GSE Alum Encourages Critical Thinking in K-12 Classroom

Pooja Rajan standing in her classroom, smiling.

As a young girl, Pooja Rajan must have asked her father 50 questions a day. Now, she has cut it back to 20 daily questions for Dad, but friends still know her as the one who asks another question before the first one is answered.

“It is just how I’ve always been. As a teacher, when my students ask me questions, I will never turn them away because I’m exactly the same. I will completely deviate from a lesson if they are curious about something,” Rajan, who has a master’s in elementary education and early childhood education from the GSE, said. “I think when you question things and look at the world with wonder, it opens up so many doors and possibilities for you. It paves the way for success.”

Rajan taught third and fourth grades at Sharon Elementary School in Robbinsville for four years before starting her doctoral journey at Teachers College, Columbia University. She received an Arthur Zankel Urban Fellowship, covering part of her Columbia tuition while she works with youth in urban schools. As a Zankel Fellow, Rajan is coaching teachers to implement project-based learning in the classroom, with a focus on early childhood elementary education.

Rajan knew she wanted to be a teacher since middle school. “I was just completely acting on an impulse and gut feeling. You know how you have those moments you can’t explain? Something pulls you in the direction and you don’t have anything to justify it, and that’s exactly what it was,” Rajan, who earned a bachelor’s in psychology from Rutgers, said. “It was curiosity. Sometimes, why and what you’re curious about is inexplicable.”

Curiosity might seem like a tenuous motivation for a teacher to survive the tough early years of teaching, but Rajan never wavered. “There was never a moment when I said, I wish I wasn’t here,” she said.

In fact, curiosity might be why she survived challenges and roadblocks. “You are sitting in a room with 25 different personalities, and you have to find a way to be compatible with each of them,” she said. “I think the most beautiful thing about teaching is the chance to understand human behavior at the deepest level possible. You find ways and strategies to be compatible with all of those personalities, learn how to love each and every single individual that’s in your class.”

Rajan said teaching has taught her a lot about herself, the world, and how people behave. The experience has opened her mind to relevant scholarly interests as she begins to think about what she would like to explore. “My biggest research interest is just curiosity and the idea of inquiry, questions, and behavior and how that relates to student engagement. Being a teacher has opened my mind to the different ways that people think, and that’s definitely my favorite part about it,” Rajan said.

Rajan thinks a lot about her experience at GSE as she advances in her career. Calling GSE a home to curious individuals, Rajan said the faculty pushed her to succeed— something she does with her own students.

“The faculty were pivotal on my journey and helped shape me into the practitioner I am. Each professor had a unique skill set and perspective that I was able to observe closely and use to think critically about what I wanted my practice to be,” Rajan, who still seeks advice from GSE professors, said.

In the next 100 years, Rajan wants GSE to continue inspiring and supporting pre-service teachers.

She said, “I think education can be an incredibly scary space, especially if you’re working in it. You can feel extremely lonely, undervalued and unimportant sometimes. But I think that by preparing the wonderful individuals who chose to join the field, despite those challenges, welcoming their vulnerabilities, empowering them to use any privilege they have to inspire change is where I think everyone should want to end up. It’s not an easy feat at all, but I think the record shows GSE is very much on its way to accomplishing just that.”

Read more success stories in the 2023 Rutgers Graduate School of Education Impact Report.