m going to give it a shot.”

Because I think in the end, we'll have a lot of the people who are truly gifted, who are able to help some of these students choose a better career path or help them with their education or whatever it is. We'll get those kinds of teachers involved in these kinds of societies when we need those teachers in here and in schools like this. Because that's what our students want. They want teachers who are dedicated. They want teachers who are motivated. And our job is to provide those kinds of teachers to our students.

Noelle: I know one of the things that's so important is we always remember the most important story of someone that we know, a student that we know [for whom] we made a huge difference. What is your most proud moment as a teacher? And can you just share a little bit of the story behind that?

Priyank: One of the biggest obstacles that I face being a math educator is I do have many students who come in with the notion that they can't do math. And no matter how much someone tries to convince them, they'll never be good at it.

I have students for example, this year, who came in saying, “Oh, it's Mr. Pri. I’m just letting you know that I never was good at math. And I have gotten all D's or F's in math. So I’m just letting you know that I'm not going to get anything past D.” And I'm just like, “Well, okay, that's what happened in the past.” I always tell my students, “This is the future. This is right now. This is a fresh new start for you. So let's forget about what happened in the past. Let's start fresh today.”

I had a student, she was not really someone that was focused on her education much. She was all about the social life. I didn't have her in the ninth grade, I had her in the 10th grade, but I had gotten to know her. She would be in the hallways every now and then, she wouldn't really go to class much. So I knew her personality because I’d spend some time with her in ninth grade trying to get her to go to class. I talked to her in detention every now and then—she would come late to school.

So when I finally got her as a student, I got to know her [better] and talk to her. Her sister actually used to be a student here, but she died a couple of days before school started from a gunshot wound. So there was some issue baggage that she was bringing in. She did mention that she wasn't really focused on her education much. And specifically when it came to math, because she wasn't really good at math. The good thing was, she said, “You know, I'm not going to say it was all the teacher's fault, because I'm going to take the blame too. I'm telling you, Mr. Pri, sometimes I would just show up, I would sit for five minutes of the class and I would just walk out.”

We started talking and I just said, “All I want you to do is just try. I just want you to give it a shot. That's all I want you to do, and then let me know if you're having a bad day so I can work with you.”

It started off, I would give her some breaks every now and then, but I wouldn't go easy on her: “Whatever we're doing, you're going to do the exact same thing. I'm not going to go easy on you and you're going to have to catch up and you're going to have to try your best.”

And the good thing that was on my side was, I knew her mom too, if I had any questions or concerns—because her mom I had to call constantly the year before, because she was always so late or she had detention. So I had to get to know her mom as well. And after working with her mom, we were able to help her, and she actually ended up passing with a B, which was the highest she has ever gone in any math class, [going back to] her elementary school years.

She was actually very happy. And every time she got above an 80 in my class, she would be so happy. And I would tell her, “I'm glad you got like an 82 and 83, let's move up to an 87, okay? Let's move up to an 89. How about a 90?” I was always pushing her and pushing her and pushing her. And she was always like, “You're never happy. You're never satisfied.” I was like, “It's not that I'm never satisfied, it’s just that I know you can do better.”

We always have these progress reports where we can write little comments, and [for her] I always would write, “She's wonderful, she's polite, she comes to class, she asks questions when she’s confused. But I know she can do better if she actually applies herself a little bit more.” And she always said, “Mr. Pri, you always write that!”

At the end of the fourth marking period, when she got that B, I wrote, “I was extremely delighted to have her in my class. She has improved so much and she has definitely outperformed her own expectations.“

Noelle: I can almost see her eyes as she read that comment. She earned the B and then she's reflecting back on the comment: “You always said that, Mr. Pri.”

Priyank: Yeah, she actually said, “Oh, I like your comments. I like what you wrote. I can't wait to show it to my mom.”

I was like, “Well, you earned it. So that's why I wrote it.”

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Noelle: And I think that's important. As teachers, we need to really own that power in that first encounter. Because it's almost as if she was giving you an opportunity to be like, “Okay, you don't like math, you're comfortable with D’s. You make a D, we've already set the bar.” And you then said, “Wait a minute. Okay, well, I appreciate that was your experience, but let's see what this new experience will be.”

Priyank: Exactly. I think it's because they set such low expectations for themselves. It's a little shocking for some of them when you say, “I'm not going to accept that right now.” And she's told me she had teachers who were like, “Okay, that's fine, if that's what you're happy with,” you know?

And she even said, some teachers would give her a D if she just came to class and sat there and listened for five minutes and that was it. And I said, “No.”

