Only 61 per cent of India’s population is literate (2001 Census). Teach for India is rising to the ocassion to address the enormous educational inequities that prevail. It operates under the aegis of Teach for All, launched at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2007 as a separate organization incubated within Teach For America.
In the summer of 2009, Rakesh Mani traded his job with JP Morgan’s fixed income practice in New York for his own elementary school classroom in a challenging Mumbai school. For the last five months, the NYU graduate and 2009 Teach For India (TFI) Fellow has been working with his class of 34 boys and girls who come largely from the slums and chawls of the Malad and Goregaon suburbs. Rakesh talks to Neeta Vallab, a former Teach For America staffer, about his experiences.
EGO: Can you give me some details about your background—where you grew up, went to school, jobs prior to becoming a fellow?
RM: I was raised in Abu Dhabi, where my family had settled for many years. I read for my A-levels at Choueifat School before moving to NYU for university. I graduated with a degree in Actuarial Science and Finance and spent a summer dabbling in my interests, interning as a journalist at the Gulf News bureau in Abu Dhabi and spending some time at the United Nations in Geneva, before joining JPMorgan back in New York. I spent the next 3 years at JPMorgan before deciding to join the Teach For India fellowship and relocate to Bombay.
EGO: Can you tell me how you came to hear about the program?
RM: I first heard of Teach For India about 4 years ago when it was still just an idea. One of my friends from college had moved back to India to work in the non-profit sector and was heavily involved in the initial discussions around setting up the program. Knowing me and my interests, he thought it would something interesting for me to do and egged me to check out TFI’s website. And I started filling out my application the very same day.
EGO: Had you been thinking about teaching prior to hearing about TFI?
RM: I wasn’t thinking of teaching necessarily but yes, I was thinking of moving to India and trying to do something at the grassroots level. The idealist in me hoped, and continues to hope, that if every educated South Asian would give a couple of years to working for the development of the region, it can bring fundamental change at the grassroots level. Perhaps what India needs is a mandatory service program for educated youngsters – a conscription program of sorts that has nothing to do with the military. Another reason was also that I wanted to create some temporary distance from my life in New York, adventure a little and find a new challenge for myself. And with the westernized upbringing that I had, India and its culture was something that was still foreign to me, although I often pretended to understand it. So when Teach For India came along, it all fit together perfectly.
EGO: What have been the most significant challenges you have faced as a teacher—both in the classroom and in the school?
RM: In the classroom, I’ve been repeatedly shocked by the magnitude of the achievement gap between the more privileged schools and sections of Bombay society, and the under-resourced schools where I teach. You’re trying to teach English, History and Science to 3rd and 4th grade students who can’t speak or read English despite having studied in an English-medium school throughout. So you’re left with no choice but to start from teaching phonics while also trying to teach the material they’re supposed to learn that year. In the school and in the society, you have other nightmares. You’re often witness to vicious corporal punishment, high levels of teacher apathy and absenteeism as well as very poor infrastructure.
And it’s a serious challenge to bring in innovative teaching methods and new ideas to an old, staid school bureaucracy that is wary of change and new-fangled ways. Then you have the parents too; some of whom do not realize the point of a sturdy education, others who are pressed with serious economic conditions, and still others who are abusive.
If banking was an intellectually taxing profession to pursue, then teaching is not just intellectually taxing, but physically and emotionally exhausting as well.
EGO: What did your friends and family think of this choice?
RM: The family wasn’t entirely surprised, they’d known of my interest in doing something different for a while. But yes, they were a little skeptical. They found it hard to understand why on earth I’d want to throw away a well-paying job and move halfway around the world to teach slum kids. And I could understand that, theirs was a generation that had to fight to make themselves from scratch. But I’m pleased that our generation thinks a little differently, and I remember Hawthorne’s quote, “My children have their own birthplaces, and shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”
My parents have been great supporters of providing educational opportunities to poor children. I remember that when I was younger, my father was seriously considering opening a school for poor children in India. And my mother would pack up all our old clothes and toys into cartons and take them to orphanages and schools that she supported in Madras. It’s just that they never imagined their son teaching in one of those schools. That being said, however, they’ve both been proud supporters of my work ever since I got here.
EGO: What did you not expect that you have had to deal with?
RM: There’s this weird sense of belonging that I’ve been experiencing in India, despite feeling like a foreigner – and it’s been a little unnerving. I’ve never lived in India and never visited Bombay more than twice. Thanks to books and movies, I think I knew what to expect from Bombay and from India. So that wasn’t really a surprise. But this odd feeling of being ‘where I’m supposed to be’ I did not expect and although I believe in the power of the written word, I suppose this is a function of living and experiencing things instead of just reading about them.
EGO: What do other teachers think of the program?
RM: I think that varies from teacher to teacher, from school to school. You encounter all sorts of opinions – from outright admiration, to grudging acceptance, down to skepticism and resentment.
EGO: How are TFI teachers compensated in comparison to other teachers?
RM: Teach For India’s fellows are not paid by the schools, as the case with Teach For America’s corps members, but are paid by Teach For India themselves. The schools we work in pay Teach For India what they would ordinarily pay any other teacher for our position.
EGO: How has your experience changed the way you feel about the education system in India?
RM: I think seeing and understanding the realities of under-resourced urban schools has made me appreciate the incredible power and importance of this movement a lot more. We’ve got a really bad situation in India – more than 1 in 3 children who begin primary school will drop out before 5th grade and World Bank statistics show that less than 40% of Indian adolescents are attending secondary school.
The new Right to Education bill is being hailed by everyone as a solution but it is only a blueprint that has yet to be implemented effectively. And then again, the bill has the right idea, but it caters only to children above the age of 6 – hence ignoring the fundamental early development of a child.
The bitter truth is that educational inequity faced by India’s youth is at its harshest, and it is being made worse with severe gender and caste disparities, alarmingly high drop-out rates, an emphasis on rote memorization over real learning and inadequate school infrastructure and funds. And really, this is something everyone should be concerned about. For a country like India, where almost 40% of the population is under 15 years of age, this is a disastrous trend for the long-term. And talking globally, 25% of the entire global workforce will be Indian in about 15 years – so the quality of education these kids receive will have an impact on the world as a whole.