Teaching India for a Brighter Tomorrow!

By Upasana Makati

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

Education most certainly is a magic wand in the true sense of the word. It facilitates the opening of minds and grooming of mindsets for a better future. However, the current education crisis in India is something that needs immediate attention on an individual and Government level. Encouraging children to go to school, providing quality education from the primary level of schooling and most importantly, training teachers to impart the right kind of learning both from books and away from books is the need of the hour.

There are a numerous individuals and organizations that are on a mission to secure a brighter future for under privileged children in our country. Recognizing their potential and carving their minds is what their echoes from their work. The Akanksha Foundation is one such non-profit organization with a vision to one day equip all students with the education, skills and character they need to lead empowered lives.  We have a detailed conversation with this powerful lady, Shaheen Mistri who have spread smiles and continues to do so with her Foundation and Teach for India.

You’ve spent your childhood away from India. What made you take the decision of moving and working towards creating a brighter future for children here?

I’ve had an affluent upbringing – living in more than 10 countries including Greece, Lebanon, America and Indonesia. In 1989, I was enrolled in an undergraduate program at Tufts University. In my second year, during my summer break in Mumbai, I walked into one of the city’s infamous slums and was greatly moved by the neglected plight of children. I decided at that point that I needed to stay in India and do something about it. I dropped out of Tufts and enrolled in a sociology bachelor’s degree program at St. Xavier’s College, and began educating underprivileged children after college hours. Two years later, in 1991, I formally started the Akanksha Foundation – which pioneered the idea of using vacant classrooms of mainstream schools, colleges and offices after work hours as learning centres for underprivileged children. 

Teach For India happened in 2007 – when I realized that something on a much larger scale was required to eradicate educational inequity from our country. It was an idea that sparked to life in 2006 when I met Wendy Kopp – CEO and Founder of Teach For America – to discuss the feasibility of adapting Teach For America’s model to the Indian context. A few months later, the plan to place the first cohort of Teach For India Fellows was put in place. Teach For India today is a nationwide movement of the country’s most promising college graduates and young professionals who commit two-years to teaching full-time in low-income and under-resourced schools and go on to become a powerful and ever-growing leadership force of Alumni. Informed by their experiences and insights, these Alumni strive to work from inside and outside the educational system to effect fundamental, long-term changes necessary to ultimately realize educational opportunity for all – ensuring that one day, all children in India will attain an excellent education!

Take us back to the founding years of Akanksha. How did it all start?

I started Akanksha when I was 18, but never with the thought that it would go on to become an organization in itself. I had just moved back to India at that point and I simply walked into a slum and started teaching. All the incredible instances of hope and inspiration that I encountered along the way just kept pushing me to do more. The first Akanksha Center enrolled just fifteen children in a single centre and employed college friends as volunteers. It eventually evolved into the Akanksha Foundation, a nonprofit education project that provides after-school tutoring to disadvantaged children at more than 60 centers and formal education at six schools. 

Over the past twenty years, the Akanksha Foundation has trained and educated 4,500 children in fifty-one centers in Mumbai and Pune – equipping them with the education, skills and character they need to lead empowered lives.

Your journey to mobilize volunteers, funds and other resources would have been with a lot of challenges. Tell us about how you tackled them through creating and running Akanksha.

The road to starting Akanksha was fraught with challenges. Inspiring people, who had no context to the backgrounds that such kids came from, to sign up as volunteers was the very first one. Registering Akanksha as a formal NGO was another. Cases of fraud and unethical treatment of the less privileged had led the government, with just cause, to be wary of startup NGOs. In the early 90s the law stated that a non-profit had to be established for three years, with a proven track record in order to get tax exemptions for its donors. This made it challenging to raise funds as well. Akanksha needed to hire full-time teachers and rent buses to bring children from the communities to the centres. I started with the Citibank family; friends of my parents who understood my passion for Akanksha. As funds started to slowly come in from more sources, I was overwhelmed by the trust and generosity shown from so many – there were indeed people from every sector who really wanted to do their part to help!