Every year during the first two days of school, I always tell them, “I'm not sure who you had last year. I'm not sure what you got away with, but I'm telling you now that these are the expectations that I have in my classroom. And you have about two weeks to transfer out of my classroom if you don't think you can meet these expectations because I'm constantly going to be on you.”

They always say, “Mr. Pri you're doing too much.” I'm like, “I'm not doing too much. I'm doing just enough to make sure you're successful.”

Noelle: I think that's funny. I’m laughing that they might actually say, “Well, this is who I had.” And you're like, “No, no, no. Don’t say the name.”

Priyank: I don’t want to know the names. They're like, “Well, I had this person.” I'm like, “No, I don't want to know who you had or what you got away with because that's one of my colleagues and I’m not ever going to disrespect them. But I’m letting you know that it's not going to work this year in my classroom because that's not my expectation for you. And I expect for you to perform better and for you to actually try.”

Because a lot of them who had those math stigmas, who are not as confident, it’s because they're afraid to try. [That's why], when you said, “How are these students so ready, how are they so engaged?”—it’s because literally the first couple of weeks was me walking around and just watching as they were so afraid to at least try to do something because they didn't want to be wrong.

And I said, “Why are you so afraid of being wrong?” [They’re] like, “Because it's math. It's either a right or wrong answer.” I'm like, “Says who?” And I [tell them], “I've been wrong so many times it doesn't mean anything. You could be wrong. The [important] thing is, what do you do now to get the right answer? What do you do to correct yourself from being wrong?”

Noelle: And it’s such an emotional state, right? Because you know a lot of them have felt wronged or have been so used to being wrong and they just don't want to put anything on paper that's going to cause some sort of reaction that they might not be able to control.

Priyank: And that could be from the teacher or from their peers, as well.

I mean, sometimes the peers joke around and I always tell them, “How would you feel?” But also, thinking back to, for example, me—when I was in school, if I had something that was wrong, or if I didn't start something, the teacher would just skip me and go to the person that did something and be like, “Oh, okay, let's see what you did and let's talk about it.” But whoever didn't do it, they wouldn't bother to ask them, “Why did you get this?” or “Why do you think it's wrong?” They would just be like, “Well, this person got it wrong, let me just go to the person that got it right and just focus on that person.”

That's something in a lot of the teaching practice that I have noticed. And that's why I chose to work with this project and remain with this projectbecause I know that's something these students don't deserve and they could definitely do much better if they had the right person in front of them, helping them.

Noelle: Not accepting nothing on the paper.

Priyank: Right, exactly. I was observing a teacher and then, they said the “do now” is three minutes. They walked around, no one had the “do now.” And it was like, well, I don’t know if you did it, so let me just do it for you. I mean, my thing is, if I see none of you did it, I'm going to give you one more minute to put something else down. Because if you don't put anything down, I don't care how long we're staying here, we're going to stay here until someone has something on their paper.

And that's what I always said. I don’t want the right answer. I want your answer.

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Noelle: I also liked how you said, “I'm going to give four minutes—but I might give three, depending on what I'm noticing.”

So you're not saying “I'm going to give you this” and then not checking in until three and then deciding to add a minute. You're setting that expectation, but you are letting them know already, “I'm going to be paying attention so we might get to move faster.”

Priyank: Right. Just because I said four minutes, it doesn't mean that in four minutes I'm going to come around and check. That's why I'm constantly walking around. Because if I see in two minutes that all you wrote down was today's date, okay, let's talk about why that's the only thing you wrote down. And let's talk about what I can do to help you write down something else, you know?

And I think that's where all teachers—if they spend more time just getting to know the students, where that mentality is and helping them get over that mentality to help them be more successful, I think a lot of the students will be more motivated and engaged and successful in mathematics and other content areas, as well.

Noelle: You've mentioned that cartoons taught you a lot of English. So the Cartoon Network was basically just starting.

Priyank: I’m going to go with Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, stuff like that.

Noelle: So did you learn a lot of English [from] SpongeBob?

Priyank: There were so many to name. Yes, definitely there was SpongeBob. I’ve got to go with Hey Arnold!, Rugrats. We’ve got to go with the old school cartoons. Of course, there was also South Park.

Noelle: [Your] parents probably didn't like South Park.

Priyank: Oh, they were at work.

I always talk to my students because I can relate with them so much, and I always tell them, “It's funny, because if you saw me in high school, I was you.” I was usually late to school because I was, in the morning, with my friends who would come over, either to my house or my friend’s house, and we would just sit there, eat breakfast, and watch cartoons. And after five it was like one more episode, one more episode.

