Yorkville School District 115 teacher Kavita Mahendra is empowering young students who are learning the English language.
Mahendra is an English language learning teacher at Grande Reserve Elementary School, where she works with children in all grade levels.
“I love my students. I cannot imagine doing anything else in my life,” Mahendra said.
For most of Mahendra’s students, Spanish is the language spoken in the home, and some struggle to fit in with their classmates.
Mahendra, who speaks three languages, starts by making her students see their bilingual status as an advantage.
“You speak two languages; that’s a gift. You should be proud, not embarrassed,” Mahendra tells her students.
Yet, Mahendra is well aware that her students face unique difficulties.
“The challenge my students face is being accepted for who they are,” Mahendra said. “I want my students to speak with others and to be leaders in the classroom.”
Kavita Mahendra has lived the classic coming to America success story.
She already was a successful school teacher in her native India when her husband, Dinesh, an architect, received a green card to come to the United States.
“The opportunity just dropped in our lap,” Mahendra said.
The couple came to this country in 2004, bringing their two young children.
Mahendra brought with her a native proficiency in English, Hindi and Telugu, a language spoken in several Indian states.
She also came with sterling academic credentials, solid teaching experience and a strong work ethic.
Mahendra earned a master’s degree in English literature from Osmania University in Hyderabad in 1994, after having received a bachelor of commerce degree from the same school. She also possessed a diploma in food production and catering from a hotel management institute.
In Hyderabad, a metropolis of more than 10 million people, Mahendra taught high school English, social studies and economics, while preparing students for their all-important board examinations.
“The experience helped me understand I could start anywhere and teach,” Mahendra said.
While Telugu is the local state language and Hindi is spoken across the country, it is English that serves as India’s lingua franca.
“English is the medium of interaction for everything in India,” Mahendra said.
After arriving in this country and settling in Carol Stream, Mahendra’s academic credentials in the world of commerce and management came in very handy.
She quickly landed a job as the sales manager of a retail store in Bloomingdale, working there for several years.
Mahendra also did volunteer work at the local public library and began tutoring students in English. The lure of a teaching career was calling, but Mahendra knew that she needed a degree in education to make it happen.
That led to Northern Illinois University, where Mahendra earned her master’s degree in 2020.
“I realized everything I knew about teaching I needed to unlearn,” Mahendra said. “I started to see how much teachers do in the classroom.”
Mahendra currently has more than 30 students under her wing. The K-6 youngsters come to Mahendra from their regular classrooms for intensive, personalized instruction.
“Every student comes with his or her own story, and that’s where I draw my inspiration,” Mahendra said.
There are only a handful of desks in Mahendra’s small classroom space.
One recent morning found the teacher going back and forth between only two students as they wrote in their workbooks, offering encouragement while challenging them to do better.
To a visitor, a conversation with one of Mahendra’s students seems no different than speaking with any other 6- or 7-year-old. However, it is reading and writing which poses the big challenge.
“Looking at text is hard for them,” Mahendra said.
Mahendra uses Scholastic Magazine, a publication familiar to generations of students, to help build the vocabularies of her pupils.
The teacher’s classroom is filled with displays that promote strategies for the students to take advantage of their bilingualism.
One of these tells students to “Change your words, change your mindset.”
Instead of saying “The other kids don’t understand me,” the display advises Mahendra’s students to turn the situation into a positive: “I have an accent because I speak more than one language.”
Mahendra works with her students’ regular classroom teachers, helping to facilitate lessons. Communication with parents is vital.
“I work to establish a connection between families with limited English language skills and the school through phone calls or one-on-one meetings in order to explain the curriculum, school procedures, medical requirements and other relevant information,” Mahendra said. Part of the job is to simply support students who work at a slower pace than their peers, she said.
After completing her master’s degree at NIU and her student teaching, Mahendra began teaching at Grande Reserve in 2020.
“I absolutely love it here,” Mahendra said. “If I’m not in a classroom I feel like there is something missing.”
Kavita Mahendra, English langugage learning teacher at Grande Reserve Elementary School in Yorkville.
Q: Can you name a book that has had an influence on your teaching?
A: “Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain,” by Zaretta Hammond. The book’s subtitle is “Promoting Authentic Engagement & Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.”
“It was a challenge for me to learn what I needed to do to teach. I take inspiration from my kids.”