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‘It’s about the student’

Award-winning science teacher doesn’t follow textbook method

Teacher Krishna Mahabir is the heart of this junior robotics class. Erica Berger

Teacher Krishna Mahabir is the heart of this junior robotics class.

Working out a physics assignment on energy, a senior team figures out how high a Erica Berger

Working out a physics assignment on energy, a senior team figures out how high a ball of a certain mass and weight bounces.

Ramiza Islam (left) and Jasmine Saucedo begin construction of their robot platfo Erica Berger

Ramiza Islam (left) and Jasmine Saucedo begin construction of their robot platform.

His subject may be science, but Krishna Mahabir insists “teaching is an art form.”

“Each student is different,” the Grover Cleveland HS teacher explains, “so it’s not about meeting some textbook plan that says this is how it should be done. It’s about the student, not the master plan.”

While there is a lot of activity and interaction in his classes, there is also an industrious kind of quiet. Working in teams of three, with everyone fully engaged, his robotics students are assembling classic square bots in preparation for more advanced work programming robots to follow commands.

Junior Samantha Ortiz, speaking for her team, says, “We give each other the space to do what each of us does best. There are no egos. We help each other learn.”

It’s almost as if they are learning the art of teaching from Mahabir, a 2017 winner of the Sloan Award for outstanding work and commitment to students in mathematics and the sciences.

When a student calls out “Maha!” in robotics class, Mahabir is immediately at the student’s side. “I don’t give answers,” he says. “I troubleshoot.”

Mahabir has been called Maha by students since his earliest days as a physics, robotics and geo-hazards teacher at the school in Ridgewood, Queens. When a student, unsure how to pronounce his name, addressed him as Maha, the name stuck. “That was it,” he chuckles.

Mahabir and junior Samantha Ortiz troubleshoot the problem with her square bot.Erica BergerMahabir and junior Samantha Ortiz troubleshoot the problem with her square bot. The seniors in his physics class are bouncing balls up and down the hallway outside the lab. Working with two balls of different mass, each team of two is recording the height of the bounces to determine average heights that would indicate energy level, part of a unit on potential and kinetic energy.

Mahabir is so quiet and his class so engaged that he seems to be nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Students arrive, join their teams, get the materials they need and begin work without any prompting or scolding. At the same time, he is among them, encouraging and helping them “troubleshoot.”

Mahabir is free in 8th period, but students still drift into his classroom. Some are former students but all know they are welcome and that he will stay to help them with their homework or just to listen.

He knows his students well. When a photographer taking a class photo asks a student who couldn’t be seen to move forward, Mahabir, without turning around, identifies Esmeralda as the one who was hiding.

Biology teacher Juan Campos describes his colleague as “hardworking and dedicated, a father figure to students who open up to him. They come here early and stay late. They do it for him.”

That connection with students is the reason three teams preparing for the New York State Science Olympiad — where they competed against 70 other high schools in 25 events in January — voluntarily arrived at school ready for work at 6:40 a.m. every morning, often working after school until 7:30 p.m. As team co-captain Nicole Gerlak notes, “We usually do well, but we have to study for our events mornings, afternoons and in breaks during the day.”

Mahabir, a 19-year classroom veteran, has watched Grover Cleveland HS climb to top-tier status after he resurrected its participation in that competition and others more than a decade ago. He tapped into the school’s large English language learner population, encouraging students to participate, and soon Grover Cleveland was beating teams from elite schools all over the state. Grover Cleveland has won gold in bridge and tower building for the past three years and in 2016, a 10th-grader placed first at an international competition in Chicago.

Mahabir’s Sloan Award brought $2,500 to the science department, but what is really needed, he says, is a complete update of department equipment and computers. Robotic materials were purchased with a grant years ago. “These are good kids who don’t damage equipment and deserve better,” he says.

At a time when many schools struggle to attract girls to STEM programs, girls make up the majority in Mahabir’s classes and competition teams. Asked to explain that, Mahabir has this unequivocal response: “Girls are much more competitive and disciplined than boys.” His two daughters, he notes, are following in his scientific footsteps.

Born in Guyana, Mahabir grew up in Barbados, came to New York as a young adult and worked for advanced degrees through the UFT graduate course program.

“Krish is a consummate pro,” says Grover Cleveland HS Chapter Leader Brian Gavin. “He sets a great example. His work with students has transformed them into leaders in our school. On top of all this, Krish is a true union activist and a strong advocate for his colleagues.”

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