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Award-winning educator ensures learning connects to real life

By Tim Douglas
December 18, 2015
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The business world lost a surefire star when Bijal Damani left her lucrative job, but education gained a bright beacon who is transforming how children learn in India.

Damani is a teacher at SN Kansagra School, which is part of the Galaxy Education System in Rajkot, Gujarat, India.

It’s a private Indian Certified School Examination (ICSE) school that serves nearly 7,200 K-12 students in that city. The medium of teaching is English, but her message and drive translate to any language.

“Making a difference is more important than the fat paycheck,” she writes in an email. “I was a volunteer teacher as I was working, and I realized, this is what I love to do. Moreover, I had this thought that if I continue with my corporate career, then only one person will prosper. If I join teaching and teach students to be ethical entrepreneurs, the whole community will benefit. Then one fine day, I resigned from my career, much to the astonishment of my family and friends.”

Originally interested in business, Damani has a bachelor’s degree in commerce and a master’s in business administration that served her well in her first career where she earned a handsome salary as a marketing manager. Now she’s chasing something much different with an equal reward.

“I believe we have to be lifelong learners,” she says. “After the university degree gets done, education should not. I learn something new every day from my students, my colleagues and my surroundings. I have to learn and teach.”

She began by teaching students with special needs, who taught her that every student can learn, it just happens at a different pace.

From this role, she moved on to become a business teacher, where her focus is training students to develop 21st century skills to become the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. Damani is not your typical Indian teacher, but her style sprouted from necessity when school management assigned her to X-F students (students with behavioral issues). Instinctively, Damani knew the usual way of teaching wasn’t going to work, and she formed her teaching philosophy.

Dialogues flourish in her classroom, and her lessons are dynamic, practical, hands-on and collaborative. She is a firm believer in project-based learning and integrating technology effectively into her instruction.

In fact, she has taken project-based learning to a whole new level. For nearly 10 years, she has been working with her students to run the social-entrepreneurship project Galaxy Bazaar, which takes place before Diwali, or Deepavali, the Hindu festival of lights. Diwali is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated in autumn in the northern hemisphere. It’s the biggest and brightest festival in India, and signifies the victory of light over darkness.

The Galaxy Bazaar is a showcase for local artisans and wholesalers, and offers festival-related goods under one roof at less than retail prices. Since it started, the Bazaar has raised nearly $90,000, which funds equal educational opportunities for underprivileged girls.

“I firmly believe that the current education system and assessment need to be changed tremendously,” she says. “In India, education is limited to textbooks and assessment is limited to tests where students rely on their memory. The connection between real life and classroom is missing. This is why I teach through various projects – to connect students with real life.”

The Bazaar is only part of her and her students’ project-based successes. In the past five years, her young collaborators have created more than 100 innovative products that address everyday problems, and Damani travels the globe to spread the word about her students’ achievements and some of the other techniques she uses in the classroom. She has presented at various conferences for Google, Microsoft and UNESCO, to name a few.

While she’s talking about her efforts and the success of her students, many others are talking about her and what she’s able to achieve with her learners. Damani is one of the most decorated teachers in the field. The organizations and agencies that have showered her with awards look like an eye chart of the who’s who in education: ISTE (Teacher of the Year, 2011), ASCD(Outstanding Young Educator Award, 2009) and HP Edtech (Innovator Award 2010). She’s also a two-time winner of the Presidential Award for ICT (information and communication technology), which also includes classroom practices.

Now, she’s a finalist for perhaps the most prestigious – and lucrative – of them all: the Global Teacher Prize from the Varkey Foundation, intended to raise the stature of the teaching profession. The foundation refers to it as the Nobel Prize of Teaching, but the title pales when compared to the prize money. The winning teacher will be announced in March and will receive $1 million.

It wouldn’t be a bad reward for someone who stopped chasing the “fat paycheck” and started chasing her dream.