Back to the Future

Arpan Kaul Trades Tech for Teaching

July 15, 2021
Arpan Kaul, on zoom, wearing a plaid shirt and earbuds, standing in front of his computer in his apartment, typing on his keyboard, teaching remotely.
Arpan Kaul teaches remotely.

Arpan Kaul struggles to take credit for the many things he does to help his online students thrive during this pandemic. For instance, Kaul, who teaches at P.S. 89Q, a Title IX school in immigrant-rich and economically-strapped Elm­hurst, noticed many students couldn’t concentrate on their screens with the competing background noises of their lives.

“They don’t have the luxury of space, many live in small apartments,” says Kaul, who teaches 12 Spe­cial Education fifth-graders. “People are cooking, talking, coming in and out, dogs are barking, maybe there are younger siblings crying or trying to get at­tention. So we bought 50 pairs of headsets so kids could tune out the noise and focus on class.”

It must have been hard to fundraise for the headsets during COVID-19. “We didn’t fundraise,” he says, try­ing to change the subject when asked who exactly constitutes the “we” to whom he keeps referring. “Actually, the ‘we’ is me. The kids needed them, so I bought them. It’s no big deal.”

Neither is the fact that he used his high-tech and design skills to create a school-wide digital year­book for, and with, the students and staff. Or, that he taught other teachers and staff how to enter and mine computer data that eases the time-consuming paperwork. It also preserves information that will aid future students. “It feels good when I see a need and can help fill it,” says Kaul. “Teaching, at its best, anticipates a need and does something about it.”

Which is exactly what Kaul did five years ago, at the ripe old age of 25, when he felt a gnawing lack of per­sonal and professional fulfillment. An immigrant who came to this country from India with his family as a two-month-old baby, Kaul grew up in Elmhurst. Bliss, when he was a boy, was taking apart computers and putting them back together. He dreamed of a career in high tech and by his early 20s was enjoying the promises and perks of working in the industry. But just 18 months later, he decided that wasn’t where he belonged. Kaul traded high tech for public education.

He moved back in with his parents and took a job as a paraprofessional in P.S. 89Q, where the students represent dozens of countries from Tibet to Mexico to China, and of course, India. He views himself as an emissary and an example: There was no teacher who looked like me when I went to school,” he says. “Not a single brown man with a beard from India was at the front of the class. I know what simply seeing yourself in an adult you respect or like can mean in an immigrant child’s life.”

In 2017, while working his way up at P.S. 89Q, he en­tered Touro College Graduate School of Education, from which he graduated in May 2020. The School’s balance of pedagogy with hands-on experience, suited him perfectly.

Kaul considers teaching a joy. He employs endless enthusiasm and exaggerated eyebrows to keep the kids engaged. And a spoonful of good old common sense. Yes, division is important, he says. But little ones get antsy, so division can wait, while they talk about their siblings, parents, favorite pastimes or he sneaks in ways to teach them how to spot the difference between fact and misinformation on the internet. “Whatever works,” he says. “They’re kids. It’s on me to inspire them.”

Seems to be working. More than 90 percent of his students tune into class on a regular basis, a ratio any online teacher would envy. Kaul is humbled when parents thank him—often through a transla­tor—for caring about their kids.

“Sometimes they have no words,” he says. “They just bow. I can’t tell you how moving that is for me.”