Throughout it all, my kids are what kept me going. I couldn’t let them down – and that’s what kept me on the path.

Society and the environment that the slum children live in is their biggest enemy. Do you agree? Tell us about some of your experiences.

I believe it’s not the environment or the society in itself that pulls these kids down – but the unexplainable low expectations that most of us have of them. It is usually automatically assumed that children coming from under-privileged backgrounds could never be academically or intellectually on-par with their more privileged counterparts. 

An example that promptly comes to mind is that of Jyoti Reddy – one of our Akanksha kids. She came to us from a small shanty where the biggest fight was for basic survival. By the sheer force of her will and her teacher Anjali’s constant encouragement, she went from being a meek non-English speaking student to becoming a voracious reader & die-hard dreamer – who recently got accepted in St. Xaviers, Mumbai for a Bachelors Degree in Multimedia! There are no limits to a child’s potential irrespective of their background – and we shouldn’t expect any less of them just because they come from an underprivileged one.

Share some stories of children you’ve worked with that have impacted you as a person. Do they stand to be your biggest inspiration? 

Surrounding myself with children and spending as much time as possible with them is my ultimate inspiration. There is no better way to remind myself and my team of why we do the work we do and what is at stake when we fail. I try to spend a few days every month visiting our Teach For India classrooms across the country – observing our Fellows and visiting the communities where our children come from – to understand their aspirations as well as challenges. 

In one of our Delhi classrooms, a Fellow decided to teach his children about the RTE in a lesson that would culminate in them writing a child right’s convention. They read the law and studied the ASER report & one of the children asked the Fellow Anurag about the Seelampur data. When Anurag explained that the ASER data was rural and not urban, his kids said they’d go out and collect the data. They wrote to Pratham, studied the ASER methodology, pushed Anurag’s goal of surveying 100 children to 400 children, expanded the questions from Hindi to include English as well, practiced on people in their school and then headed out to survey 400 children. Each day, they’d come back and enter the results themselves in excel on Anurag’s computer. They are still analyzing the results, but initial findings point to what we already know – the state of education remains alarming. When they are ready, Anurag’s students plan to present their recommendations in a conference they plan to host for government officials and other stakeholders.

What are your views about the education system of India. Where do you think we are going wrong?

India is currently facing one of the worst educational crises in the world. Today, 8 million primary school age Indian children are not even enrolled in school and of those in school, 50% drop out before getting a primary education. Children in low income schools test 2-3 grade levels below their counter parts in richer schools. 

At Teach For India, we’re trying to address this crisis in a holistic way – with a focus on effective teacher training along with value & student vision based education parameters.

What made you join hands with the Government?  What is the nature of change that you think it has brought about to the children who were earlier studying with teachers that were not passionate about the same?

The necessity for long-term systemic impact. Without government support, it would be extremely difficult to facilitate better facilities for our schools, effective relationships with municipal teachers & increased funding opportunities.

Tell us about Teach For India and how do you think the concept has the potential to bring a humungous change in the education provided to children? 

Teach For India exists because of a deep belief that every child can and must attain an excellent education. Teach For India exists to prove that no child’s demographics should determine their destiny. To us, the end of educational inequity is the freedom for all children to have the opportunity to reach their potential. And the day that all children reach their potential is the day that India reaches her potential.

The Teach For India Fellowship program is a 2-year full-time paid commitment in which we place the most promising graduates and professionals as full time teachers in under resourced and low-income schools. The Fellowship program is rigorous, challenging and provides Fellows with an opportunity to develop themselves as leaders and simultaneously transform the lives of the children under their care. Prior to and during the two-year Fellowship, Teach For India provides Fellows with the technical skills and leadership training required to achieve the goals they have set for themselves and their students.

We also believe the problem of educational inequity is vast and complex; one individual or organisation cannot solve the problem. We aspire, therefore, to drive collective action towards addressing this multi-sectoral issue. The two years a Fellow spends in the classroom is the beginning of a lifelong mission – a mission to ensure every child in India attains an excellent education. The experience gained as a Fellow in a low incomes school, or as staff supporting the Fellowship, forms the bedrock of Alumni action. 

