No one was surprised when Devina Bhalla became a teacher. In fact, back when she graduated from middle school in Connecticut, one of her seventh grade teachers told her to give him a call in a decade when she was ready to come back and be a teacher herself. She didn’t end up returning to her alma mater in Hartford, but she did send an email to let him know when she got her first teaching job at Gilman in 2021.
After graduating from Tufts University in just three years, Bhalla learned about the Penn Fellows Residency at Gilman, and she spent two days talking with Gilman faculty via Zoom to see if she would be a good fit. “I had the best conversation with [Upper School English teacher] Beth Knapp,” she said, “which has not stopped for two years.”
At first, Bhalla was hesitant about working at an all-boys school, but what shifted her perspective was a comment from Assistant Head of Upper School and Penn Fellows Program Director Brian Ledyard during the interview process. “He told me that the boys at Gilman were ‘beautiful and vulnerable’.” She had never heard someone describe teenage boys that way before; she knew she had to come see it for herself.
“At Gilman, I felt like I could be the teacher that I wanted to be and give back to students in the way my teachers gave to me,” Bhalla said. And over the last two school years on Roland Avenue, she has done just that, fully immersing herself in school life. She teaches sections of English 10 and 11, and has been an assistant coach on the water polo and swim teams. She is the faculty advisor for the student newspaper, The Gilman News, and the Sikh Student Association, and she also helps out in the Writing Center.
As she finished the 2021-2022 school year — her first at Gilman — she realized “what was moving me in the classroom” was the empathic element of teaching. “I know a lot of the students are going to go on to do great things,” she said. “I wanted to make them more curious about the world and to use whatever power they will have more equitably with an eye towards justice.” Her inquiry project for the University of Pennsylvania asks the question: How can I cultivate curious mindsets that foster empathy in my English students?
Her working answer dips into three buckets of teacher moves: community building, listening and questioning, and empathy exercises. Looking through the lens of each bucket has given Bhalla the opportunity to try many different activities. For example, in the community bucket, she often uses a question wheel, which students spin at the beginning of class to prompt them to answer a sometimes thoughtful — or sometimes silly — question.
One listening activity Bhalla brings to her classroom is the development of listening and questioning guidelines at the beginning of the semester. Together, they co-create a framework that the class agrees to follow regarding how best to hear ideas and provide feedback to one another.
Falling into the perspective-taking empathy bucket, one exercise Bhalla uses is having students complete a writing assignment from the voice of a particular character from a book they are reading, then rewrite it from the viewpoint of a different character, and, finally, reflect on the activity.
Though it’s clear she has a passion for literature and English instruction, Bhalla’s favorite part of being a teacher is connecting with her students and colleagues. “Teaching can be hard but the relationships I’ve developed make it sustainable,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to do this work without the support from my mentor, Beth Knapp, and my whole department. I’m really grateful.”
The folks at Gilman share the sentiment — so much so that Bhalla will continue her career at Gilman as a full-time faculty member starting in the 2023-2024 school year.
Congratulations to Devina Bhalla, who will soon complete her masters in education from the University of Pennsylvania.
photos from Penn Fellows Reception on May 4, 2023