Education system reform starts with small practical steps

By Dr. Saidas M. Ranade
Here are some practical suggestions that might show immediate positive impact while being consistent with any future long term solutions.
Make teachers’ job less stressful. One way to retain good teachers is to make their jobs less stressful. I have three suggestions.
• Increase the annual Income tax deduction for classroom supplies for teachers from $250 to at least $600. So, teachers can replace broken chairs and buy adequate emergency supplies for the classroom.
• Keep the class size below 18. At my school the problem was not the number of teachers but the availability of classrooms. Just adding new teachers without building new classrooms will not work. Just hiring qualified teachers is only a part of the puzzle. Class size has a big impact on student learning. The ideal solution is to build new classrooms. The other option practiced in many South American cities is to run two shifts per day and extend school days per week to six.
• Assign all non-teaching activities to qualified Para-professionals. On many occasions I was given the task of not teaching but simply “watching” and “monitoring” students. One year I was asked to monitor the boys’ bathroom during standardized testing. To me monitoring is not teaching and should be eliminated as a job activity for qualified classroom teachers. The State should mandate that all non-teaching activities be done by qualified Para-professionals.

So, you want to be a public school teacher in Texas?

By Dr. Saidas M. Ranade
I have a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering and I taught high school Algebra for almost four years at a nationally ranked public high school in the Houston area. Overall, I enjoyed the job and may consider returning to teaching someday. However, if you are considering teaching in Texas as a mid- or late-career option, if you went to school overseas, or if you have not visited a high school in the past 20 years, beware! Depending on your perspective going in, it may be a job full of obstacles or an excellent opportunity for self examination and growth.
In this two-part article, I describe some of the challenges I faced, provide some recommendations to reform our public education system and share a few lessons I learned about myself and about the craft of teaching. Part I centers on obstacles and part II focuses on the self improvement lessons I learned as a new teacher.

Part I: The obstacles and suggestions to reform the system

  1. The teacher qualification process. You will need to enroll in some kind of a teacher certification program. Many school districts and Universities offer programs for alternative certification. I went through the Region IV alternative certification program (ACP). For the most part, I found the program to be very beneficial to me. However, there were a few procedural things that did not make any sense at all.
    • I had earned a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Houston and had practiced engineering and consulting for over 15 years. Yet as a condition for admission to the ACP, I had to have my original undergraduate transcripts (from an Indian university) validated by a third-party for a fee that exceeded $200.
    • Next, they said I had to pass the TASP exam, which was a requirement for all freshmen to be admitted to a four-year university. Mind you, I had taught freshman at U of H. Although it made no logical sense, I enjoyed preparing for the exam and used it as an opportunity to get into the new student’s mind.
    • I was ready to take my TeXes Math 8-12 state mandated test, but I was told that I needed a code from my certification program. The ACP program mandated that I take the test on a certain date only after I had taken a preparation class from them. I think the test should be like a GRE or a GMAT exam and anyone with a college degree should be allowed to take it at their own risk. The state needs to maintain the rigorous qualification checks but needs to streamline the whole qualification process especially for professionals with graduate degrees from recognized universities in the U.S.
  2. The Social Security dilemma. I was not aware until I began teaching that teachers in Texas cannot get money from Social Security (even if it is their spouse’s) if they sign up with the state’s retirement system. I had over 18 years of contribution into the U.S Social Security system prior to becoming a teacher. I was essentially told, “Sign up into the teacher retirement system and waive your Social Security benefits goodbye!” This to me even today does not make any sense at all. The state of Texas wants its students to be successful. They want good math and science teachers to teach at high school levels, yet our legislature does not have the common sense or the urgency to resolve this issue.
  3. The failing classroom furniture. When I walked into my assigned classroom on day 1, all I saw was an old, beat-up chair. There was no desk in the room. I decided a chair was important to me so I bought a new chair with my own funds. I was informed by a career teacher that the Government allows a $250 deduction per year on income tax returns for school related expenses. One of the teachers offered me her old desk. It had one broken leg. I used it for a year and then during my next year it just fell on the floor. This happened to me at one of the best public schools in the state of Texas, so this situation will probably be worse at other schools. One solution is to standardize the look and feel and the furniture and A/V settings for all classrooms in a given school. This will take some additional funding but will certainly help new teachers settle in faster into their careers.
  4. You will have no control on the class size, class makeup and at times even the courses you will be asked to teach. Unlike in a manufacturing operation, you do not have an ISO 9000 quality certification for parents or families (i.e. suppliers) of students who enter your classroom. While that might be easy to fathom, it is harder to assess why one class size ends up being half the size of another. Your natural instinct might be to think they gave me a bigger 7th period because I am not their favorite teacher (this does happen), or they did that because they know I can handle it. My advice to new teachers is to remember one of the four agreements from the book by Don Miguel Ruiz; “Don’t take anything personally.” I found out that this inequity has nothing to do with you but with the antiquated scheduling tools and over-constrained system. At my school the problem was not the number of teachers but the availability of classrooms. President-elect Obama has talked about recruiting more qualified candidates to teach in our public schools. Just adding new teachers without building new classrooms will not work. Another solution to reduce stress for teachers is to eliminate as many superficial constraints on the scheduling software as possible. In my school they had decided that the freshman needed a separate lunch period. While there were benefits from that, it was an added constraint on the overall schedule.
  5. “Just watch the kids” and other odd rules. On many occasions I was given the task of not teaching but simply “watching” and “monitoring” students. This one was the hardest part of the job for me. My natural instinct is to teach and just babysitting did not come easy to me. For example, during state-mandated or other standardized testing situations, I was asked to monitor the hallways. Another time I was asked to monitor the boys’ bathroom and ensure that only one person used it at a time. This was to prevent cheating. Personally I felt that if two kids discussed differences between simile and metaphor or types of triangles in the bathroom, we should congratulate them. I found some teachers to be good at multitasking. They graded papers and also monitored the students. My thoughts oscillated between “I will keep it as exciting as possible” to “I am wasting my life!” To me monitoring is not teaching and should be eliminated as a job activity for qualified classroom teachers. Why don’t schools hire para-professionals to do all non-teaching, monitoring-type activities including proctoring of tests?
    Here is a real life example of how some “so called” rules make the whole system inefficient. On a Saturday evening prior to finals, I noticed an error in my final exam. I corrected it and decided to go to my school and re-copy the tests. As I was removing the photocopier jam, I heard footsteps. I looked up and there was a school district female police officer pointing a gun at me. I had my staff badge. I calmly explained the situation and the need for copying. Instead she explained to me that no one was allowed on the property after the alarm was set. She ordered me to leave the premises and “per rules” confiscated even my classroom keys. At the back of my mind I did wonder if my looks, accent and defiance may have played a role in her behavior. I contrast this with my prior corporate experience where my bosses loved it if I worked on Saturdays.

