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Redrawing India: The Teach for India Story
Kovid Gupta & Shaheen Mistri
286 pages; Average reading time 3 hours 41 min
This bookbhook summary will take not more than 12 minutes
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This bookbhook summary has been handcrafted by Nandini Shanbhag. Nandini quit her corporate job of 17 years to pursue her passion for reading and writing. Nandini believes reading opens the doors to unknown realms and widens our horizons.
Teach for India is a fascinating story in many ways-how an 18 year old discovered her purpose in life despite living a life of luxury, how the desire to make a bigger impact got Shaheen to explore models like Teach for America in order and how an NGO can be managed in a professional manner with well-crafted values and guiding principles.
How Shaheen Mistri discovered her purpose
My schooling was done in ten schools across five countries, spanning multiple school systems. Summer vacation visits to orphanages, arranged by elders around me, taught me to appreciate all that life had given me and question on why others did not have the same. And the time I spent at the blind school helping out, taught me to look beyond what one can see. All these experiences threw up numerous questions in my mind on the inequity that existed in life.
It was a summer vacation, while I was at Tufts University, which changed my life forever. The year was 1989 and I was 18. I stayed back for one more week in Mumbai as my parents went back. One hot day, I was travelling in an air conditioned taxi and it stopped at a traffic signal and small kids ran up to my window begging. In that moment it dawned on me that I would have a more meaningful life if I stayed back in India exploring the vast canvas that these kids offered me.I called up my parents and explained to them about my wish to stay back in Mumbai. Upon my insistence, they agreed on the two conditions-that I get myself enrolled into a good college in Mumbai, and later complete my graduation abroad. My admission to St. Xavier’s College proved to be something of a hurdle. With the conviction to try and achieve my dream, I blurted out to Father D’Cruz on how my life depended on his granting me the admission. I answered his questions on how my life ambition was to ‘do something’ for the children of India and finally was admitted into the St. Xavier’s College.
I started my journey in a community, a little away from my grandparents’ apartment where I saw Pinky, aged around six or seven in outsized clothes but with eyes that spoke volumes. I finally entered the shanty of Sandhya, an 18 year old, where I went every day after college. Soon my first class started with the kids in this shanty. I quickly realized the everyday challenges that these kids and their families faced. I understood that I could not leave this commitment and let down the kids. Shaheen Didi was their only chance to make something of their lives.
Sowing seeds of a movement
Shaheen decided to get her class out of the community so they could concentrate on their lessons. The first Akanksha centre started in the Holy Name High School in Colaba, Mumbai. The kids got their first school bus ride to their class as Shaheen managed to raise funds for renting the same from her family and friends. The sight of the left out kids running behind the school bus reminded Shaheen of the enormity of the job in hand.
‘Together we can make a difference, come teach’ was her appeal to students. The name Akanksha, meaning aspiration, with the sun as its logo was chosen as it identified with the mission they had set out for. The volunteers spent time in the community and came face to face with issues these kids dealt with daily. Alcoholism, domestic violence and gambling added to the burden of poverty and lack of education.Though many teaching volunteers quit due to the multiple challenges faced, Shaheen and her team slowly realized that teaching was actually much beyond teaching. The story of Salman who sold books on the street-side and his journey through Akanksha to admission in a top Mumbai college stood out. Four years after Akanksha started, Shaheen completed her post-graduation from Manchester University. Her M.Ed thesis was ‘The role of India’s college students in the educational development’, in line with her dream.
An NGO was set up in order to formalize Akanksha. Fund raising was solved through ‘Sponsor a Centre’ idea. They taught English, Math and Values and slowly expanded to Arts, Sports and Computers. The Akanksha Christmas and Diwali sale and the Akanksha musicals were a runaway success. Teachers worked relentlessly against all odds becoming the Didi or Bhaiyya whom the kids looked up to for their bright future.
Bringing the purpose alive
In its 17th year Akanksha had 60 centres with over 200 staff serving around 4000 children. This was achieved through a model where Government provided a building and Akanksha ran it with its staff members with a high degree of accountability on all counts. Students were admitted through a lottery system and were taught for free. Akanksha also invested in teacher training inculcating values, culture and pedagogy. The first school of Akanksha that taught till grade 10, had a 100% percent pass rate, thereby providing the children with a world of opportunity in their lives.
The safe delivery of a pregnant Akanksha student raped by her father and her continued education; Sumeet who tried committing suicide multiple times and finally, with help, ended up opening an NGO of his own; Prashant Dodke appearing for his 10th standard exams despite his father’s death the night before; countless other similar stories brought meaning and purpose to Akanksha’s vision.Vandana Goyal, CEO, Akanksha mentions about how unfair the lottery system of admission felt at times making them wonder on what more can be done. By this time Shaheen herself had married and separated, with two daughters Samara and Sana. The two kids grew up in Shaheen’s world of Akanksha and at 12, Samara took her first class at Akanksha.
Scaling up a social purpose
Shaheen had discussions with her close friend Anand Shah on inequities in society and how it was linked to education. Anand told her about Teach for America. It was a successful model launched by Wendy Kopp who had also written a book about the journey called ‘One Day All Children’. On the 20th anniversary of Teach for America Shaheen saw the tremendous work undertaken and the power of the alumni who had gathered. She read the book overnight and visited Wendy next day with her vision.
Wendy visited India a few months later on Shaheen’s request. An intense visit to top tier colleges in the city, government schools and even the corporate sector was organized. By the time Wendy left India, it was understood that Teach for India had to happen. Anand and Shaheen were joined by a few more people like Archana Patel, Anand Piramal, Vandana Goyal, Nandita Dugar and Puja Sondhi who along with Ashish, Ramya, Ruchi, Vivek and others from McKinsey set out to create a blueprint. After countless discussions and debates, they agreed that a Teach for India Fellowship model would work. The two years long Fellowship would follow the stringent recruitment policies like that of Teach for America and place the Fellows in chosen schools.
