'When you walk into her classroom, you see girls actively engaged.'

Julie Biswas always had an interest in knowing how things work, but an education career—let alone one focused on science—wasn’t her first choice. 

It was only after working as a hairdresser and styling instructor that she decided to go back to school and pursue her true calling. “I felt at home explaining how things worked and really enjoyed learning about how the brain works,” she says. “This, along with wanting to work with young people, put me into the direction of teaching. Once I was in the classroom, it just felt right.”

Biswas, 56, graduated from Ohio State University in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in biology education. Now, she is the middle school winner in the Columbus Parent/ThisWeek Community News 2020 Teachers of the Year awards.

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For this year’s Teachers of the Year awards (the seventh year for the project), readers nominated educators from school districts all over Central Ohio. Nominations were taken online Dec. 5 to Jan. 16. The editorial staffs from Columbus Parent and ThisWeek reviewed all of the submissions, did some independent research and chose 15 finalists, who were voted on by the public Feb. 22 to March 25. Three winners were chosen: one each at the elementary, middle and high school levels. 

Biswas first became interested in science while growing up in North Hampton, a rural community just outside Springfield. “When I was in school, I wasn’t the best student, much less the best science student. But I was always interested in how things work,” says Biswas, who lives in Galena with her husband of 30 years, Arun; their daughter, Sanghita, a CSG alumna and recent college graduate; and their son Aneel, a St. Charles Preparatory School alumnus and junior at Ohio State. “My dad is a farmer and a tinkerer. He’s always trying to make things better.”

Since joining CSG, Biswas’ work in the classroom has been recognized with several awards and grants, including the 2011 Dorothy Sehring Award for Excellence in Teaching, given annually in memory of the longtime CSG educator. Biswas also serves as the team leader for eighth grade and as middle school student council co-adviser. 

“When you walk into her classroom, you see girls actively engaged—asking questions, making conjectures, testing hypotheses. She values each student’s thoughts and opinions and encourages them to stretch and take risks in a supportive environment,” says Director of Middle School Pamela Hartshorne, who nominated Biswas for the award. “I value her partnership and regularly seek her counsel, and I also appreciate the constant support she offers to our parents as they start their journey into middle school.”

Head of School Jennifer Ciccarelli says Biswas is committed to helping students excel academically and personally. “Not only does she develop innovative lesson plans and approaches to stretch and grow her students, but she truly loves her job and is open to her own growth,” Ciccarelli says. “Julie doesn’t rest on what she has always done. She is always open to trying new things, exploring new technologies and doing what is in the best interest of students.”

“I love watching the moment of understanding, some would call [it] the ‘light bulb’ moment. Those are the best moments in teaching,” Biswas says. “I also enjoy those ‘why’ conversations. The ones where curious students ask why or how. Those are sometimes off-topic, but can really build an environment where students feel safe to ask their questions. Those conversations lead to connections with girls and direct my teaching.”

Biswas says one of her proudest accomplishments is working with Ohio State professor and CSG parent Yu Chen several years ago to conduct wetlands research with high school students for a National Science Foundation grant. She also helped to develop the outdoor learning classroom at CSG’s Cynthia’s Woods in Gahanna in 2003, on property donated by the well-known Jeffrey family of Bexley. And in 2007, Biswas earned a grant through Achieving Equity for Girls in Science to build an energy bike, which she and her students used to educate the community about energy efficiency.

Yet amid all these things, one of Biswas’ most cherished roles is serving as an adviser to CSG’s Rainbow Alliance, which advocates for LGBTQ students and their allies. “That’s a very important part of what I do. What we do here at CSG is all about helping the kids grow, finding their voices,” Biswas says. “The fact that I’ve led that group for the last four years is something I’m really proud of.” 

She’s also proud of the supportive environment created by her colleagues and administrators, especially in the past few months as they worked to maintain academic excellence through distance learning necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“I really love that it’s collaborative. I’m part of a team of teachers. We really talk frequently. We have regular meetings where we can talk about curriculum, how we’re developing our curriculum and how we can best serve kids,” Biswas says. “We really know the kids and their families, and we work to help build strategies.” 

Chris Bournea is a freelance writer for ThisWeek Community News.

This story is from the Summer 2020 issue of Columbus Parent.