Sapna Chemplavil’s father is a physician who was raised in India by farmers who didn’t finish high school. 

Chemplavil herself grew up in Las Vegas and went to Dartmouth.

But father and daughter share some common beliefs: that education is the key to social mobility, and that nothing is more important than the ability to think for oneself.

It’s not surprising, then, that Chemplavil is now an Abby O’Neill Teaching Fellow at Teachers College, committed to teaching in New York City.

But it’s also not surprising, given her independent-mindedness, that she took a circuitous path to get to this point.

After college, Chemplavil tried her hand at writing a novel before moving to San Jose, California, where she worked in an Americorps program that prepared students in low-performing middle schools for college enrollment and success. She subsequently headed a youth job placement program before relocating to Washington, D.C., for a position teaching tenth-grade special education English at an inner-city charter school.

It was there and in a subsequent job as a ninth-grade English teacher at a community-based charter school in Oakland, California, that she became fully aware of the number of students fighting to overcome barriers created by poverty, trauma and inadequate preparation.

And those experiences in turn instilled in Chemplavil a deep understanding that a special kind of commitment was required of her.

“The kids need to know that you genuinely care about them and that you believe they can succeed,” she says. “And it doesn’t hurt if their teachers are properly trained to meet the demands of the modern American classroom.”

Chemplavil also came to appreciate the importance of self-care for a teacher dealing with the human conditions that arise on a daily basis in high-stress classrooms.

“This is a job where you have to be fully present physically, emotionally and psychologically every single day,” she points out.

Kids need to know that you genuinely care about them and that you believe they can succeed... you have to be fully present physically, emotionally and psychologically every single day.

—Sapna Chemplavil

Chemplavil spent two years teaching in Oakland. Finally, lacking certification to become a licensed teacher — and still a handful of credits shy of a graduate degree — she applied to TC and ended up being selected as an O’Neill Fellow. Contingent on her pledge to spend two years following graduation teaching in New York City public schools, the Fellowship provides her with a $40,000 tuition subsidy.

Chemplavil hit the ground running this past fall in a student teaching assignment at a Manhattan middle school. She will move to another school during the spring term.

Her mission is clear:    

“I want to work with students who don’t have easy access to institutional power because I believe their voices need to be heard most,” she says. “Education is a system. You need to understand how a system works to succeed in it. My sister told me when I was entering eighth grade to start researching colleges so I would know what to do in high school. The fact that I got into the best undergraduate institution in my family didn’t have as much to do with intelligence as it did with the fact that my family better understood how the system worked by the time I was applying. My students are capable. But, because the rules of the system aren’t made clear to them, they aren’t as prepared to succeed in it. That is inequity.”