Arundhati Srimani's teaching journey began in her childhood in India, playing make-believe as a teacher with chalk in her hand. Now a veteran teacher at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School, she recently won the 2019 Sue Pinsky Award for Excellence in Jewish Education for her 17 years of dedication to and love for the 4-year-olds she teaches.
The award was bestowed upon Srimani as part of JUF's Early Childhood Education department's evening of professional development and celebration called Early Childhood Education University. Held at Solomon Schechter Day School, more than 60 early childhood education teachers and directors attended.
"My childhood dream was always teaching," said Srimani, who started teaching and mentoring younger children from underprivileged families when she was in the eighth grade. When she got married and moved to the United States in 1995, "I didn't really think of doing anything else other than teaching," even when she had a dependent visa and wasn't able to work.
As she walked by Akiba-Schechter each day, she marveled at the dynamic between the teachers and children as they played on the playground. As soon as her visa went through, she applied for and obtained a job teaching at Akiba-Schechter--and the rest is history.
Her enthusiasm during her 17th year teaching in her famous "Blue Room" is the same as it was at the beginning. "I hear that many people have so much anxiety and stress going to work in the morning, but the moment I step into Akiba-Schechter, it's my home, my family," she said. Even when she had the opportunity to move to the suburbs, she chose to stay in the city and continue teaching at Akiba-Schechter, whose faculty and students, she said, have helped her grow as a teacher and a person.
"In the Torah, it says how good and pleasant it is for people to live together in unity, and this is true for Akiba-Schechter," she added.
As someone who attended Catholic school as a child, Srimani sees the beauty in teaching and learning from difference. As a member of the Akiba-Schechter faculty, she felt "loved, nurtured, and respected" from the beginning. "They respected me and accepted me as who I am rather than try to change me, and that made me feel such self-respect and confidence that I could grow more," she said.
Srimani connects to the "kindness, team spirit, and love" from both religions and uses these feelings to create a classroom that celebrates difference. She calls her students "rainbows" because "a rainbow has seven different colors and they're different, but if they're not together, there's no beauty in the rainbow."
She hopes that along with the curriculum, her students learn that "when you are respectful to others, no religion can be a boundary."
Parents and faculty members at Akiba-Schechter agree that she is the kind of outstanding early childhood teacher deserving of the Pinsky Award. "Arun is a gifted educator and an amazing person. A year spent in the Blue Room with her is transformative for children and their families," enthused Kathryn Smous, the parent of a child currently in her class.
"It is truly magical to watch Arun in her classroom," added Akiba-Schechter preschool director Carla Goldberg. "Everything she sets up for the children is intentional and thoughtful. The children in her care feel loved and supported and learn to take risks as they grow and learn. To have Arun as your child's teacher is truly a gift."