Making math a “Mission Possible”
When Dilhani Uswatte, Artsci’96, Ed’97, greets her grade eight students on their first day of math class, they’re always a little shocked and amused to see her dressed up in secret agent attire and to hear the Mission Impossible theme song playing in the background.
“Welcome, agents!” says Dilhani, who chairs the Math Department at Berry Middle School in Birmingham, Alabama. “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to be a fearless learner and leader in math. Regardless of your past math experiences, I’ll challenge you to have fun in math and for us to work together as a team.”
Dilhani, who last October was awarded the prestigious Milken Educator Award, valued at $25,000, and has been inducted into the Alabama Teacher Hall of Fame, has never viewed herself as the kind of teacher who stands at the front of the classroom and lectures for an hour. Rather, she sees herself as a “facilitator of learning.”
“My philosophy of education, ‘the power of together,’ is just that: powerful,” she says. “It’s more than a philosophy. It’s how I choose to live my life as a person and as an educator. It guides my actions and thoughts. It inspires me. It makes me believe that anything is possible.”
Dilhani motivates her classes by using exciting learning models. Her students create video-generated programs, and they use digital cameras to create video lessons on various math topics. She also teaches them to write “fairy tale” word problems using geometric concepts. Under her leadership as math department chair, the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test (ARMT) scores for math increased school-wide from the 85th to the 93rd percentile from 2007 to 2009.
Her “Mission Possible” teaching philosophy extends far beyond the classroom. When she heard that the terrible 2004 tsunami had devastated areas of her native Sri Lanka, she jumped at the chance to involve her students, her school, and her community in the relief efforts.
Dilhani used her educational contacts to link their school to a destroyed “sister school,” and together, staff and students in several schools within their district collected almost $10,000 towards rebuilding a school in Sri Lanka.
”Really, the people who deserve the most recognition for this fundraiser are the students. They were incredibly generous; they donated their allowances, made and sold necklaces, and held bake sales,” recalls Dilhani.
In conjunction with help from other fundraisers around the world, she and her “Mission Possible” team were able to fund the reconstruction, and this past summer Dilhani had the chance to visit their sister school in Sri Lanka. “It was a wonderful feeling to see how we were able to help so many students,” she says.
Dilhani realized many years ago that she could improve the success of her students by providing opportunities outside the classroom for them to develop leadership skills. A student council advisor for more than 12 years, she has worked with the council in her current school to conduct food drives, organize and run assemblies, and work on joint programs with distinguished members of the Birmingham community. At the same time, she is the school’s bus administrator and has developed the first “Bus Leader” program, which teaches older students to be leaders on the bus and to work with the bus drivers to create a safe ride for everyone. That’s not all Dilhani has been involved in.
She also launched a student fitness club that teaches Latin-inspired dance (Zumba) classes. The Zumba Dance Club she started is the first in the entire state of Alabama. “Working together on these activities outside the classroom has enabled us to work even better inside it,” says Dilhani – who, in case you were wondering, doesn’t instruct from the front, but, rather, enjoys dancing alongside the students.
Dilhani hopes to publish a math textbook she’s writing with her students within the next two years and to finish her doctorate in Educational Leadership in the next three years. However, her fondest and most constant dream is to see her students succeed. “I’d love to see these seeds of greatness I’ve planted grow into the incredible learners and leaders our world so desperately needs,” she says.