Meet the Teacher: Swati Mehta!

Immersed is catching up on profiles of teachers who joined The New Century School during the pandemic. This post, though overdue, is no less important in introducing members of the community in an in-depth way!

Introducing Swati Mehta!

Swati Mehta joined TNCS in the fall of 2020 as a kindergarten teacher. In 2021, she took over one of the grades 2 and 3 classrooms. “The 2/3 classroom has a lot of high-energy friends who are curious about the world,” she said. “They have an opinion about everything and are like mini teenagers that way. It’s a lot of fun. I saw a lot of that same enthusiasm in the K/1 classroom, but these 2/3 students have the independence and helpfulness of older children who are more self-sufficient.”

Ms. Mehta is native to the area, born and raised in Baltimore County, where she attended public school. She graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1995 and went on to pursue a college degree at Loyola University. From there, it was back into the Baltimore County public school system, this time to teach. “I’ve pretty much been in education from 1999 to now and have taught kindergarten and preschool as well as tech integration for K through grade 5 in which I basically was teaching teachers and students how to integrate computers into their everyday learning,” she explained.

Ms. Mehta at TNCS

Now that she’s at TNCS, her main subjects have been the global studies curriculum and the Singapore math curriculum. Her co-teacher is Sarah Weisskopf, who teaches ELA and global studies. The 2nd- and 3rd-graders also study Spanish with Señora Noletto, Chinese with Peng Laoshi, science with Mr. B, art with Ms. Devon, and music with Mr. Warren.

Having spent so long in the public school sphere, Ms. Mehta says she welcomes being in the very different independent school environment for two primary reasons:

It’s a good different. The sizes of the classes are much smaller, and teachers have more autonomy to basically go ahead and meet the needs of the child where they are. We might have fewer resources, but we can be more creative with what we do with our students.

She goes on to explain that she brings her perspective of having been on both sides of the classroom to her teaching approach. “I’ve taught for 20 years, but I also remember what it was like to struggle as a student. I know that anxiety a student can have when they’re trying to learn math and to think, ‘This is something that’s really hard; I’ll never understand it’. Having been there, I can reassure them that even if they don’t learn it today, one day they will.”

To ensure continuity for students throughout their math trajectories, Ms. Mehta engages in planning both for incoming students with K/1 teacher Charlotte Longchamps and to prepare her outgoing students for their next phase with Ms. Sharma. This also helps sustain the individualized curriculum—the levels where her students are learning span a large range, with some learning as high as late 5th-grade math. This interdivisional collaboration makes sure teachers are supported and students stay engaged! It’s also a key piece of the TNCS ethos, insofar as TNCS hopes to educate students from age 2 through 8th grade. The throughlines that teachers create in this way mean that students are met where they are and not shoehorned into a chronology that does not serve them.

An interesting sidebar to Ms. Mehta’s math teaching is that it was somewhat accidental:

I started at TNCS as a K/1 teacher, but staffing changes opened up a 2/3 class, and I agreed to take it. Math is something that was a challenge for me growing up, but I actually love teaching it to students, especially the lower elementary math because it’s building those concepts and showing students strategies of how they can be successful at, for example adding, subtracting, and multiplying. We didn’t have a lot of these strategies when we were all growing up—we kind of just did a standard algorithm for some subtraction and addition where you borrow and cross out. Now there are so many different ways of doing it.

Speaking of the many different ways to learn math, Ms. Mehta incorporates manipulatives, drawing, and using dry erase markers in her classroom to help understand how to solve challenging problems.

Global studies, on the other hand, is no accident. “Global studies is an extension of something that I love. If I was going to be a middle school or high school teacher, I always say I would do history. History is a giant story; it’s the story of humanity.” Shown are photos from a tropical fruit tasting party when her class learned about India.

As for her time so far at TNCS, Ms. Mehta says she loves so many things about this special little school. “We’re like a family. We teachers all support one another when we have tough days, and we celebrate together when we have good days. We lean on each other. And we all eat lunch together including with our students, who we get to talk with in a different way while we eat together. I tell my students, ‘Even if you won’t be in my classroom next year, once you’re my student, you’re always my student’.”

Ms. Mehta is not only a very caring and nurturing teacher, she’s also a parent with a 14-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son. With both these hats on, she wants you to know, TNCS community, that she sees your student. “I’m a parent and a native of Baltimore, so I know that students have certain needs and challenges that they may need help with. I see the child with all their nuances. I think a parent’s fear can be that their child won’t be fully seen by the teacher and is just a number.”

In addition to her two children, Ms. Mehta says her family expands during certain times of the year when either hers or her husband’s parents come visit from India. When not hosting extended family or teaching math, she enjoys hiking and photography. She even runs the TNCS photography club after school, taking students on walks around Fells Point to snap pictures. On her own time, though, the setting might be a bit more relaxing.

Gab Sussman: Opening Windows to the World in ELA!

Middle school at The New Century School enters its fourth year with a fresh new face as homeroom teacher: Gab Sussman. The first thing that strikes anyone walking into Ms. Sussman’s classroom is her warmth. She positively radiates enthusiasm and kindness, and it’s obvious that she wants to be there.

Educational and Professional Background

Growing up in Putnam County, in New York, Ms. Sussman attended both public and private schools and has a broad understanding of what both types of school have to offer. She attended Loyola University Maryland here in Baltimore as an undergraduate in a pre-med program. She said that battling the physics and calculus courses was fine for a while until she heard a classmate talking about her elementary education classes. Something clicked, and just like that Ms. Sussman changed her major to elementary ed. “That’s where it all began,” she said. “After I graduated in 2012, I went back to New York City and began teaching in early elementary classrooms in independent schools.” She also pursued a master’s degree in educational leadership at Fordham University. “There I did a lot of professional development around integrating technology; about reading and designing curricula; as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she explained.

