[ Teaching & Learning ]

Why I teach

Sarvenaz Zelkha Singh is an English language arts teacher at MS 51 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. A member of the United Federation of Teachers, she has been teaching in New York City public schools for 19 years. She served four years as an assistant teacher at NYU–Steinhardt School Of Education.
Sarvenaz Zelkha Singh smiling with black top on and green metal necklace
I was 9 years old watching “Wheel of Fortune” with my Iraqi grandmother, Simcha Zelkha. We did this every night. As the wheel went spinning, determining the gains and losses of each contestant, we’d be in awe of how each contestant could guess the phrases based on just a few bought vowels and lit-up consonants. My grandmother and I didn’t even know what the phrases meant. We spent most of our time learning our letters. We were learning the difference between vowels and consonants.

The year was 1984 and I had just recently immigrated from Teheran, Iran, to Queens, New York. I was temporarily living with my grandparents. My grandmother had lived in the United States for 10 years, but still spoke broken English. As I was learning how to sound out words, I realized, while watching “Wheel of Fortune,” that my Iraqi native grandmother did not know how to read or write in English. She admitted to me that in Arabic, she could only read on a third-grade level, which made it hard for her to even read Arabic books that her friends would lend her. It was a profound concept to me that the adult who was in charge of taking care of me could not read or write properly.

I decided that I was going to teach her how to read and write in English. I started to create worksheets and tests. Whatever I learned in school about reading, I also taught to my grandmother.

After a few weeks of tutoring my grandmother, we went to the supermarket, and she showed me how she could read simple signs. She was sounding out words. The more she could read, the more words she learned, the better English she spoke. She was a blossoming American — and that’s when I knew how being an educator could positively impact the lives of others.

For the past 19 years I’ve been an ELA teacher in New York City schools. I’ve dedicated my profession to getting middle and high school students used to seeing themselves as lifelong readers with strong reading staminas. I’ve taught mostly narrative and essay writing skills from the lens of social justice. I believe that if one can tell their personal stories and make thoughtful points using researched information, our youth can grow into adults that can improve our democratic nation.

As my students improve their critical reading and writing skills, they can access higher education. This can make it possible for them to be striving Americans that make a significant contribution to move our country into a more positive existence for those born here, and the future immigrants who hope for a better life for themselves and their families.

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What’s your why?

Countless talking heads outside the classroom have a lot to say. We want to hear from you. Why did you choose the teaching profession — and why do you stay? Send submissions up to 450 words, along with a photo, to united@nysut.org.