Currently, Teach For India is in six cities: Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai and Ahmedabad. We are expanding into our 7th city, Bangalore, this June. Teach For India impacts over 23000 children across the country. We have over 900 Fellows currently in our program and 700 Alumni changing the sector. Our students have made a significant growth in academics – this ranges from city to city.

Do fellows of the program follow a particular system that you have put in place? Give us an idea about the design of the curriculum? 

With a very detailed screening process and selectivity of less than 10% of total applicants, we recruit Fellows who have demonstrated excellence and leadership skills in different sectors and academic and professional backgrounds. At Teach For India, we believe that excellent teaching starts with excellent leadership. Teachers, whose students achieve remarkable results, employ the same tactics as leaders in any field. When Fellows join Teach For India, they undergo a grueling 5-week Training Institute where they learn the theoretical aspects of being an excellent teacher and the practical aspect through teaching for 4 weeks in summer school. Throughout the Fellowship, the Fellows constantly meet their Program Managers who support and train the Fellows on a continuous basis. This training is with regard to classroom management, teaching methodologies and planning effectively for lessons.

If you walked into one of our classrooms you would probably see children working in groups learning together and the teacher engaging with small groups rather than the teacher always standing in front of the room. You might also see our teachers leading students in chants or songs to help them learn.  You would see children and our teachers smiling in class and enjoying what they’re doing. You might also see “Big Goals” posted in the classroom and messages about students’ goals, achievements and aspirations. It’s really important to us that our teachers set ambitious goals for each student to make more than one year of progress in an academic year so that we can eventually close the achievement gap for our kids.

We teach with a focus on language and math because they are both areas of great need and we believe that with strong literacy and foundational skills in mathematics, our students will be better set up for more success in the other content areas. We also teach science, history and other subjects required by the school. In addition to academics, we incorporate values into our instruction, expose students to experiences, which could expand their opportunities in life and incorporate students’ interests and aspirations into our teaching.

We know we cannot solve problems like low attendance and school dropouts alone and thus, we explicitly work with our fellows to help them engage with their school community and families of their students. By getting parents and other family members excited about what’s possible with their children in our classrooms and showing them the progress their children make when they attend school, we see high attendance rates. We aim to create classrooms that children want to attend and classrooms to which families want to send their kids!

What has your experience been with being the CEO of Teach for India? What have your learnings been from the two decades you have spent here in the field of education? 

A month ago, I received a short video of a Teach For India classroom fully engaged in learning as they watched their teacher teach – on a screen. Hiloni, their teacher, had a 103 degree fever and so had decided to videotape a three hour lesson so that her students didn’t miss a day of learning. I asked her why she did this. “I was thinking about how my kids cook in the morning, are responsible for their siblings, live a half hour walk away, and yet – through the heat or monsoon, without complaining – they come to school. This got me thinking about how fortunate I am. I had a fever and an infection and so many loved ones looking after me. And then here were my kids who, despite their individual battles, fought their way to school every day. It wasn’t my need to teach that made me do it. It was their need to learn that inspired me.” 

As Teach For India expands to more cities and recruits a large number of Fellows, funding becomes a challenge. While Teach For America corps members receive their compensation directly from the schools they are placed in, Teach For India Fellows are paid by Teach For India itself. The funding required for Teach For India when it places 2000 Fellows in schools across India will be over Rs. 100 crores a year. 

I’ve learnt from my work that we can do no great things – only small things with great love. Every person has a role to play in this larger fight- it only takes one little step forward. 

What is the vision you see for the children of the country? 

We are working relentlessly to ensure that one day all children will attain an  excellent education. The thought of how to reach every child in India keeps me awake at night. At the end of the day, all of Teach For India’s work – and not just us, but other organisations in this space – should ultimately lead to greater and better opportunities for India’s children. I am constantly thinking about how to improve the quality of work, how to expand our scope, how to form stronger and more strategic partnerships and alliances that would take our work even further. Our vision, that one day all children will attain an excellent education, is always at the back of my mind.

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