Jaya Subramanian, Honorary Doctor of Social Studies
High school teacher Jaya Subramanian accepts an Honorary Doctor of Social Studies.
About Jaya Subramanian
Subramanian is a teacher of history, economics, and government classes at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto, Calif. Subramania received this year’s honorary degree for educators. This is the second consecutive year that Grinnell has presented an honorary degree to a high school teacher, acknowledging not only the work of the teacher being honored, but also the importance of teaching as a profession. Subramanian was nominated for the award by Elena Jaffer ’14.
Doctor of Social Studies
Good teachers help us understand the world more deeply. Great teachers inspire us to take action based on the lessons we’ve learned. Jaya Subramanian, a high school social studies teacher, believes that traditional teaching tools, like books and lectures, are just a starting point. She encourages her students to learn through hands-on volunteer projects, food and toy drives, and educational travel.
For 10 years, Subramanian taught at Presentation High School in San Jose, Calif.; her classes included world history, economics, and American government. She revived and refined the school’s first global women’s issues class, which quickly became a popular elective.
To help her students internalize the lessons she teaches, she includes service-learning components in many of her courses. Students don’t just read and write on a given topic; they are required to act on it. After taking her courses, students frequently say that she has helped them look beyond themselves to see how they can help others.
Subramanian was a co-leader of Presentation’s community involvement organization. She organized events such as the Oxfam Hunger Banquet to help students understand the causes, consequences, and solutions to global poverty. She also led the school’s annual food, toy, and penny drives.
Her work has been recognized frequently. She was named Presentation’s Teacher of the Year in 2002. San Jose Magazine named her Teacher of the Year in 2006. And in 2007, she was one of just 20 teachers in the United States to receive a Korea Society Teaching Fellowship.
In 2010, she took a position at Eastside College Preparatory School in Palo Alto, Calif. The school helps students who are historically underrepresented in higher education gain admission to four-year colleges and universities.
For her tireless work to help her students think bigger not just about their own lives, but the lives of others, we are proud to recognize Jaya Subramanian.
Transcript of Speech
Congratulations graduates! I’m humbled and grateful for the honor, and would like to thank the honorary degree committee, the president, the faculty, and the trustees of Grinnell College. However, I would not be up here if not for the covert operations of your own Elena Jaffer. Elena, I knew you were a quiet force in the classroom when I met you as a ninth grader in my honors world history class, and was convinced of your powers in my AP American government class. You took that strength to a whole new level when I received that email from Grinnell about the honorary degree. I love you, kid, but I’m gonna kill ya! You’re lucky that I’m on stage and you’re far away from me right now.
This honorary degree is not about me, but the importance of teaching. Throughout my career, I’ve had, and continue to have, the privilege of working with some amazing educators who inspire me through their dedication to their students. None of them see teaching as a career, but as a vocation. They work fourteen to fifteen hours a day crafting and perfecting lesson plans, helping students unravel math problems, giving feedback on a paper that pushes the student to think independently: motivating students to be lifelong learners. I think you get the picture. In addition, they serve as athletic coaches, speech and debate coaches, service program coordinators, and life coaches.
Teaching is the sexiest profession because it is the only profession where you get paid to be a lifelong learner. Some of you have already experienced the many perks of teaching through the careers and education professions program at Grinnell, and although I may be preaching to the choir, I’m going to use my time on this stage to be an unapologetic evangelist for teaching. Some think that there is no challenge or excitement in teaching, and I can assure you that every day, every class period, is new and challenging. First off, you are in a room with twenty-five plus teenagers. That by itself is challenging. I currently teach two sections of AP macroeconomics, and no matter how much I plan, I can’t end both classes the same way. This is because the students are the ones driving my teaching. If I’m doing my job right, my teaching makes them ask questions. Every class has its unique personality and no one class period is the same even if the subject matter is. Therefore, teachers begin sentences with, “My first period class was on fire today, and my lesson plans for the rest of the week all have to change. But what questions they have!” There is no more dynamic career than teaching.
After about ten years of teaching, I took a break to explore other careers. Within three months, I realized I needed to get back into the classroom, but not just for my sake, but also to preserve my husband’s sanity. I was restless, snappy, and kept whining about missing the classroom. I’m grateful for the lapse in judgment, because it made me realize how lucky I was to be a teacher. When two very effective teachers meet for the first time, they are more likely to start swapping lesson plans, problem-solving challenge students, and looking for ways to connect. When you do it well, you only see others doing it better. This absence of ego gets you addicted to teach.
I share this stage with individuals whose body of work I’m in awe of. But at the same time, they serve as further inspiration to me to be a better teacher. I’m privileged and grateful. Thank you to all at Grinnell College, and congratulations, Class of 2014.