There are many ways to be good and these days, some of the most noble people have assumed the manners of the business world — even though they don’t aim for profit. As Warren Buffet on his recent philanthropic visit to India said, “Part of life is to plant trees that other people will sit under. Somebody planted a tree for me long ago in the form of an education institution and I sat under that tree, metaphorically.”
It is a season of reckoning for Teach for India (TFI), the programme that dispatched 80 top college graduates and a few who had stints with top corporates to teach hard-to-staff low-income rural and urban schools in India. The first group’s two-year commitment is up, and the programme now faces expectations: can a small crop of bright and idealistic people with boot camp training help change India’s education system?
Shaheen Mistri, founder of TFI spills the beans on her ambitious goal. “Five years down the line, we plan to have 2,000 fellows (teachers) teaching 60,000 kids in 12 cities and their surrounding areas.” Though India’s literacy rate has touched 74 per cent according to the provisional results of the 2011 census, up from 65 per cent in 2001, this is still short of the target set by the Planning Commission to achieve a literacy rate of over 85 per cent by 2011-12. And the little steps taken by Shaheen and her fellows are surely a boon for a worried Planning Commission, whose members can now heave a sigh of relief.
Way to TFI fellowship
Shaheen, who graduated in Sociology from St Xaviers College, Mumbai, and did her Master’s in Education from the University of Manchester, UK, feels that we have a model, which could have a real impact on the ways that all novice teachers in the country are recruited, selected, trained and supported. Selectivity of potential teachers, in fact, is a big part of the TFI brand. TFI fellows do not have to undergo the traditional credentialing process. They receive six weeks training and are given full responsibility for a classroom of students. Through GPA, the teachers’ ability to pursue and achieve goals is assessed.
Criteria include perseverance, achievement, and respect for others, says Shaheen who is also the founder of Akanksha, a non-profit organisation. Emphasising on the leadership role she says, “We desperately need people who are going to be visionary thinkers, set big goals and own the responsibility for meeting them. And it’s so much about that mindset and the instinct to remain optimistic in the face of a challenge.”
Catalyst of change
It’s very easy to confuse TFI with a similar sounding initiative by a media house — an assumption which the reporter was also guilty of making but was quickly corrected by the editor — but TFI has far loftier goals than the other project. It’s on the footsteps of Teach for America, the foundation laid by Wendy Kopp 20 years ago. It was interesting to read through the statistics, which revealed the growing popularity of TFI.
In 2008, it started with just 80 fellows but three years later, they are looking to recruit 300 fellows and expand their operation to other cities like New Delhi. The surge in popularity is more so because Shaheen has struck the right cord — tapping on youth idealism.
Earlier generations of benefactors thought that social service should be like sainthood or socialism. But TFI and its board of directors think it should be like a venture capital — they understand that government alone cannot be innovative. A 1,000 different private groups have to try new things. Then we measure to see what works.
While interacting with the first batch of the fellows (they graduate on April 16) in their dingy, cramped schools, the reporter was captivated by their overtones of ideals and pluck. The moment the door opened to TFI fellow Prakhar Mishra’s class, there was inquisitiveness in the eyes of the third-graders. In a disciplined manner, the reporter was bombarded with as many questions as their curious mind could think of. Surprisingly, every question they asked was in English. It was not the same a year back. English was alien to them.
Reading out the scores from his laptop, Prakhar, a 25-year-old BTech from RKGIT, Ghaziabad, says, “The time I moved in here, these third-graders were at Pre-KG level. There has been a 300 per cent jump in their scores. The average grade score has gone up from 10 words/ minute to 42 words/ minute and surely there are exceptions of a score of 100 words/ minute.”
Here we have an aspiring politician, who at present will be joining NIIT Foundation and believes that an exposure at the grass-roots level is a stepping stone towards his bigger objective. “When you have everything that you possibly could need and other people need what you have and has enormous use to them, I think you need to do something about it,” he says.
Not a ‘cushy’ job
Though for Madhumita Subramanian, a graduate in economics from the University of Warwick, moving from her comfort zone was not as easy as it seems now. But in the two years she has realised, “If one can be successful in captivating a six-year-old and get them to do what you want, a boardroom should not be difficult.” The glory is there at 23 and she knows this is where she always wanted to be the moment she had her hands on the advertisement that said, “fellows with the brightest mind and biggest heart, who also wants to pursue rural social entrepreneurship…”
If today’s millions aren’t being educated well, how will they get proper jobs tomorrow? Won’t the education crisis translate into a far scarier job crisis in a few years? Parents with low-incomes value every pair of hands more than sending a child to a substandard school for several years, the benefits of which are unclear… these are some of the arguments that forced 80 youngsters to plunge into teaching kids in government schools for two years.
Voicing his thoughts on the challenges in the present education system, 25-year-old Saurabh Taneja, an IITian who will be joining the NGO Avsara as a programme manager, says, “I would say that the quality of teaching is probably the single most important factor in predicting student success. Of course, there are a myriad of factors that impede student achievement, but in a bad school with no textbooks and crowded classrooms, a really good teacher can surely be a catalyst of change.”
Unconventional pedagogical tools
Twenty-six-year-old executive from GE, Sana Gabula’s style of teaching is inquiry-based. Because her students’ literacy skills were so low, she rarely referred to the textbook. Instead, she used hands-on labs to lead her kids to discovery. She glided from task to task with ease, handling behavioural issues with equanimity and presenting new scientific concepts with childlike delight. And by the year-end, the kids were tricked into learning.
Gabula who will be joining Mckinsey post the fellowship programme says, “The most important thing I got out of the whole experience was that the children I worked with can definitely learn and succeed, regardless of how painful, traumatic or wonderful their lives may be. There is a ‘magical sense of belief’ that reaching to 200 million children definitely requires perseverance but surely not a daunting task.”
TFI has surely changed their lives is evident from the fact that an overwhelming 65 per cent of the fellows are set to join the social sector, of which 20 per cent wish to stay back and work with TFI. Of the 13 per cent who will join the corporate sector, some have opted for corporate social responsibility. Others will return to the companies which they were in before TFI, and still others want to pursue further studies.
Treasure lies where your heart belongs, and the treasure was the journey itself, the discoveries they made, and the wisdom they acquired. Vaibhav Mathur, a 25-year-old alumnus of Jaypee Institute of Information Technology, is slated to join Godrej’s CSR cell as a senior executive. A fellow at Divine Child School says, “Teach for India was life changing. I might not end up being an educator — at this point — but down the line, years from now, I know I would care about the achievement gap when 95 per cent of the world will not.”
Learning leads to knowledge, knowledge to creativity, and creativity to self-empowerment. Inducing this thought in a child’s mind is the work of a teacher and these fellows were definitely one of them.