Faculty Profile: Ava Belisle-Chatterjee
December 11, 2012
By Stephanie Ewing (MA '12)
In her more than 20 years with Columbia College Chicago’s Education department, associate professor and former Department Chair Ava Belisle-Chatterjee has remained dedicated to shaping her students into socially responsible, creative leaders, both in and out of the classroom.
“We have a conceptual framework here [at Columbia] of teachers as creative leaders. We need to be out-there as change-agents, especially for urban good,” said Belisle-Chatterjee.
Belisle-Chatterjee originally moved to Chicago from her native Belize more than 40 years ago to start college and didn't have plans to be an educator at the time.
But while she was earning her master's in linguistics from the University of Chicago, Belisle-Chatterjee began substitute teaching. She said she began to love the students at the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) where she taught. So, when the city had a huge demand for full-time bilingual elementary school teachers, Belisle-Chatterjee went back to school for her teaching certificate, and later, a doctoral degree in education and curriculum from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Belisle-Chatterjee had been happily teaching at CPS schools for 12 years when she started doing professional development work with her colleagues and recognized a new love: teaching teachers. And in 1991, Columbia College Chicago approached Belisle-Chatterjee to get her in on the ground floor of the brand new education department.
As “essentially the founding chair,” Belisle-Chatterjee brought “the late 80’s push for teachers to become more global” to Columbia by getting government grants for education students to travel abroad and creating the first special program for bilingual teachers recognized by the state board of education.
Belisle-Chatterjee said she values the creativity and flexibility Columbia allowed the education department, “There’s been—over the years that I’ve been here—a willingness to try new ideas. The things I was able to try out when I was chairperson were wonderful.”
Since stepping down as chair two years ago, Belisle-Chatterjee has returned to teaching, helping her students become better math and social studies instructors.
Belisle-Chatterjee believes it’s important to address the math apprehension that plagues many of her student teachers and their elementary students.
“There’s too much anxiety around learning math,” Belisle-Chatterjee said. “Math is about patterns and order; it translates into life skills and habits of mind.”
And while social studies often gets short-changed in elementary schools struggling to meet state-mandated math and reading benchmarks, Belisle-Chatterjee said it's still an essential subject.
“Its primary purpose is to foster good citizenship, and we don’t have good citizenship here. What does it matter if you can read and do math if you can’t get along with people?” she said.
Although the education department has gotten smaller over time and the field of education shifts constantly under the constraints of finances or politics, Belisle-Chatterjee still wishes for her students to have the same love for teaching that she does.
“The work I do has been so incredibly satisfying. I think about people who go onstage and the rush they say they get…and I realize how much teaching is like that. It makes work, ‘not work.’ This is what I love to do.”