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Addressing educational inequality in India

A non-profit organisation, intends to build a movement of leaders to improve the quality of teaching in low-income schools in the country

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Teach For India Fellows commit two years, full-time, to providing their students with the opportunities that can put them on a different life path
Gulf News

In the last couple of years, hiring has remained weak in India, so many college graduates are seeking jobs, and even careers, in alternative sectors. Several engineering professionals and management consultants have taken their high-powered ambitions and spreadsheet modelling skills to the classroom.

Teach for India, the non-profit organisation that recruits high-achieving college graduates to teach in some of the nation’s poorest schools has particularly garnered interest among the millennial set.

Shaheen Mistri, 46, the founder of Akanksha and Teach For India (TFI) — both organisations focused on education — is “overwhelmed” with the response.

“We receive approximately 12,000 applications every year for our fellowship programme, and about 12 per cent of applications are from international candidates,” says Mistri. “We even have had a few of our Akanksha alumni come back as TFI Fellows and create magic in the classrooms.”

Seema Kamble, one of Mistri’s first students when she started Akanksha 25 years ago, decided to join TFI instead of going to a management school. “I still remember asking her what prompted her to do that and her answer was simple: ‘Didi [sister], a teacher changed my life, and I wanted to do the same for more children.’ She’s currently a school leader with the Akanksha Foundation,” says Mistri.

“TFI fellowship is an alternative MBA,” she adds.

TFI, which has evolved into an alternative career path for some, is highly competitive and labour-intensive. Some of its outreach is taken straight from Wall Street’s recruiting book. To be accepted by TFI as a Fellow, applicants have to go through a lengthy process, with many cuts at each step. The recruitment process includes an online application; a phone interview; presentation of a lesson plan and a monitored group discussion with several other applicants.

After selection, Fellows are honed into teachers through curriculum-building workshops and mentorship through coaches during a five-week training in Pune. “They are encouraged to teach beyond the syllabus, and concentrate on life skills and personality development of their students,” says Mistri.

Only a chosen few teach for India.

The teaching skills can easily translate to office environments — a fellow is effectively the leader, every day, for 46 minutes, in front of different groups. A teacher plays the role of data analyst as well, creating spreadsheets to diagnose their students’ learning needs and assess who understood the lesson.

No wonder these most under-resourced schools are used as a training grounds for ambitious youth on the way to public policy, charter schools, or other endeavours.

And more importantly, many regard the programme as one that provides essential job skills.

TFI Fellow Jasmine Bala, a 23-year-old graduate from Brown University, says, “As a Fellow, you are presented with new battles to fight and decisions to make on a daily basis. I have learnt to leverage my strengths, set achievable goals for myself, and crisis manage on a day-to-day basis. It’s a valuable leadership experience that no desk job could have provided for me.”

With the right mix of idealism and willingness to take up the hardest challenges, Fellow Abhishek Bhardwaj — a 33-year-old engineering graduate who quit his job to join TFI — believes they can make a make a meaningful difference in helping the lowest-performing schools succeed. “In the last three months, children have surprised me with their potential. To excel, they just need a safe place where they can explore various possibilities to build upon their strengths.”

The children who gain most from good teachers are those from disadvantaged homes in which parental time, money and books are in short supply. Being in the classroom of a great teacher is the best hope these children have of catching up with their more fortunate peers.

In a country aspiring to create a pool of skilled workforce to fuel its economic growth, skilled and trained teaching staff is woefully inadequate. The International Centre for Peace and Development has found that early childhood education in India was subject to two extremes, but contrary deficiencies. On one hand, millions of young children in lower income groups, especially rural and girl children, comprising nearly 40 per cent, never complete primary school. Even among those who do, poorly qualified teachers, high student-teacher ratios, inadequate teaching materials and outmoded teaching methods result in a low quality of education that often imparts little or no real learning.

The Right to Education Act is a significant step towards establishing universal education, but in terms of quality of education, India lags far behind.

“We are failing to give our children the education they are guaranteed by right; our current education system places more emphasis on schooling rather than on learning. But in TFI, we try to engage students by introducing them to industry leaders, their immediate community through service projects. These contribute to providing them with a balanced and informed perspective about the world around them, ” says Mistri adding that the true potential of India can only be realised when children are provided with the right skills and foundations.

There is no single innovation or magical personality around which everything revolves, just a shared and relentless attention to better execution.

That millennials are effecting change, raising educational standards makes Mistri hopeful. “Today’s youth is passionate and committed to making a difference, to tackle key issues close to their heart. They use their experiences and insights to effect fundamental changes to help realise educational opportunity for all,” she says.

Recently, using technology more effectively, as nothing would work unless the teachers got better at helping the children learn, TFI started a free, bilingual (English and Hindi), open-source, online teacher-training portal, Firki.

Firki focuses on skills — building strong relationships with students, classroom practice and management, preparing and planning lessons and critiquing their own practice over time — a teacher needs regardless of the content areas they teach.

“While we believe strongly in the power of a great teacher, we do believe that technology has a unique role to play to help children learn in their own way, and their own pace, and in helping teachers rethink how they use their time in the classroom. Firki has been a game-changer,” says Mistri.

In a country where 6.5 million elementary school teachers have limited, if any, access to additional training or support, and teachers serving low-income communities receive the least development of all, TFI Fellows are now assisting other teachers in their schools, who are limited by their lack of technical skills, in using the portal by offering tutorials after school.

Over the years, the perception that TFI only attracts young people is shifting. Even the best and brightest in their 30s in corporate sector are forgoing a six-figure job for Rs25,000-a-month to make a difference. “Corporate skills are essential now because the responsibilities are so vast and complex that just passion and idealism is not enough,” says Mistri. “Fifty per cent of TFI fellows are students who have just graduated [from] college, and the other half are those who have been working in the corporate sector.”

Set up in 2007, TFI was modelled on the success of Teach for America, which recruits talented college graduates into teaching roles. Mistri recalls meeting the programme’s founder, Wendy Kopp. “When I realised that something on a much larger scale was required to eradicate educational inequity from our country, I met Wendy Kopp to discuss the feasibility of adapting Teach For America in India. A few months later, the plan to place the first cohort of TFI Fellows was put in place.”

Today, it’s a nationwide movement of college graduates and young professionals teaching full-time in under-resourced schools. “At present, we are reaching 45,000 children across 350 schools in seven cities in the country.”

Uniquely positioned to have a strong impact within the education world, many of its teachers — around 60-90 per cent — last beyond the required two years fellowship. Some TFI alumni working to ensure quality learning are Madhukar Banuri, who is running a collective action initiative called Pune City Connect to unite corporates, government and non-profits for educational reform, and has managed to ensure a teacher training programme, impacting over 2,500 government teachers. To improve teacher training, Prashant Mehrishi launched the I-Teach fellowship to recruit BEd graduates and invest in their development, while Chaitra Murlidhar started Leadership Institute for Teachers, which uses TFI’s training approach to provide mid-career professional development to government teachers.

“Ten years into our journey, we have taken small but significant steps in achieving educational equity. Over the past year, using design thinking, we brought members of our community together to envision our next five years.” says Mistri. “We are committed to the idea that by 2022, we will give one million children access to education.”

Clearly, there are no silver bullets to solve India’s educational disparities. But a movement has started that could change the way, as TFI is tapping into a generational ethos that views the 20s and early 30s as an age to experiment and to pick a passion over a fat paycheque. And for Bhardwaj, hardly anything matters more than education. “I’m inspired by my teachers and professors, and always wanted to be an educator. My experience here will strengthen my focus and skills to work towards educational equity,” he says.

After all, great teachers are made, not born.

Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.

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