An Interview with Neerja Punjabi

Neerja Punjabi is currently seconded to TVOntario as Director, Educational Partnerships K-12.  Previously, she was a principal in both the Peel District and Toronto District School Boards.  During this very different time, she took the time to have a discussion with me. 

Doug:  My first question is always this – do you recall when we first met?

Neerja: I have been active on Twitter since 2011, which was my first year as a new elementary school principal. I wanted to learn and connect with educators who were sharing ideas in an open forum. I started following you on Twitter during that time because you posted amazing professional learning resources, which I was interested in reading and learning from. You have always modelled the #NeverStopLearning philosophy.

Doug:  You seem to be a regular on #FollowFridays which is always an indicator that you’re actively sharing content.  I’m guessing that our connector in common would have been Urs who I worked with in OSAPAC days.  Would that be your guess, or was it someone else?

Neerja: I met Urs Bill when I joined TVO last year. But you Doug have been a big part of my professional learning network for a very long time, even though we had never formally met. The #FollowFridays feed was another reason for the connection to meet like-minded educators who added value to my professional growth.

Doug:  I’m always in awe with people that manage to converse in multiple languages.  You would certainly be in that category.  Can you share your level of fluency and your languages spoken?

Neerja: I was born and brought up in Hyderabad, India, and we had to learn at least three languages in school. Attending a convent school where English was the medium of instruction, we also learnt Hindi and Telugu as second and third languages. I am very fluent in speaking these languages. In addition, Punjabi is my mother tongue, and I learned it at home. Urdu is very similar to Hindi, and because of that, I can speak it very fluently.

This article from @npr resonated with me. It specifically mentions a research study done in Hyderabad, which highlights my upbringing and exposure to several languages:

https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2013/11/14/244813470/new-study-shows-brain-benefits-of-bilingualism.

Doug:  Wow, that is so impressive. As a former principal, how was your fluency in these languages an asset?

Neerja: Being fluent in all these languages was a definite asset for me as a principal in Peel District School Board. It helped me to build meaningful relationships with parents and grandparents in the community. I could share my experiences and stories of resilience as a new immigrant with new families immigrating to Canada, particularly from South Asia, giving them a message of hope and a sense of optimism. Speaking in one’s native tongue helps build trust and creates a sense of mutual respect.

Doug:  Now, you’ve been seconded to TVOntario, one of the real education gems in the province.  Your role involves Educational Partnerships.  What does this involve?

Neerja: I would like to give you a little bit of background first about why I decided to take up a secondment with TVO, which is celebrating its 50th Anniversary – ‘50 and Never Stop Learning’ this year. TVO has held a very special place in my heart. As a new immigrant coming to Canada 31 years ago, I was fascinated by the broadcast programs which were offered by TVO. When we decided to immigrate to Canada, we knew we had no friends and family here, and the one TV channel we relied on was TVO. Saturday Night at the Movies was a weekly television series on TVO, the public educational television network in Ontario with Elwy Yost and my husband and I watched the two back-to-back Movies. We have many fond memories. Also, my children were avid watchers of the Polka Dot Door (with Polkaroo) and Arthur which were very popular programs. They learned so much through these two shows. TVO played a big role in supporting our immigrant family’s successfully acclimatization to the Canadian values and culture.

My secondment to TVO has been a wonderful learning journey. As Director, Educational Partnerships, I have developed and led TVO’s strategy to coordinate partnerships and outreach activities across the K-12 educational community, including communication and liaising with school districts, federations, affiliations and employee group partners, EDU, and Faculties of Education. We have promoted awareness and adoption of TVO and TVO’s digital products and services in targeted professional learning sessions across the province.

Doug:  You and your team had a big presence at the Bring IT, Together Conference in Niagara Falls last November.  Who is on your team and what are their roles?

Neerja: Our ‘small but mighty’ team comprises both TVO employees and educators who have been seconded from either a Board of Education or from the Ministry.