After her time teaching and earning her graduate degree, she returned to Baltimore in 2019 to “close the gap,” as she puts it—she and her now-spouse had been maintaining a long-distance relationship and decided it was time to change that. “When I started working here in Baltimore, I had the opportunity to teach the upper elementary grades, and now I’m really excited to be teaching middle school,” she said. The impetus for her progression up through the grades came about during that professional development for coding and computer programming. Although she loved teaching early elementary, she and the school librarian started a coding club, and so she began interacting more with upper elementary school students. “What was also fun about that was, as my own students were getting older and advancing into older grades, I was able to keep in touch with them through the club and see how much they had changed. Our relationships grew and got deeper because they were older and experiencing a perspective shift. Through that after school program of coding, I realized that I really enjoy teaching older kids.”

So, when she was planning her move back to Baltimore, she had a good deal of flexibility as far as what grades she was comfortable teaching as well as what age groups she enjoys teaching. She got a position teaching in an upper elementary classroom in a Baltimore independent school. “This felt really familiar,” she said, “to be teaching 4th- and 5th-graders. It was new, but also at the same time I had the experience of teaching coding to that age, so it was a way to expand my career and my skills as a teacher.”

Her path to teaching middle school happened along a similar trajectory. At the school where she was teaching, an opportunity to coach middle school field hockey middle school presented itself. This happened during what she calls “the pandemic year” and turned out to involve more than just coaching field hockey. “I was getting to know the students and hearing what their days were like and supporting them social and emotionally. They had just done online school for a whole day, and now they’re showing up for a virtual practice. It was new, but again it was an opportunity for me to interact with this age group.”

Falling into Place at TNCS

TNCS 7th- and 8th-graders on a jaunt around Fell’s Point.

And now here she is at TNCS! She says she started wanting to teach middle schoolers in a more direct academic way, so when the position opened up here, she was quite excited about it. She has both the very familiar upper elementary–age students in her English Language Arts (ELA) classes as well as the fun new chance to teach her 7th- and 8th-graders as both homeroom teacher and ELA teacher as well as Global Studies teacher.

Things are falling into place in multiple ways for Ms. Sussman. “One of my favorite things about teaching upper elementary and now middle school are the amazing middle grade and young adult books. They are engaging and rich and complex, and I love being able to reach students through books,” she said.

Stories are really powerful, and being able to find that genre or find that one book that really turns the student into someone who loves reading feels really fulfilling. It takes the legwork to do the research and find those well-reviewed books and getting them in the hands of students, but those windows and mirrors are a really powerful way for young people to learn about the world and relate to the world outside of their own bubble of families and friends. It broadens their understanding of how the world works. I think that books teach lessons and can be opportunities for connecting with other people.

Gab Sussman being a good neighbor and helping out at Greedy Reads . . . and maybe doing a bit of research?

Ms. Sussman has ideas about how to reach those students who may not be independently grabbing a book to read or defaulting always to graphic novels.

What I love about ELA is helping kids make that bridge from graphic novels to really learning what kind of stories or what kind of characters appeal to them. There are all kinds of graphic novels; they’re not just fantasy. And the graphic novel genre and and format is very appealing to students of all ages and strengths and skill levels. Being able to help students understand that there’s something about the kind of stories that you enjoy, so let’s dig deeper into that. A lot of it has to do with just learning more about who you are. I really try to find those kinds of stories that kids need or are yearning for and and put them in their hands. ‘This is the story you’ve been wanting—once you start reading and you literally fall into the book, you’re not going to miss the pictures. The words will paint those pictures for you.’

In her second month at TNCS, Ms. Sussman says she already loves it. “I’ve always been drawn to smaller communities. As a kid, I was really lost in a large public school, and I felt like it was really hard to figure out who I was and figure out where I fit in the larger community.” She explains that this informed her university choices as well as where she felt most comfortable teaching. “The smaller structure in many ways is conducive to a stronger community feel,” she said. She also feels that TNCS is authentically diverse and multicultural:

It’s very tangible. It really affects how people interact with one another, and even in small communities, you can still feel isolated or you can still feel alone. So, it feels really wonderful to be part of a community that is intentional about representations of cultures and ways of life here. It affects the expectations that people have for each other, and it feels very vibrant in a unique way.

She says this carries over even into how some students are new to the school and some have been at TNCS for their entire academic careers. “There is really rich history in their relationships with each other. It feels natural, and, in a way, it mirrors society in terms of how people have history in a place and some people come and go.”

She’s right at home at TNCS and in her ELA classroom. And the answer is no, if you were wondering whether she experienced any regret about giving up medicine in favor of a career in education.

I would be a very, very different person if I had not gone into education. I think being an educator is part of my identity—from the the training that goes into teacher education to the experience of working with kids and partnering with families to staying up to date on child development and what literature to expose kids to. I can confidently say that I feel really proud and really happy with where I am. As I was growing up, I had an older sister go to medical school and seeing that and wanting to be like her, might’ve been a factor in why I thought I also wanted to be a doctor. But having that conversation with that one person majoring in elementary education allowed me to carve this path on my own and for myself.

That sister went on to become a child forensic psychiatrist, and so she and Ms. Sussman are both experts in different areas of child development and not only have interesting conversations but are also able to support each other in their respective work.

All in all, it’s pretty clear that, at least for this part of Ms. Sussman’s story, the ending is a happy one.

Gab Sussman and her homeroom students, just chillin’ on the TNCS campus.