For 15 years, Pankaj Sharma
, a social studies teacher and member of the North Suburban Teachers Union, Local 1274,
has worked to instill a sense of community and civic responsibility in his students at Niles North High School in Skokie.
That’s why Sharma has made his classroom a platform for students to speak out and collectively solve societal problems.
“I think anyone who goes into education goes into it hoping to help empower students and make them believe that they have the ability to work on issues that are important to them, to make their communities better,” he said.
Using history and current events, Sharma provokes discussions and encourages students to identify issues they are passionate about. Promoting productive dialogue helps students foster a sense of identity and oneness with their communities, he said, while offering them the opportunity to contribute to something greater than themselves.
Sharma is involved in a number of projects that allow students to put their desire to make a positive impact into action.
“Our school started a civic engagement project where they get involved in an issue that is important to them, they do some research, they make a plan and then they take action. Then they sort of reflect on that action and see what kind of change they’re able to make,” he said. “So it forces them to get outside of the classroom to work on something they care about, and that’s been a very positive experience for the kids.”
Last spring, Sharma traveled to Springfield with students in We Help Others, a social justice club he co-sponsors. At the Governor’s mansion, the students protested the budget impasse and Rauner’s cuts to homeless youth programs. Through Dance Marathon (DM), a student-led organization that Sharma sponsors at NNHS, students selected the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless as their charity fundraising project in 2015. They raised an astounding $103,000 for the organization.
Sharma embodies the values he teaches his students. In January 2015, he stood on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court with other educators to defend workers’ rights before the court considered the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association
case. “When people attack unions, they’re attacking democracy in action,” he said. “I can’t just stand by and not speak out against that.”
Despite his activism, he shies away from the spotlight. Sharma was named a 2016 Golden Apple award recipient for teaching excellence. While he’s honored by such recognition, helping students is far more important to him than accolades.
2016 Golden Apple Award recipient Pankaj Sharma with his students at Niles North High School.
“One of the most beautiful things about teaching is being able to connect with young people at a formative age, and to help them see the power they have to change their lives, their communities, and the world,” he said. “That’s what matters most to me.”
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