Here is a list of our phenomenal team members:

  • Urs Bill, Manager of TVO Mathify and Educational Outreach (seconded from the Ministry of Education)
  • Natalie Perez, Outreach Support Officer
  • Jenny Cadena and Tony Yeung, Resource Coordinators for TVO Mathify
  • Albert Wisco, Community Manager for TVO Teach Ontario
  • Kyle McCreight, Digital Media Producer
  • Jennifer Montgomery, Education Officer (Seconded from YRDSB)
  • Leah Kearney, Pedagogue/Instructional Liaison (seconded from TDSB)
  • Maureen Asselin, Instructional Liaison (seconded from HCDSB)

Doug:  In advance of the conference, you and your team submitted a guest blog post here: https://dougpete.wordpress.com/2019/10/26/bring-tvo-into-your-classroom-2/

I’ve been an exhibitor at that conference, and I have a not-so-fond memory of exhaustion from standing so long and repeating the same message over and over.  What is your memory from the event?  Was this your first time at this conference?

Neerja: First, let me thank you for sharing our blog on your WordPress and Twitter. Your support has meant a lot with expanding our outreach efforts across the province.

In 2019, I attended the BIT conference for the very first time. My team members who had participated in the conference before were very enthusiastic about this opportunity for networking and connecting with so many like-minded educators who were the early adopters of digital learning. There were so many teacher-leaders who participated in drop-in sessions to learn more about TVO resources. Many explored the TVO carousal and registered for TVO mPower and TVO Mathify. Many educators were inspired to join our TVO outreach team as TVO Ambassadors to continue to spread the word.

Doug:  TVOntario hosts so many wonderful resources for education.  Can you share a link to where they are and a quick overview?

Neerja: Here is a link where you will find copies of one-page support guides (toolkits) for TVO mPower and TVO Mathify, as well as a one-page overview of all TVO resources:

bit.ly/TVOVirtualLearning

Doug:  I’ve always been a fan and supporter, in particular, of the Mathematics support that TVO offers.  Can you give an overview of those specifically?  I think that, in these times, they are even more important.

Neerja: I will talk about two TVO resources in particular that offer support in Mathematics.

TVO Mathify is developed for Ontario students and educators, and this resource seamlessly supports the learning of grade 6-10 math. Mathify helps educators to boost math engagement, confidence and reduce math anxiety. It enables students to extend or support their own learning through live, individualized 1:1 math tutoring sessions with TVO Mathify tutors who are also Ontario Certified Math Teachers.

TVO Mathify addresses and accommodates the different scheduling needs of you, your students, and their families during this time. Teachers and students can engage in math lessons and learning at times that work for them and their schedule – over and above any pre-planned lesson times. 

TVO Mathify is also: 

  • Intuitive to use for teachers and students.  No big learning curve required. 
  • Safe and secure.  No ads, no pop-ups, no purchases, no downloads, and no one collecting data on you or your students for potential sale to for-profit organizations. 
  • FREE to Ontario teachers and students and available. 
  • 24/7 access to prepare, post or access questions  
  • Extended tutoring hours for students: 
  • Mon-Fri 9 am-9 pm ET
  • Sun 3:30-9 pm ET

TVO mPower: is a fun and innovative online game-based resource that builds problem-solving, critical thinking and math skills for students K-6. It is an award-winning, ad-free children’s content that supports the Ontario curriculum, developed with a commitment to diversity. Creative online math games support the development of foundational K-6 math & STEM skills in the classroom and at home.

We use a variety of resources to develop TVO mPower; these are foundational to our work: Curriculum Documents – The Kindergarten Program, The Ontario Mathematics, Science and Technology and Social Studies Curricula are used in the creation of the math games, STEM games, and TVO mPower narratives. This ensures the alignment with Ontario curriculum expectations and best practices. The game iterations are based on feedback from classroom teachers, ongoing playtesting and the ongoing research and development process at TVO.

In summary, TVO mPower has 65+ free, creative online games that support the development of foundational K-6 math and STEM skills while fostering positive attitudes towards math. TVO mPower is:

  • Learner-centred
  • Assessment-driven
  • Ontario curriculum-based
  • A safe, advertising-free play space
  • Free for all Ontarians
  • Available on laptop, desktop computers and tablets 

Doug:  Have TVOntario and your team ramped up your resources and support during these times of school closures?

Neerja: Educational partnerships team continues to be innovative in providing outreach virtually through webinars. We have conducted several online webinars for interested educators. Recently we have been asked to deliver two webinars to over 100 educators from a Board of Education to their educator community. Also, educators can access support by registering on TeachOntario

https://www.teachontario.ca/

-an online community for Ontario’s educators. We share our resources, and new content is posted regularly. We also share our resources through social media.

