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Educators From India Learn as They Teach in US Schools - 2002-06-18

Many American public school districts face a chronic shortage of teachers, especially in math, science and special education. New education graduates are quickly hired by wealthy schools, while more financially challenged districts find themselves casting a wide net for qualified candidates.

Last year, Cleveland, Ohio followed the lead of a few other U.S. cities and hired 50 new teachers fresh from India. They arrived ten months ago amid some apprehension from skeptics. But the experiment has, by many accounts, gone rather well.

After less than year, Aron Nagpal has pulled together the essential routines of life in the United States.

Most weekends he heads to Cleveland's West Side Market, which he says has better fresh produce than any of the chain grocery stores near his high rise suburban apartment. Mr. Nagpal says he misses meals with his wife and two children, who've remained behind in India. So he keeps it simple, mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, and chicken dishes reminiscent of home. "Chicken, I cook the curry style, the Indian style--ice, chicken and plenty of green stuff," he explains.

For Mr. Nagpal, adapting to American living has been much the same as learning the how-and-why of American-style education. He and 49 other teachers arrived in August just as a new school year was getting underway. They were in a strange new country, living out of a hotel, and teaching in a school system on a slow rebound from academic neglect and near-bankruptcy.

Mr. Nagpal's first teaching assignment was honors chemistry, and the communication barrier became evident immediately. His textbook command of English was little help when it came to understanding American teen-age slang. The students were eager learners, but it took them some time to get used to their new teacher's thick accent. Fifteen-year-old Danielle Wier notes it forced her to pay extra attention and raise her hand a lot.

"When we don't understand what he says, he'll repeat it, and when he repeats it the second time it's easier for me to understand what he said the first time," she said.

Today, Mr. Nagpal reflects wistfully on that class. His former class, that is. "Several weeks into the school year he was reassigned to 11th and 12th grade physics, an old subject for him, but a whole new group of kids. "They were more disruptive, more disruptive than the other class I had previously," he said.

In India, Mr. Nagpal taught science at private schools. He says there, the disruptive students are the minority, while at Cleveland's John F. Kennedy High School it's quite the opposite. But, he says, given that many students come from poor neighborhoods with little academic or social support, that's understandable.

"The kids don't have upbringing at home," he said. "What they get in the school, they aren't able to keep it up at home, and there's no one, it seems to me, to look after their interests." Though Aron Nagpal and his colleagues are highly trained teachers, skeptics here feared they weren't prepared for the rough-and-tumble culture of America's urban schools. In some instances, they were right. Sunita Narayanan expected behavior problems when she accepted a position as a special education teacher. But she wasn't ready for everything.

"One thing I especially wasn't prepared for was how to deal with children with a lot of sexual problems," she recalled. "Some of the kids in class, they are sexually abused and that's not something we were trained or taught to deal with. Because back home, it's something that never happens." But Ms. Narayanan says she's learned fast, and credits school administrators, and the American teachers who acted as mentors, for easing her transition. All of the Indian teachers have received special classroom management training, and some have had to attend accent reduction classes. Only two of the recruits have returned to India, for family reasons.

With Cleveland's math and science classes properly staffed for the first time in years, school system official Carol Hauser says they're happy with the results. "We called it an experiment until Christmas when we realized how well they were doing in the classroom," she explained.

And just as they've had to adjust to a strange, new classroom setting, many have had to adjust to another facet of American work life. Ms. Hauser says some of the Indian teachers were surprised at the amount taken out of their paycheck every two weeks. Part of it is taxes, but another large chunk goes to pay on-going fees to the recruiting firm that brought them here, up to $500 a month for the duration of their three year contracts.

"So I think when they put that alongside their taxes and other deductibles like medical insurance, they were surprised at how much of their paycheck didn't go home with them," she explained.

But for Sunita Narayanan, the financial arrangement is adequate. She keeps her expenses low, sharing an apartment downtown with colleagues and remaining car-less for now. Some of the newcomers have moved out to the suburbs. Others have begun to bring their families over. As the school year wraps up, Ms. Narayanan looks back with satisfaction. "It's been a great experience, it's really been a wonderful experience," she said.

And she'll be here when it all starts up again in the fall.