About once a week in Riverside Elementary School District 96 Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis returns to a classroom and teaches a class, becoming what she calls an “undercover boss.” 

Of course, she is not really undercover. Teachers volunteer to have Sharma-Lewis come in teach one of their classes for a period or so. They know when she is coming so no one, except maybe the students, is surprised when she walks into the classroom. 

Sharma-Lewis uses the teacher’s lesson plan to instruct the students while the teacher leaves the class and does some professional development on her own.

“Some of them have special projects and stuff for me to do, but most of the time I just take over for the teacher if he or she wants to engage in their own professional development and learning,” Sharma-Lewis said.

For Sharma-Lewis, who taught fifth grade for four years early in her career, it’s a chance to see what is really happening in the classroom. It allows her, she said, to stay connected with students and understand how teachers approach their craft and use the resources at their disposal.

“I think it’s really important for me to be hands on with the kids and the teachers,” Sharma-Lewis said. “That’s a priority for me. That to me is where all the work truly is, in those classrooms and getting to know the kids and seeing their learning and growth.”

Sharma-Lewis’s presence in the district’s classrooms is in marked contrast to her predecessor, Jonathan Lamberson.

She rotates her visits among the district’s five schools. So far this year she has taught a lesson in four classrooms each at Ames, Central, and Hollywood schools, three at Blythe Park and two at L.J. Hauser Junior High School. She teaches all kinds of lessons.

On the morning of Oct. 28, Sharma-Lewis took over Jennifer Kovar’s sixth-grade language arts class at L.J. Hauser Junior High School. While Kovar went off to observe a seventh-grade language arts class, Sharma-Lewis and co-teacher Susan Daniels taught a lesson based on a speech delivered at United Nations by 24-year-old actress Emma Watson, a star of Harry Potter movies. 

The only reason Daniels was in the classroom is that it is large class (30 students) and includes a couple of special-education students.

To begin Sharma-Lewis introduced herself to the class and asked the students how many of them knew her. Most of the hands went up. Then she asked the students if they knew what her job was.

“You’re the boss of the principals,” one student said.

Sharma-Lewis also asked the sixth-graders what elementary schools they attended.

After the introductions, Sharma-Lewis and the class got down to work, analyzing Watson’s speech, which was a kickoff to the U.N.’s “HeforShe” campaign, which seeks to involve men in the struggle for gender equality and the empowerment of women. 

The class had watched a video of the speech the day before and had a written copy of the speech before them.

The lesson involved the kind of close textual analysis that is emphasized in the new Common Core state standards. Vocabulary was emphasized as students were told to underline unfamiliar words in their copy of Watson’s speech. Sharma-Lewis prowled around the room like a natural-born teacher.

She asked the students, “What does feminist mean?”

She lightly put her hand on the back of a hesitant girl when the girl was asked to read a short excerpt from the speech.

“Why would you be nervous just because a photographer and a reporter are here?” Sharma-Lewis joked as she sought to put the girl at ease.

Sharma-Lewis asked the students to identify the main idea of the speech, which they had just read, and to highlight supporting details. 

Watson had said that stereotypical ideas about gender limit males as well as females. Sharma-Lewis explored that idea, asking the class if it was OK for men and boys to show feelings. She also told the class how she felt about the speech.

“I felt empowered after I read the speech,” Sharma-Lewis said.

She was pleased with the enthusiasm shown by the students.

“I love it that there are so many hands that I don’t even have to call on anyone,” Sharma-Lewis said.

Kovar, who had volunteered to have Sharma-Lewis come in and teach her class for a period, said that she liked having Sharma-Lewis come in to teach.

“It is delightful to have Dr. Sharma-Lewis come in,” Kovar said. “I really enjoy her visibility. It made me a little nervous, but it was fun to hand it over to her and it gave me the opportunity to go observe another teacher, which was a bonus to have that time.”

Sharma-Lewis enjoys it too. 

“I love being in the classroom,” Sharma-Lewis said. “It gives me a better perspective of what’s going on in our classrooms. What do our kids need, what do our teachers need? How can I better support them?”