February 19, 2001


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The Rediff US Special/Aseem Chhabra

Lessons from Long Island

Chirakkal V Krishnan is among the highest paid teachers in Long Island, and a winner of many prestigious awards

When Chirakkal V Krishnan started teaching chemistry at the Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, Long Island in 1970, he knew of no other South Asian teachers or students in that public school system.

In fact, the school officials seemed concerned with his heavy Indian accent. "Actually it was the principal who made a big deal of it, not the chairman. The chairman would say 'Oh just leave him alone,'" Krishnan said recently from his home in Coram, Long Island.

"That was one of the main differences between the school and the university systems in America. In universities they didn't bother about foreign accents, but in schools it made the school officials more anxious."

The state board examinations finally convinced the principal that Krishnan's accent was not a hindrance to the students' education. "I was greatly in favor of the state exams," says Krishnan. "That was an independent judgment. My students performed well and that was to my advantage."

Krishnan, 63, holds a doctorate in physical chemistry from Bombay University; in 1967 he joined a post doctoral program at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. In addition to teaching in Long Island's high school systems since 1970, he has also conducted research and taught at Stony Brook.

Today he is one of Long Island's highest-paid teachers. With stipends, his gross salary has reached approximately $ 120,000. His stipends include a $ 3,200 payment for advising the student council, $ 6,500 for an Eisenhower math program and $ 5,200 for running the school's Intel science research program, which involves working with students over the summer.

He is also a very innovative teacher. One Halloween, he came to school dressed as a kernel of corn to communicate the idea of an atom.

Along the way, he has collected several prestigious awards and accolades. In 1984, he was the first Indian teacher in the US to receive the Presidential Award for excellence in teaching from President Ronald Reagan. In 1992 he was named the Disney Channel's Outstanding Teacher of Science. And in 1999, the Chemical Affairs Association presented him with the Catalyst Award.

Krishnan opted for teaching at a high school when he realized that there was no full time opportunity at Stony Brook. But he negotiated a deal with the school system that would allow him to continue his part-time research at Stony Brook.

"The school was very liberal with me," he says. "I would leave by one in the afternoon, be at the university soon after that. Plus the school is open only for 180 days. Essentially there is a lot of time to be at the university."

A year later, in 1971 he switched to Long Island's East Islip High School, where he has taught since then, along with continuing research at Stony Brook. For over 30 years he has been a resident of Coram, Long Island. He and his wife have two children, now grown up -- a daughter, 32 and a son, 28.

Krishnan was always aware of the fact that professional Indians of his generation may consider teaching in schools as lowering their standards. "It can be true when you look at it from an Indian point of view," he says. "I had that sense too when I started. I had been a scientific officer at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Bombay, a post doctoral student at Stony Brook. So in a way it was a little agonizing for the mind."

But then Krishnan has a strong personal philosophy -- to excel in whatever he does.

"That's what I always tell my students. Because in life you may have to do many things even if you don't like it. What is the point of hating your job? If you start loving it, that may make your life a little easier."

Once he decided to teach, it became Krishnan's goal to learn everything he could about children and teenagers in America so he could communicate with them. On Saturdays he conducts special science classes for kindergarten and elementary school children and their parents.

The material may be the same, he says, but how you approach it with different age groups matter a lot. Hence, the kernel of corn costume. He uses gummy bears in experiments and makes ice cream with liquid nitrogen. "I perform magic acts, although it is not real magic," he explains.

Then there are days when his high school students are not interested in studying at all. "I say OK, so long as you know what you have to know by the end of the year. I have the advantage that on those days, I can talk about university research, or about India, its culture and languages."

One such day, Krishnan impressed his students by the number of languages he has had to learn in his life -- English, French (for his Ph D), Malayalam, (because that is his mother tongue), Tamil, Hindi (both to watch movies), Sanskrit, and Marathi (because he lived in Mumbai).

Krishnan thinks the debate on high teacher salaries in Long Island is much ado about nothing. According to a recent survey, approximately 13 per cent of the teachers in the Long Island school system earn more than $ 100,000 a year. The average teacher's salary on Long Island is $ 68,000, with starting pay ranging from $ 30,000 to $ 42,000.

His salary is comparable to a professor's salary. At Stony Brook, for example, a tenured, full professor of chemistry earns from $ 65,000 to $ 100,000 a year. He holds a term appointment -- a full professor position at Stony Brook for 33 per cent of his time.

"Long Island is one of the costliest places in New York and you cannot compare salaries in Long Island to say in Buffalo," he said. "There are issues of standard of living and how effective your union is.

"Pay scales are not something you can easily say should be the same throughout, even though there are places where it is low," he adds. "It is not an easy solution. You can't compare pay scales between professions too. My daughter has been working for 10 years as an auditor in New York City and she makes more money than me. What is the point of my complaining?"

In 1970 Krishnan started his school teaching profession at $ 8,500 a year. But he never sought to change his job or career to earn a few hundred dollars more.

"My philosophy for teaching was that if I don't have to borrow and if I don't have to starve, I would never be worried about money," he says. "There are many cases of people that move around here and there for a few dollars, sacrificing their families.

"We wanted to have a stable life for our children. So we decided this is where the children are going to grow up and have steady social friends, which I had in India, when I was growing up."

Design: Lynette Menezes

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