I was born in Calcutta, India. With very few memories of my own, my time there is all captured through photographs my mother has saved and placed all over our home. As I flip through old photo albums, with a plastic sheet carefully protecting the almost 40 year old photos, I feel a sense of warmth and comfort as familiar, and some unfamiliar, faces fill each page. Even through the two-dimensionality of a picture, the love that radiated from the people who raised me is evident. These photographs tell a story of the value of family and community in my home, a value that has been at the heart of my education experience as a student, teacher and leader.

Feeling Loved, Finding Passion

As a South Asian woman, a daughter of immigrants, and an immigrant myself who grew up in Corona, Queens, my identity has significantly influenced my path. Early on, my parents ingrained in us the belief that education was the key to success.

Growing up, I was a student who loved school and I was fortunate to have teachers in my formative years, especially my elementary school years, who saw my strengths and not only valued them, but nurtured them. I distinctly remember my 3rd, 4th and 5th grade teachers, and several of my Middle School teachers, because of the way they each encouraged my voice, creativity and theatrics. More importantly, they valued me and rooted in me a deep sense of belonging in their classrooms. I did not realize it then, but I truly believe that my initial feelings of success in, and love for, school came from the community and sense of belonging I experienced there.

I distinctly remember my senior year of college when I enrolled in a course for my Political Science major titled “The Politics of Education Reform”, a course that completely altered my career trajectory. Because of this course and the encouragement of my professor, I applied to Teach for America (TFA). What was meant to be a two year commitment to explore an interest instead became a passion that gave me a deep sense of purpose.

Community, the Heartbeat of School

After a grueling and intense summer of 5 a.m. wake-ups, detailed lesson planning, and having only a few short weeks to make an impact on a classroom of students — followed by an intensive summer of professional development for my new school — I remember the excitement and nervousness of my first day of school. I had scripted out my lesson plan in detail: six pages of exactly what I would say, what I wanted students to do, and plan B, C and D in the event A did not work out.

It was so beautifully done, so thoroughly and thoughtfully crafted — and it was completely useless. That day, it wasn’t my scripted lesson plan that set me up for success, it was the pure joy that sparkled in every Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grader’s eyes when they walked into my science classroom. It was the smile I could not shake, the warm hugs I loved handing out and the genuine desire to get to know who they are and what would spark their excitement in class.

That first day, I learned so much more from my students than they learned from me, something that continued to be true as I transitioned from teaching to leadership. I found purpose in establishing a culture of safety and belonging for my students and valued building relationships with students, families and my colleagues. Building community became an essential part of my leadership style, wanting so deeply to create spaces for children that were created for me — spaces where they felt valued and accepted and could be their genuine selves.

Community is the heartbeat of any school, and must be at the forefront of all that we do.