I was nonchalantly browsing through the newspaper on a warm October morning, taking a break from my CAT preparations, when I chanced upon the Teach for India recruitment ad. I was an average 20 year old, going through the grind of entrance exams, however half-heartedly, in the hope that lady luck will shine through in all her glory- and how she did, in the most unexpected .of ways. The tagline “ We look for the best minds and then the best hearts” struck an instant chord and I applied on a hunch. Never before, have I filled an application with such great dexterity, speed and passion. One thing led to another and six months later I found myself in the company of 86 other spirited beings at the Teach for India Training Institute in Pune – the first cohort of fellows, the pioneers, as we “fondly” like to refer to ourselves, who were ready to embark on a journey of a lifetime.
Training was a whirlwind. I was in the company of the most brilliant and talented individuals. The diversity that we represented as a batch was mind-boggling. There were professionals and fresh graduates from all walks of life- media, IT, consultancy, banking, Publishing, advertising and counselling to name a few. The interests we shared ranged from drama, dance and music to adventure sports! The bonding was instant and the camaraderie priceless.
We had long hours and I mean really long hours. For a college grad whose concept of “early” is 9:00am, running to catch the bus to school at 6:45am was a stretch! Our days were packed, teaching at a local Pune School till noon and then hopping onto the bus for a trip back to institute for a sumptuous lunch and then training till late night. We were made cognizant of all aspects of teaching- from planning to classroom management to methodologies on investing the child’s influencers. The quality of information we got especially on techniques to be employed in the classroom was invaluable. All this thanks to a well-informed and well-co-ordinated staff comprising of Akanksha teachers, Teach For America ex-corps members, educators, counsellors and social workers. We had an impressive list of guest-speakers as well who came in to share their views and expertise – Nandita Das, IndiCorps members and Aamir Khan were some on the esteemed list. The most thrilling part ofcourse was the Summer School teaching. Being new, we were learning on the job with ample support from the staff. Dizzying amounts of preparation and planning went into teaching. We were grappling with issues of deadlines, engaging students and incorporating relevant activities to make the learning process interactive and interesting. Shaheen (our CEO) and our Program Associates were a bundle of resources in this context. We started out apprehensive, shocked by the achievement gap but persevered stoically to transform. At the end of four weeks most of us had managed to double the scores of our children in the very same areas that they had been tested initially. It was sheer exhilaration! Institute and Summer school were a huge success. But a lot of tears came along with it too…. the thought of parting with my beloved students was heart-wrenching, add to that being a Mumbai fellow there was the sadness of leaving behind our Pune fellows with whom we had forged beautiful friendships and moving to Mumbai. We managed though and packed our bags with more than just mere clothes and set-off to our new destination with optimism, determination and passion.
Once in Mumbai and once we were allotted our final placements we realised that Summer school had so far been a breeze. The challenges we now faced were of an altogether different magnitude! Strict dress codes, unyielding school authorities, poor hygiene, rigid syllabus, the list is endless. My school is located in Shivaji Nagar, a popular low-income area in the Mumbai suburb known for its religious sensitivities. I am the class teacher of 44 exuberant second graders. The challenges are immense. I have school deadlines to meet, SSC syllabus to complete, EI standards to incorporate in the extremely short instructional time I’ve got. Add to this lesson plans, training sessions, PA debriefs and I’m swamped but I’m enjoying every minute of it as I’m sure are all the other fellows. There is not an iota of regret. This is a job where I get to innovate, create and build all at the same time. Each day is different. Each child is different. I love being in my class. I can’t wait to meet my children every morning and see their beaming faces. I have to be spontaneous and well-planned at the same time. Expect the unexpected in the classroom and plan for it! Therein lies the challenge and the opportunity.
As I stand under a leaking roof in a classroom devoid of electricity and proper ventilation, trying to explain place values to my second graders, there are times when I’m overwhelmed, frustrated, tired and completely zapped. When that happens I could stand there and complain about everything that’s going wrong or I could draw inspiration from the 44 kids who trust me enough to trudge through muddy waters to come and see me try my best at teaching them. I could retire dejected or I could go out there and draw energy from the smiles of the 44 children who seem oblivious to their surroundings and conditions. I could think of myself as a lone saviour and feel lost or I could draw strength from my friends in other classrooms facing similar challenges and hurdles .I could give up or I could concentrate on what’s in my control and change that.
This is exactly what the Teach for India staff and fellows are setting out to do. We are aware of the appalling and unjust achievement gap in our country. It frustrates us, it torments us, so we decided to take a step towards bridging the educational inequity. There is immense responsibility resting on our shoulders and we recognize that. We understand the importance of urgency.
Don’t just sit back and complain. Unhappy with the way things are? Go out and change them. You may not achieve all that you set out to change but at least try, for a spark is all that’s needed to start a fire. Your effort could be the spark that ignites a movement. What you’ll gain will be immense, not quantifiable in monetary terms. Try keeping a class of 40- odd 7 year olds engaged and interested and a boardroom of suited professionals is a piece of cake. Go out. Inspire. Teach. Lead. Transform. As Robert Frost recommended, take the road less travelled. Join the movement that’s Teach for India. It will make all the difference.
Madhumita Subramanian : Fellow