Rahul Jyoti: ‘The best time to make a change is now’

Rahul is an eighth-grade math teacher at Victory College Preparatory Academy, where he has also served as Director of College Transitions and interim principal.

As told to Shaina Cavazos

I have had so many roles in my 13 years in education, but teaching 8th grade math is my favorite. Four years ago, when I decided to leave administration, I realized I felt disconnected from the students because that is where I get a lot of my energy and joy from. I knew I had to get back into the classroom. When I made the transition, I was completely re-energized and extremely focused on how to improve our student’s math performance. Figuring out how to plan math lessons and how to teach it in the correct ways and reflecting on my practice — these have been the biggest things that motivate me to continue teaching. Once you feel that success and you can see the impact reaching students, you want to reach more students and push student learning even further.

Teaching math and being the same role for four years opens up so many possibilities for guiding students to master the content. Now that I’ve taught eighth grade math for four years, I can talk to anyone about and break down all of the eighth-grade math standards. I know every single mistake students will make before they struggle. With that knowledge, I can really focus on the students and their learning rather than trying to understand what to teach.

There has been a recent transition in math to focus on conceptual learning, not just solving problems and finding answers. Teaching big ideas and concepts rather than just teaching skills over and over has really motivated me, because you can see huge increases in students’ understanding. In the past, the way you taught math, you either got it or you didn’t. This new way of teaching math is more accessible to all students regardless of their background knowledge. We have students who are really good at math computation, and we have others who are really good at reading and maybe not as fast, but they really understand the concepts.

Before, I remember teaching the Pythagorean theorem. It was very much “a2 + b2 = c2,” and it just didn’t work. I felt like every day, another student would ask me, “how do I know what a, b and c are?” The following year, we used a new curriculum and had students investigate and find the pattern that ‘a’ is the smaller side (of the triangle). The light bulb goes off in their heads, and then they’re able to teach each other. Students can now learn any level of math as long as they work hard enough at it and are taught to understand the concepts.

During this school year, in particular, our biggest concern and focus is how do we prepare our students to be successful whenever the world goes back to normal? How do we keep them on-track with all of the other students around the country and with schools that might have more resources? Even in these dynamic times in the middle of a pandemic, we cannot lower our expectations for students. They may be stressed and overwhelmed, they may be taking care of siblings, they may have limited access to technology and resources, but that cannot stop me from providing them with the highest-quality education every day. 

At some point as a teacher, I was told if something is going on and it’s not going well, you should fix it immediately. That’s how I approach teaching — the best time to make a change or to make things better is now. Having that urgency to move forward is what our students need. A lot of them come to us behind or come to us with situations that make learning difficult. Wasting any time — a week, a month, or even a minute — puts them only further behind. I only have so much time with them. I need every single minute of every day to be useful and purposeful, and I can’t allow wasting any time doing things that aren’t working.

We’re featuring each of the 11 Office of Education Innovation 2020 Teacher of the Year finalists. Look for new features throughout the summer and fall.