Nisha Nathani, 28
Math and English teacher
Anyone who ever thought mathematics and English are polar opposites - and never the twain shall meet - hasn't met teaching phenom Nisha Nathani.
Whereas most teachers specialize in math and science or English and history, Nathani made the unusual choice of gaining expertise in math and English, spanning the gap between the two cultures of the sciences and the arts.
It's a choice Nathani says keeps her balanced.
"It also helps me to understand the students better, because you understand the left brain and the right brain," she said.
Her choice of specialties is not the only thing that distinguishes Nathani. She is a social activist who believes that changing the world starts at home - even right in the classroom.
Although she didn't plan on being a teacher, she said she finally realized the classroom is where most children first develop their sense of community and political awareness.
"I realized that by practicing education, I'd be making a contribution to democratic development," Nathani said while on a break between classes at MIND (Moving in New Directions) High School on St. Urbain St.
Nathani grew up in Toronto but came to Montreal to do a bachelor's degree in education at McGill University and stayed. She has already completed a master's degree on the role of education in democratic development. It was then that she felt the calling to teach.
She has taught at the American School in Switzerland and spent a summer teaching at an orphanage in India. She said she was deeply touched by the poverty and by the spirit of the children there.
After teaching at Argyle Academy in Verdun for one year, Nathani knew she wanted to work in an alternative school. She wandered into MIND five years ago to volunteer her services and came out with a job - the school had been looking for a math teacher.
Anthony Paré, chairman of McGill's department of integrated studies in education, describes her as a star.
"She is a spectacular teacher," Paré said. "She is deeply committed to her school and to the idea of how education should be. Her dedication is remarkable in this day and age."
Sharon Erskine, the head teacher at MIND, agreed.
"She has real charisma and a way of engaging people," Erskine said. "The students liked her right away. They connected with her. She values their opinions equally."
A very hands-on teacher, Nathani often spends her lunch hour with students. She has been instrumental in keeping the school going after the English Montreal School Board considered shutting it down.
Now she is working on a deal to have the school affiliated with McGill, as a place to provide training for new teachers.
Nathani is also enraptured by the premise of the school, which looks for academically able Grade 10 and 11 students who are looking for a more stimulating learning environment. Students are given more independence than in a traditional classroom and are very active in operating the school - they sit on the community council that oversees the school.
Rather than looking on teens as belligerent and rebellious, Nathani respects them and believes they construct thoughtful opinions about the world.
"Teens get belligerent when they're bored or feel they don't have a voice that's valuable," she said.
Of course, she wants her students to achieve and to learn, but what she most wants is to help them become critical thinkers.
Emma Gaudet, a Grade 10 student at MIND, said her math has improved since Nathani became her teacher this year. But that isn't what makes Nathani such a great teacher.
"What makes her great is that she treats us all as equals," Gaudet said.
"She respects us."