It's been a minute, but here we are: the newest installment of a series featuring badass women who are working hard to improve their communities and enact positive change in the lives of those around them. Up next: Pavithra, the director of research, strategy and policy at the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia University's Teachers College, as well as an education reform activist, researcher, and Ph.D. candidate studying gender and race. Pavithra was also one of the national organizers of the March for Public Education in 2017.
Welcome, Pavithra! Can you tell us what you are currently working on?
Through my job at the Center for Public Research and Leadership, I am working on a qualitative evaluation with the Gates Foundation's K-12 Networks for School Improvement Strategy. The goal is to get different schools to come together to share information, to share best practices and uncover problems so they can implement solutions that lead to improved outcomes for students.
For my Ph.D., my dissertation is on how boys, specifically boys of color, come to understand their masculinity and identity in single-sex schooling. The school where I did my data collection focused a lot on self-regulation: all about image and behaviors and regulating movements. I think a lot of that reflects the broader cultural understanding and worry about Black boys - make sure you're in the right place at the right time, make sure you look the "right" way so you don't get stopped by police, all that kind of stuff. It may be well-intentioned but it can have the effect of punishing boys for having divergent expressions of masculinity.
How did you get started working in education?
I have a traditional immigrant story: my parents instilled in me that education was the most important thing in the world and I was given a lot of educational privilege in the schools that I attended. In college, I was a sociology major and I was really struck by the vast stratification of opportunities and resources and equity by residence, learning how residentially segregated our country is and how that determines a lot of the opportunities that one would be afforded. I joined Teach for America after college and taught at an all-boys public school in New York City.
After several years, I wanted to engage with these issues on a different level, so I went on a research trip in South Africa, studying race and equity in their educational system, which reflects a lot of the same issues with residential segregation that we see here in the US. After that, I started applying to Ph.D. programs and I started my program six years ago at Columbia.
Something I really loved about being a teacher was the realization that every small day there was a new challenge and something that I could solve and I felt like I was making a difference every day, which is what made me want to stay in the field of education.
Can you tell us more about your research and why it is so important?
The work I specifically do is qualitative work. A lot of people like numbers, they like quantitative analyses. I think it’s important to actually understand how policy is enacted and you can really only understand that by talking to people. You can look at numbers but you don’t really understand the mechanisms of how and what is actually being enacted unless you actually interview people and you’re in the space and on the ground and you go see what is going on.
I do work with children, and unfortunately, a lot of people don’t care about what kids think, even though they’re the ones experiencing this and they’re the ones who are going to take in what they learn and internalize it and carry it with them for their entire lives. I think a lot of people don’t see the long term effects of education. When you look at even our election results in 2016, in this climate of "fake news," the least educated people are more susceptible to those things. We need to have a well educated public to be functional in our world.
You were one of the organizers of the National March for Public Education in 2017. How did you get involved, and what was that experience like?
The February after Trump was elected, Betsy DeVos was nominated as Secretary of Education. I remember I was in my office at Teacher’s College and I kept thinking this is bananas, she’s someone who’s had a lot of corporate interest in education for a long time, and Michigan has done really poorly under her influence, so I kept thinking there has to be some kind of action around this and I didn't see anything. So very spur of the moment which is not super like me, I was like there should be something, I’ll just do it.
So I just made a Facebook event that was like a march on Washington for educators and we started getting a bunch of traction that day and I was like, oh boy, I started something. I started getting message requests from different organizers, and I know some people that worked on the Women’s March, so I just contacted a lot of people that were in my network that are organizers and do some of this work. Any community organizing I’ve done has been on a much smaller scale (like running Relay for Life in college) - never anything this big. As it started getting more and more people, there was another march that was not as related to the Devos nomination, that was the March for Public Education, so we combined forces and I ended up becoming part of that organization - because it was an actual organization - and finding a team, and then a bunch of people saying oh is there one in Chicago, is there one here, and we started getting more people on board to run a lot of those marches, so there were ten or twelve satellite marches nationwide.
All the work we did - the only money we got from any type of organization was from the UFT, but it was so late in the game and it was not much, so everything we did was really funded by individual people. I think that individual support is great, but it shows how it was difficult for a lot of people to get on board because of how education has became so polarized. I saw various stakeholders saying, well we try not to get political or we try not to do these things, but it’s difficult to have that stance currently. I think if politics are infringing on your rights, if you believe education is a fundamental human right, I think you have to get political.
What inspires you about your work?
My students always motivate me. I taught my first group of sixth graders in 2008-2009, and I’ve now seen every class that I’ve taught graduate high school. Every year I’ve gone, even after I left my school, I’ve gone back to those graduations. I’ve stayed in touch with my students and helped them, whether it’s college essays, or issues that they’ve had once in college. It’s just been great to be a part of their lives to some degree, to both see them through and to stay in touch with them. I also feel like I grew up with them in a way so it’s nice to see that, just being real and practical and staying connected with what inspired me from the beginning to do this work.
What are some of the challenges you've faced in your work?
Broadly speaking, the education space, because we’re fighting over different resources, we’re so highly polarized. Like when I ran the March for Public Education, we did that without any real business backing (not something that traditionally happens with a lot of these marches and that makes it very difficult). We called it the public education march because what was under attack were public funds for education, but a lot of people saw that as being exclusive. Even charter schools are public schools a lot of the time, they’re just privately managed, but a lot of charter folks had issues even with just the naming of the march and things like that. I think there’s a lot of polarization within the community of what is best, systemically, like do we want charter schools, do we want parochial schools, do we want public schools, so there’s a lot of diverse interests. I think the increasing corporatization of education has produced different stakeholders, and it can be difficult to find common ground a lot of the time.
Personally, a lot of people think that they’re experts in education. I’m biased because I’m trying to become one. People think that because they’ve been to school and they have some familiarity with it, then they will translate their one experience to the experience of many. It can be difficult to just be a steward of your own ideas when other people have firm ideas.
Any helpful advice you've received over the years?
When I first became a teacher there was this advice I got that was: forgive yourself each night and recommit in the morning. Especially as a first year teacher, you mess up all the time, as a human I continue to mess up. I had that written on a post-it, it was helpful. I think a lot of people, women especially, we beat ourselves up for not being perfect in every single space that we’re in, and I think it’s helpful to be like I’m not perfect and I can forgive myself for not being able to be the perfect person. Each morning I can be like ok, today is a new day, what can I do differently, what can I do to improve, without getting stuck in what happened yesterday.
Any tips for avoiding burnout?
I try to talk to a lot of people that are in the work. I think sometimes, as women especially, we feel like we can’t talk to people sometimes, we worry about burdening people with our problems. I know that’s my issue. I try to think of my driven female friends as compatriots in the work. So when I’m experiencing burnout or I feel like I’m about to, I can call a friend and say I’m experiencing this issue or I’m having this problem or I’m just so tired and they help to remind me why I’m doing the work that I’m doing.
Very basically, I take time to myself, I think knowing what you need to recharge is important. For me, that’s alone time cuddling my dog and watching Bravo and that’s ok. Putting my phone on airplane mode for a little bit so I don’t get any calls is helpful. Making the time for it and not feeling selfish about it. Putting that time in your calendar, scheduling it as recharge time and protecting that time in your calendar is important. If you know you need an hour after a really stressful meeting, put it in your calendar and tell people you’re offline for that time. I’ve learned that one recently.
Where can people go if they want to learn more or get involved?
On Twitter, I'm @_pnagarajan. Our March for Public Education Facebook page is also still active, with people sharing news and events related to public education around the country.
Thanks so much for sharing with us, Pavithra!
Previous Women Change the World posts: Bahar.