And then we would run to school, be about 10 minutes late. I would come to school, put my head down for a little bit and wake up and be like, “What did I have to do?” [And then I would] just do it real fast. And my teacher was like, “Oh wow, you did it in that time?” I was like, “Yeah, yeah. I know what I'm doing.”

[My students are] like, “Oh, Mr. Pri, you used to be that kid in high school?” I'm like, “Yeah. But the only difference is, I knew when to try. I knew what I was doing. For many of you, you just put your head down, you don't want to try at all. And that's what I'm trying to get you away from.”

Noelle: So you knew that balance. Mr. Pri, is there a teacher that made a difference in you?

Priyank: There are a lot of teachers who made a difference. One of them was actually my ESL teacher. She was the teacher that I had when I was in high school. It was an interesting classroom because she had about 12 kids who spoke different languages. We had one speaking Spanish and another one speaking German and another one speaking French or something. Just completely different languages. And her goal was to try to not only get these kids together, to be like, “All right, you need to do some learning here,” but [also to] get them all to learn English.

Which is challenging if you think about it, because we all just wanted to fool around, we were like—none of us could understand each other. But we were all in the same class and we had no idea what we were saying to each other, but at least we were having fun. So that was a great experience. And she was very—the three key [things] that I think about when I see her are: she was very passionate, she was extremely understanding, and she was all about relationship-building.

She was all about, “Okay. I'm here for you.” It was all about just building that relationship with the students. She would never get frustrated. She was just very calm and she was just like, “It's okay.”

Anytime one of the kids got into a fight or something happened, they would just go to her room and she was like, “Come on in, let's sit down. Here's a cookie.” She would always have cookies and stuff. “Here's a cookie, calm down. Let me help you, explain to me what has happened.”

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Noelle: Oh, nice. Where do you see yourself in five years? What is your next big thing you want to accomplish as a teacher?

Priyank: I want to just bring in the principal, Mr. Cook. He's all about helping teachers grow, about the community.

I right now coach teachers, as well. I have three teachers I'm helping. Some of them are brand new teachers. One of them is not brand new, but this is her first year teaching in a district like Newark. She has never taught in a district like this before, especially a school like this, where many of her students come from backgrounds where there [are] a lot of emotional, social difficulties they have.

I help coach these teachers and this is my second year doing it. [Mr. Cook] wants me to go back to school. He wants me to pursue my degree. I have a Master's already, but he wants me to get my Master's certification in the VP so I can be a VP or I can be a DC or something.

Even though I like being in a classroom, the question that was just brought up to my VP, and the principal was talking to me about it was, why haven't I done this? I'm not sure if I like working with adults or I like working with children. I've heard stories about how sometimes adults are more challenging than children. He said, “What are you talking about? Kids are a little annoying, adults are so much easier.” I'm like, “Eh, it depends on which adults you work with.”

So we've had those discussions, but I'm not ready to leave the classroom yet. But I do see myself pursuing that in the future and most likely being a vice principal and hopefully I'm coaching teachers. Because I feel like the more teachers that are in the classroom that are able to motivate students, engage students, and help them realize their potential, the better all of these students will be when they leave high school.

Because that's our goal: when they leave high school [they’re not] like, “All right, I graduated high school. I got a piece of paper. Now what?” We want them to be college and career ready.

Noelle: That's amazing. As a blended educator myself, not in the classroom anymore but in many classrooms, [I love] being an advocate for teachers and coaching teachers and really finding who we are in this profession. Being the best that we can be. It's not just about a best practice, finding who we are and where we want to be and loving the lesson that's happening. But most importantly—

Priyank: Be in the moment and just enjoy it. I think a lot of teachers are stuck on just the future. Like, you know, “If I don’t do this, then this will happen and this will happen.” Just forget about it. Just be in the moment, focus on what's important, which are the kids in front of you. Your goal is to just help them be successful. And if you just focus on that, you'll be fine.

Noelle: See, it's just like, be calm and have a cookie.

Priyank: Right, be calm, have candy. Instead of cookies, I have candy. Because I don't know if I can buy 160 cookies. That's a lot of cookies.

Noelle: That’s a lot of cookies. Well, thank you so much. I've enjoyed our conversation and I look forward to staying connected.

Priyank: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate this.

Lish: If you’d like to be a guest on the Learning Moments: Teachers in America podcast, please email us at Be the first to hear new episodes of Learning Moments by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

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