The first part (published earlier) covered the obstacles I faced. This part focuses on the self-improvement lessons I learned as a new teacher.

Part II: An excellent opportunity to learn and grow

  • An alignment opportunity. Teaching helped me discover my own biases and preferences, and this to me was the most interesting aspect of the job. A simple innocuous interaction with a student can quickly expose the misalignment between your thoughts, words and actions. Students like teachers who are supportive, fair, honest and consistent. A student many teachers had labeled as “an angry man” repeatedly pointed my inconsistency in writing the decimal point. My initial reaction was that the student was being disruptive. I ignored him. It took me a long time to realize my mistake that what I thought was an obvious context-based distinction between a point and the multiplication sign could indeed be a source of confusion for some students.
  • Questioning technique. I prefer the Socratic method of questioning for my own learning, so I was hoping that that I could use the same technique in my classroom. During the first year, although I was asking a lot of questions, I realized that not all students were engaged in responding to my questions. It had something to do with the questions I was asking and how I was asking them. I learned that it was important to ask more thought-provoking questions such as “What might be another way to solve a problem?” rather than asking the obvious ones like “What does 10 times 2 equal?” The bigger lesson was that to engage the whole class, I had to preface each question by saying: “Please raise your hands if you know the answer to the question I am about to ask.” This approach allowed more students to participate in the classroom.
  • An opportunity to confront your biases. In the first few years of teaching, I noticed that I was more likely to help bubbly, upbeat and funny people. However, to counter this bias, I had to keep reminding myself that I was to provide an equal learning opportunity for everyone in my classroom. You hear a lot about “difficult” parents. Following the “Ladder of inference” model first proposed by Peter Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline,” I went into most meetings with parents with solid data and without any attachment to the final outcome of the meetings. I learned early on in my career that in any confrontation, it is better to help the other party understand the strengths and weaknesses of their assumptions rather than to directly question their conclusions. Generally the parents seemed quite supportive of my work with their kids. There were a few exceptions and it took time for some parents to realize that I was an easy-going teacher with very high academic standards.
  • The guiding question. As a first-year teacher, it is tempting and sometimes even appropriate to blame the system for the failure of a student. It will take courage on your part to think differently. In moments of crisis, I had only one question that I asked myself, and like a well-written script it always guided me to the appropriate outcome. The question for me was “What do I need to do next to improve the learning opportunity for all my students?” As you contemplate on making teaching as your career, you will have to develop you own guiding question.

I am the Lucky One!

By Dr Saidas M. “Sai” Ranade ( ; E-mail:

Rafi’s voice sometimes brings tears to my eyes.
Don’t worry; it is one of life’s joys.
Listening to Lata sing, watching Sachin play
Nothing compares to that I must say.
Music AR Rahman, writing Tagore
Recipe for happiness galore.
Sight of Taj Mahal, Tirupati’s bells
I can face any of life’s travails.
The dialogue of Gabbar
A ride in a double-decker
Raman, Khorana, Sen, Chandrasekhar
Not a victim but a warrior.
Alfonso, Ayurved, Basmati, turmeric
Heal me when I am sick.
Sanskrit, yoga, zero
I feel like a sitar-hero.
Chai, roti, chutney, mirchi
Vivekananda, Ramana Maharishi
Unity in diversity.
Kabir, Mira, Sai, Guru Nanak,
Help me when I am stuck.
Mahavir’s penance, Buddha’s meditation
My soul’s liberation.
Gandhi’s fast, Netaji’s fight
Options to make things right.
Shivaji’s sword, Ramdass Swami’s advice
Don’t sit, act when you hear cries.
Indian education, American opportunity
It is the ultimate door to creativity.
Foundation Indian, building American
It is an unbelievable combination.
The journey I have taken will only be worthwhile
When I can make the universe smile.
All those parents’ sacrifices and teachers’ toils will be redeemed
If I can contribute more than an Indian and an American combined.
During these times for reflection
And, when everything is said and done
I realized I’m the lucky one!

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