Doug:  Is it safe to say that you and your team are working from home these days? 

Neerja: Yes, you are right – we are currently working from home. We use digital collaboration platforms for our meetings within the organization, and we connect with educators across the province through scheduled synchronous and asynchronous webinars. TVO TeachOntario has been an incredible resource for connecting our team and connecting Ontario educators. In terms of the bigger picture, here is a Blog which highlights some of the ways TVO is conducting business as an organization:

https://www.tvo.org/about/tvo-announces-covid-19-response

Doug:  Have you noticed an increase in the number of students/teachers/parents taking advantage of all that you offer?

Neerja: TVO’s Digital Education Resources

https://www.tvo.org/education-tools

have been featured on the Ministry of Education’s Learn at Home site:

https://www.ontario.ca/page/learn-at-home.

Over the past few months, these FREE TVO resources have had a significant impact and benefit on our educators, students, parents, and guardians. Many students continue to actively use resources such as TVO Kids, TVO mPower, and TVO Mathify. We will continue to serve our communities during these difficult times and have our resources available for anyone who needs the support.

Doug:  During all this, you remain connected to your network on Twitter.  What value do you see in staying connected?

Neerja: Twitter is a platform where I am continually learning, sharing and connecting with educators. At TVO, we share a commitment to lifelong learning and the belief that learning has the power to ignite potential and change the world. My engagement and use of this platform truly align with this deep-rooted value to #NeverStopLearning, which I fully imbibe.

Doug:  I asked Superintendent Hazel Mason this when I interviewed her

https://dougpete.wordpress.com/2017/06/13/an-interview-with-hazel-mason/ 

– if you had to identify 10 “must follow” users on Twitter, who would they be?

Neerja: I was overwhelmed when I saw my name mentioned on this list from Hazel Mason (@Hmason36 on Twitter) in June 2017. Hazel was my Superintendent, a fantastic leader who had high expectations for all her team members, and I hold her in very high regard.

There are so many phenomenal educators and leaders that I continue to learn from regularly on Twitter. Here are the names of those who have helped me and continue to help me on my learning journey:

  • Rose Pillay, @RosePillay1
  • Bill Ferriter, @Plugusin
  • Jackie Gerstein, @jackiegerstein
  • David Culberhouse, @DCulberhouse
  • ONT Special Needs, @Ontspecialneeds
  • Zohrin Mawji, @ZohrinMawji
  • The Agenda/TVO, @TheAgenda
  • Edutopia – @Edutopia
  • Mindshift – @MindShiftKQED
  • NCTE – @ncte

Doug:  I know that you’re a very positive person.  When do you see us getting back to normal, or whatever “normal” will become?

Neerja: Thank you, Doug, that is very nice of you. Yes, I am a positive person, and from what I know is that this too shall pass. In the meantime, we need to focus on ensuring that all safety measures are in place and follow the Public Health advice diligently. By taking personal responsibility, we can collectively flatten the curve. In addition, we need to keep track of the regular updates on COVID-19 shared on the Ontario.ca website. It is an excellent idea to be mindful of what is being expected to keep us all safe.

Doug:  If you were returning to one of your former schools as principal, what sorts of changes do you see having to be made for everyone’s safety?

Neerja:  I understand that returning to school at this time would require a deep reflection and a call to action to support all learners, especially those who are underserved and who may have big gaps in their learning. Providing students with the best learning opportunities will be the highest priority for me as the lead learner in the school. In addition, my focus will be on building positive and trusting relationships with my staff, students, parents, guardians, and extended community partners​.

Doug:  Thank you so much for taking the time during all this to share some of your thoughts, wisdom, and insights. Stay safe.

You can follow Neerja on Twitter at @PNeerja

Make sure that you check out the TVOntario resources at the link above.

Thanks for reading.  Periodically, I interview interesting people like Neerja.  You can read them all here – https://dougpete.wordpress.com/interviews/

Author: dougpete

The content of this blog is generated by whatever strikes my fancy at any given point. It might be computers, weather, political, or something else in nature. I experiment and comment a lot on things so don't take anything here too seriously; I might change my mind a day later but what you read is my thought and opinion at the time I wrote it! My personal website is at: http://www.dougpeterson.ca Follow me on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dougpete I'm bookmarking things at: http://www.diigo.com/user/dougpete

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