Ronak Shah: ‘Every year I try to take something that’s not empowering students and replace it with something that is’

Ronak is a middle school science teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.

As told to Shaina Cavazos

I teach science, which I’m really fortunate to do. It gives me the ability to have interactive and engaging experiences with students where they are able to learn by doing and collaborating. I almost invariably hear students express that science is one of their favorite classes, and I think it really has to do with how much they can engage in exploratory learning in a science classroom. Also, a lot of them haven’t had a science class before. In those cases, I get to be the one who creates that experience for them and that sense of joy that hopefully carries with them for subsequent years.

We were doing a unit on infectious diseases, weirdly, right before the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a National Geographic unit I had never taught before, but it had a lot of really interesting activities, like where students would blow bubbles, and if it hit someone, they would be infected. This could then be repeated with a mask on — turns out, bubbles don’t pass through! I had a number of students, after the pandemic hit, who said, “Oh, this is exactly what we were talking about. This is why we need to wear a mask. Just like the bubbles, if the saliva is coming out of us and lands on somebody else, they could get sick.” It just made their understanding of it so intuitive. You never really want things to become real in such an awful way, of course, but at the same time, I’m glad they could apply that knowledge and understanding to keep themselves and their families safe.

In my first two years of teaching, I was a lot more concerned with traditional classroom management, which I have now come to largely reject. I was just too insecure in my own abilities as a teacher. I preferred to feel like the students were listening and quiet and seated rather than have the purposeful chaos of a lab or collaborative activity. It took conversations with teachers, conversations with students, and risk-taking to realize that a controlled lecture is not what students deserve. It perpetuates institutional racism to deny students experiences that are interactive and allow them to hold positions of leadership and control over their learning. Every year I try to take something that’s not empowering students and replace it with something that is.

More and more, I have learned just how deeply and completely systemic racism has affected students and families and staff. Our school has done a really great job to make sure we are having frequent and deep conversations around systemic racism, and even so, I feel like we are just scratching the surface. I look back and realize so much inequity and injustice has happened, and I sat on the sidelines too often. My commitment this year is to begin conversations on this and build relationships at the beginning of the school year — or at least once we are in-person — and not allow the other responsibilities of teaching to be an excuse to postpone them. 

Teachers often burn out because we are in close proximity to so many of the inequalities in our society, but we have limited capacity to effect change on our own. It can be easy for anyone in a similar position to become overwhelmed with responsibility and forget about self-care. Self-care is critical, especially for early career teachers. If we take a little more time to care for ourselves, more educators will find capacity to continue teaching for many years to come. 

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.