Story

May 28, 2020

Shameem Patel: An Evolution of Learning 

by John Holt, KIPP Texas Public Schools Talent Recruiter  

During fall 2011, everything changed for Shameem Patel, a KIPP Destiny Elementary first- grade teacher. She’d graduated the previous year from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in nursing and was just beginning a longed-for career at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

Then, she attended a TEDXPenn Ted Talk led by Doug Lynch, who was serving as vice dean for the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and Patel’s career aspirations changed immediately.  

Patel always envisioned working with kids, yet realized early on with nursing that she didn’t experience the level of reward she sought. While she helped numerous patients, she found it difficult not being able to continue supporting them once they were discharged.

“You’re with someone for such a critical, intimate, and personal time where they’re going through something so deep and then they’re just gone forever,” Patel said. “You don’t ever get to know what happens. You don’t ever have the opportunity to support them further in any other way. You just kind of let them go and hope for the best.

“I had a lot of struggle with that.”

Lynch’s opening statement immediately resonated for Patel. The remarks focused on the privilege many University of Pennsylvania students possess, despite children residing a few blocks away who never would experience a similar education.

“He basically looked at everyone in the audience and was like, ‘If you had the privilege to have an education like this, what business do you have doing anything other than making sure that other children have that same privilege?’ I walked out of there, opened my computer and applied to the Penn Graduate School of Education,” Patel recalled.

The transformative moment sparked Patel’s journey into education and today – nearly nine years later – she’s thrived and never once looked back.

FROM COUNSELOR TO TEACHER

After leaving nursing and pursuing a career in education, Patel’s path began in counseling. She obtained two masters degrees in two years from the University of Pennsylvania and earned a counselor certification from the state of Pennsylvania as well. She quickly learned two things as a counselor: communicating with teachers was, sometimes, a struggle and teachers know their students better than any other school-based staff members.

“Initially, I believed if I want to be an effective counselor, I need to know what it’s like to be a teacher,” Patel said. “What I wasn’t banking on was loving teaching so much that I never want to leave the classroom now.”

After three years as a counselor, Patel applied for Teach For America. She was accepted and began serving her two-year commitment at KIPP Victory Academy in St. Louis Summer 2015.

“My first placement school was a KIPP school,” Patel said, “and I have been with KIPP ever since.”

FINDING A HOME IN TEXAS

After her Teach For America commitment concluded, Patel moved to Dallas to join her then-boyfriend, Samir, whom she later married. 

Her former manager at KIPP Victory Academy knew Dexter Chaney, a KIPP Texas – Dallas Primary School Leader and encouraged Patel to email him. Today, she’s been working on his team for the past three years.

“I could not imagine working for anyone other than Mr. Chaney,” Patel said. “I think he is the most phenomenal principal in the world, and I’ve worked for many. He is so perfect for what he does.”

The admiration and respect is mutual, and he recalls Patel’s transparency about her goals. From day one, she expressed where she was on her teaching journey, where she wanted to go, and what she wanted to accomplish. Seeing her in action the first days of school and in interactions with her teammates, Chaney knew his school had added a gem to its team.  

“Shameem embodies what a true KIPP teacher should be  – hardworking and dedicated to perfecting her craft. She strives to be the best and pushes those around her to do the same. She is always willing to research additional best practices and spend countless hours to make sure her team and KIPPsters are receiving equitable and excellent instruction,” Chaney said.

LESSONS LEARNED FROM COVID-19

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, Patel has raised her personal bar higher, allowing her brain to be challenged in new ways.

“We always talk to our kids about how you don’t ever want to be stagnant,” Patel said. “You want your brain to be growing all the time. I was kind of in this place like, what is something new I can do? How can I challenge myself? This has provided me with that – 100 percent.”

Patel says she is more creative in the ways she delivers content, becoming a Google Classroom expert in the process! She has created several read-aloud videos with comprehension questions for her students, after contacting several book publishing companies to obtain the appropriate permissions. Most responded quickly and were receptive.

Patel has experienced a mix of highs and lows in adjusting to life teaching virtually. She’s been impressed by the technological savvy and literacy her students have gained through this process. Her biggest hope is that teachers will incorporate some of these strategies once they return to their classrooms.

“There’s a lot of this stuff that we should still utilize when we’re back in our buildings,” Patel said. “I think it would be a shame for us to go through all of this and not come back better.”

EDUCATION FIRST

Patel credits her work ethic to her parents, Balkee and Padma Balakrishnan, who immigrated from Trichy, India to Columbus, Ohio in the early 1980s. When applying to graduate schools, The Ohio State University was the only school that offered her father, Balkee, enough financial aid to afford a move to the U.S. Her parents viewed education as a priority, and it paved the way for them to leave poverty.

As a child, Patel would visit India with her family every summer. During one visit, her father showed her his first-ever home.

“It was one room with a dirt floor and no running water and no electricity,” Patel said. “It was such a mind-blowing moment. My dad was taking a picture of this place with an iPhone in his hand, and he grew up with no running water and no electricity.”

Patel understands the systemic factors involved in the circumstances that her students and families face. They’re similar to those her parents endured in India. In many ways, her life experiences are different from theirs, but also proof for what’s possible through the power of education. 

“I think about what it took for my parents to be able to be successful when they were up against a lot,” Patel said. “I want my students to have the same success that my parents experienced…to have options.

“When I put in the extra time and I do the extra work, I feel I’m doing my bit to help them get that choice-filled life. So it’s 100 percent worth it on my part. I wouldn’t have this life without my parents, so this is my way of giving back.” 

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