BRIDGING Brindavani Tallur says she is getting used to differences between teaching in India and at Harding High.
BONDING Satya Mohan, in his physics class at Bassick High, says he feels he is part of the “Bassick family.” Kye Jackson, right, a student in Dr. Mohan’s class.
BRINDAVANI TALLUR, a 39-year-old science teacher from India, stands outside her classroom at Warren Harding High School here, and greets each of her ninth-grade students by name. “Welcome to Physical Science,” she says. “How was your weekend?” A few students return her greeting, but most look past her and enter the room noisily.
In India, Ms. Tallur was revered. When she entered her classroom, 70 students would rise, stand by their desks, and greet her in unison. “In India a teacher is next to God,” she explained, noting the contrast in behavior.
Now after a year of teaching at Harding in an international program, Ms. Tallur has become used to less respect. She is no longer surprised by profanity in the hallways and students talking out of turn in the classroom.
Ms. Tallur, who holds a master’s degree in chemistry and education, is one of 14 teachers from India, 10 men and 4 women, hired by the Bridgeport Board of Education to fill a shortage of math and science teachers in the district.
“We had eight vacancies in 2006 that we were desperately trying to fill,” said Carol Birks, the principal of Harding. “Our biology teacher had to teach extra physics classes. Sometimes we used long-term substitutes.”
Across Connecticut there is a shortage of math and science teachers for grades seven to 12, according to the State Department of Education. The problem is more acute in urban areas like Bridgeport with lower teacher salaries, said Carole Pannozzo, executive director of human resources for Bridgeport schools. The teachers from India are paid under the same formula as the local teachers, Ms. Pannozzo said.
To address the problem, the State Education Department created a Visiting International Teacher program in 2006, which allows school districts to hire certified math and science teachers from India on three-year contracts.
Last year, Bridgeport was the only district to sign up for a pilot program. This year the program has expanded — Bloomfield has hired three Indian teachers and Hartford has hired one. (This year Connecticut also initiated a program to bring volunteer teachers from China to teach Mandarin. There are 15 Chinese teachers working across the state).
In February 2007, Sharon Pivirotto, a recruiter for the Bridgeport public schools, and Mary Ann Hansen, a world languages consultant at the State Education Department, traveled to New Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore to interview potential candidates. They met more than 100 teachers. Most were mid-career teachers, ages 30 to 40. Many of them had master’s degrees and some had Ph.D.s. Dr. Hansen’s main criteria during the interview process were fluency in English and an ability to adapt to a different system and culture.
Dr. Hansen said: “I asked them, ‘What is calculus?’ I wanted to make sure they answered in words, not formulas.”
Ms. Pivirotto presented the prospective candidates with scenarios about discipline. “How would you handle a verbally abusive student?” she would ask.
Of the 14 Indian teachers eventually hired, 10 are at Harding High School and 4 teach at Bassick High School across town.
The Indian teachers view the opportunity as a way to advance their careers and explore new methods in education and classroom management, said Raj Vanjani, vice president of the Teachers Placement Group, a Long Island-based agency that worked with Dr. Hansen to develop the visiting teachers program and that only works with teachers from India.
“In India, global experience is highly prized, and many dream of visiting America,” Mr. Vanjani said.
Discipline is probably one of the biggest challenges facing the new teachers, some of whom came from rigorous private schools.
Ms. Tallur taught chemistry to high school and middle school-age students in Hyderabad, where she said that discipline was not an issue.
“In India, most of the disciplining happens when children are younger,” she said. “It’s easy to bend the stem of a plant when it is young. Once the stem gets strong, it is much harder.”
At Bassick High School, Satya Mohan, a physics teacher, said he was surprised the first time a student put his head down on his desk and said, “I am not in the mood to listen today.”
“I thought to myself, well he is being honest,” Dr. Mohan said.
In spite of extensive training before starting in Bridgeport, Ms. Tallur admitted that the beginning of last year got off to a rocky start.
“I was told about discipline issues in my early orientation, but the intensity of the problem was very high,” Ms. Tallur said. “At first I got angry and frustrated. I tried to diagnose the problem and understand the children’s needs. I saw they needed guidance, love and affection. Now I touch them when I talk to them. I kid with them, but I also enforce my rules.”
Students said it took some adjustment on their part to have teachers from another country.
“The kids made fun of her accent, her shoes, anything,” said Lisel Martinez, a 10th grader at Harding who was in Ms. Tallur’s class last year. “But she didn’t show that she was upset. She really helped us, broke things down step by step. I think she really cared about us.”
Ms. Tallur said that the number of disciplinary infractions in her classroom decreased considerably by the end of the year. “Now when someone is not behaving, I take out my cellphone and start to call their parents,” she said. “I learned this trick from one of my colleagues.”
School administrators offer supportive services to the teachers. The new teachers were assigned mentors in their department, and they also had regular meetings with the school principal. “We knew it would be challenging in the beginning,” Ms. Birks said. “We wanted them to feel part of the community.”
Today, Ms. Tallur car-pools to school with a non-Indian colleague. “We no longer feel like outside teachers,” she said.
Dr. Mohan said he also had to analyze the challenges of urban education.
“Every child cannot be the same,” Dr. Mohan said. “We have to understand his setting. As teachers we try and match the gap in knowledge of each student and lift him up. That’s our job. We don’t want to be another challenge in their life.” He was director of the physics department at a college in Hyderabad, India, before coming to Bridgeport. He now considers himself part of the “Bassick family.”
School officials say they have benefited from the visiting teachers in other ways.
“These teachers have reminded me that we have to maintain high expectations for all our students,” said Ronald P. Remy, the principal of Bassick High School.
Not all of the Indian teachers had similarly successful years in Bridgeport. Two teachers at Cesar A. Batalla Elementary School, kindergarten to eighth grade, were asked to leave after a few months because they were not able to handle the discipline issues of middle school students. Two new teachers from India were placed at Harding this year, replacing the teachers who left.
Dr. Mohan said he particularly liked the hands-on approach to learning and the use of technology in American classrooms. Last year, he enlisted several of his students to participate in the citywide Science Fair where a few of them won prizes. This year he said he planned to get more students involved.
“Dr. Mohan encouraged me to be a part of the science fair,” said Darren Thompson, a sophomore at Bassick High. “We worked together after school on an aviation project.” This year he plans to work with Dr. Mohan on a solar energy project.
To date, there are no test scores that indicate student performance in math and science has improved since the arrival of the teachers from India, but administrators are optimistic. “We are hoping to see gains after a couple of years.” Ms. Birks said.
Several of the teachers live together in apartments. In the evenings, they cook together and discuss the day. “We spend a lot of time discussing problems and solutions with each other,” Ms. Tallur said.
Ms. Tallur and Dr. Mohan came back early from their summer vacations so they could be instructors at new teacher orientations at their respective high schools.
A few of the teachers have brought their families over for visits. On weekends, when they are not attending school basketball games and community forums, the teachers go on road trips.
“So far I’ve been to Boston, Niagara Falls, New York, Las Vegas and Disneyworld,” Dr. Mohan said. “We came to see America.”