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Once a Teacher: Anjali Nirmalan, L&T'17

Anjali NirmalanWhat should a teacher do when she feels like she’s running out of ideas? For Anjali Nirmalan, who started feeling this way after five years of teaching, leading, and coaching in the same school, the answer may seem unconventional: she’d go back to being a student.

I feared becoming the statistic of yet another young teacher leaving the profession. I needed to recharge, reflect, and reimagine my role as a teacher leader,” says Nirmalan, who, thanks to a James Bryant Conant Fellowship, was able to take a year off to enroll in the Learning and Teaching (L&T) Program’s Instructional Leadership strand. “I hoped that by returning to the role of a student, as well as seizing the chance to visit many other different types of schools in the area, I would find the inspiration and excitement to stay in the classroom for years to come.”

As the recipient of a Conant Fellowship — awarded to outstanding Boston and Cambridge public school teachers and administrators who have shown commitment to public education — Nirmalan is required to return to her public school for at least one year post-graduation, and now she feels energized at the prospect.

“Everything I learned in my courses here only made me more excited to return to the classroom and test out all my new ideas for years to come,” says Nirmalan, who admits that the perks of HGSE life — air conditioning, sleeping in, being able to use the restroom whenever she wants — are somewhat hard to give up. But, “rather than tempting me out of the classroom, HGSE has cemented my desire to stay there and develop the influence of teachers.”

“Anjali Nirmalan is a committed teacher and teacher leader, and she brings the depth and breadth of her teaching experience to everything she does,” says Senior Lecturer Katherine Boles, faculty director of L&T. “What’s more, she regularly reminds her peers to keep their conversations at HGSE grounded in the lives of students in classrooms, and to value the work of teachers. Anjali is a risk-taker, engaged and passionate about her work with middle school students. She is committed to learning and pushing toward new thinking. This is evident in her comments in class and in one-on-one conversations. Anjali asks important questions, synthesizes readings and educational practice with ease and clarity, and has inspired her peers to ‘explore new intellectual terrain.’ Perhaps most notable of all is Anjali’s affect: she does not shy away from speaking her truth. She speaks with empathy and warmth and she makes others with various opinions feel welcome, heard and included in conversation and debate. L&T has been inspired by Anjali Nirmalan and we look forward to her continuing contributions to teachers and teaching.”

Nirmalan will receive the Intellectual Contribution Award at Convocation on May 24. Here, she reflects on her time at HGSE and her life in education.

Have your goals changed in your year at HGSE? When first exposed by HGSE to the breadth of the American education landscape, I considered that I could make a greater impact by pursuing leadership positions outside of the classroom. After all, HGSE exudes power in the form of frequent visits by school founders, superintendents, and policy movers and shakers. However, as I continued to learn and reflect over the course of the year, I concluded that for me personally there is no more important place to be than alongside students. If that is not a powerful position yet in the eyes of others, than I intend to make it one. The voices and influence of teachers reach much farther than we think.

What is something that you learned at HGSE that you will take with you throughout your career in education? [Senior Lecturer Karen] Mapp’s courses have forced me to reflect critically on how my own beliefs and teaching practices have reflected a deficit-based rather than asset-based view of my students and their communities. At the same time, I am not 100 percent fixed; as educators, we must be constantly interrogating our own biases, questioning the politics of our schools, and advocating for the rebalancing of skewed power relationships.

Similarly, [Professor Tom] Hehir’s course on inclusive education exposed me to how deeply ableist practices have been embedded into our schools and color our expectations for students with disabilities.

[Lecturer Aaliyah] El-Amin’s course on dismantling structural racism fuses deeply thoughtful readings on critical pedagogical practices with student voice and real-life classroom interventions. Most memorably, Dr. El-Amin challenges her students to consider whether we are preparing marginalized students of color to merely navigate or to ultimately transform a structurally racist society. As I learned, those are different goals requiring not only different skill sets but also beliefs. While calling into question much of my past approaches to instruction, this framework is also one that can be carried into the classroom and used mentally to evaluate my daily decision-making as a teacher.

How did you stay inspired throughout the year?  I found that it could be easy to lose sight of what really matters while spending a year away from the classroom and in the “ivory tower.” Staying close to students and teachers was imperative to re-centering my purpose, combating cynicism, and injecting real-life practicality into the lofty concepts I explored this year. Besides seeking out courses with in-school practicums, I also reached out to many different types of schools across the Boston area — using that nifty Harvard email address — to arrange day visits and classroom observations. I have had the opportunity to visit more than 30 schools so far this year and don’t intend to stop until my first day back in the classroom this fall. Those visits — through the lenses of my courses this year — have provided the most valuable learning of all.

Read about the other recipients of this year's Intellectual Contribution Award.