With the blueprint ready and months of search for a person to lead not yielding results, one day Shaheen decided to do it herself.
Setting Teach for India in motion
Simultaneously Wendy initiated a Teach for All global network and Mariyam Farooq came to India as part of this to help Shaheen set up Teach for India. The team agreed on the initial core values-Critical Thinking, Reflection, Resourcefulness, Empathy, Respect and Humility, Integrity and a Sense of Possibility. What drove this team and the mission forward were Commitment to Transformation and Commitment to Educational Inequity.
Fresh challenges were posed before the team every day starting from the recruitment of Fellows to finding schools to teach in. Another problem was the reluctance of school principals in entrusting their students to inexperienced college students in place of the qualified B. Ed teachers. There was the added challenge of convincing the families of the Fellows. In order to attract the right people, the team drew up posters and also sought media help through the chief editor of Times of India, Jaideep Bose, who identified with the cause. The ads in the Times of India helped them get the best possible for their planned launch in Mumbai and Pune. They also went on recruitment drives to colleges. Finally in May 2009, 3000 students across 34 schools started their classes, taught by 87 fellows.
On the lookout for a symbol for their mission, Shaheen happened to see a man selling on Firkis on the chowpatty beach in Mumbai. And that is how at Teach for India’s first opening ceremony, each of the 87 fellows were handed a Firki in welcome. This was a symbolic gesture that called upon them to find the many colours that resided in each and every child across the next two years
The first change agents
The batch of 2009 was called The Niners. Each of them had a reason and a belief in opting to join hands with Teach for India. Many even left lucrative jobs to join in. They walked into the first ever Teach for India’s training institute which had designed a five week residential course to prepare them for the journey. They embarked on a new kind of learning that had nothing to do with teaching. They were given simple to impossible random tasks to complete. Sometimes all they did for a day was to observe an orange. The tasks like feeding people without money, creating something meaningful out of garbage etc. were done wearing Yellow Hats that symbolized possibility.
The team was made aware of the educational inequity through many interactions. They were made to teach in summer classes, post which they would gather, discuss and debate on the challenges and the solutions. After intensely long days and nights of multiple sessions, discussions and activities, the Niners were ready to march on a path that would end up as a movement.
Creating social impact
The first day in class brought the Niners’ face to face with the harsh reality of the task in hand. Mounds of garbage, reeking school bathrooms with no water and communal differences of the kids were just a few of the problems encountered. However, there were also families in the community that welcomed them wholeheartedly.
Leaking tin roofs, lack of blackboards or even a proper classroom added to the unruliness of the kids, who at times even abused the Fellows. After a series of exasperating days, the team learnt to focus on anything positive in any child-true to the Firki they were handed.At the end of 6 months, driven by her immense faith in Jayeshbhai to whom she turned to in times of crisis, Shaheen took her Fellows to Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Jayeshbhai’s father had been a good friend of Gandhi. Through spending time with the communities there, the Fellows understood ‘Seva’ and had their faith reposed in their mission.
The second half of the first year was better. However, Shaheen faced a testing time as she was handed a list of complaints about Teach for India by a small group of Fellows. Though initially aghast, she soon realized that it was their commitment to the cause that made them do so and soon set about addressing the issues raised by the Fellows.The students’ achievements at the end of two years were amazing. In the nationwide competitive ASSET test in Math, 12 students scored a 95%. Few published a book in English, another few had read 200 books in two years and few others did a 90-minute performance of The Lion King.
The taste of meaningful success
Teach for India was now a real movement. The Tenners (2010) and Eleveners (2011) set out on a transformational mission to end the educational inequity in India.
Shashank Shukla, a 2010 Alumnus, and the chairman of Gurukul Group of Institutions, speaks volumes about the transformations that the Fellows, along with their kids, went through. Shashank spent his second year at Ummeed, a residential school for integrating street and juvenile children back into society. Shashank told his kids that they should not hide behind a false sense of pride. He exhorted them to change themselves so the people who called them names would be forced to respect them. The result was amazing as all 12 of his kids covered 4.5 years of studies in one year and secured admission to Class 9.
Teach from India continued to grow in strength, processes, systems and technologies and its budgets too started growing. The first batch of Teach for India Fellows went into ambitious projects. While Ashish Srivastav set up a Fellowship similar to Teach for India in a remote tribal area, Prakash Mishra launched Youth Alliance in Delhi to engage youth in the societal change. Gaurav Singh pursued a vision of building 100 excellent schools for children from low income families and Sana Gabula joined McKinsey’s education practice. Saahil Sood took on the mantle of setting up the Hyderabad operation.
Building systemic interventions
Teach for India now started wondering about how to bring in systemic changes on a large scale. Chennai and Hyderabad were chosen to be the next launch sites. Led by Srini Srinivasan, an alumnus, Chennai soon made progress despite all challenges. This was also supported by Mr. T N Venktesh, Joint Director of Education. Hyderabad too witnessed drastic transformation, spurred by the first Government funding in the form of Vidya Volunteer Scheme. The Fellows overcame Telangana riots and communal tensions in order to keep the mission on-course.
Teach for India now started associating with the central government too. Shaheen was invited to be a committee member of a national level body for teacher education across India called the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE). Inspired by the Teach for America’s Sue Lehman Award that recognized transformational teaching, Teach for India set up Transformational Impact Journey. After intense, thorough inspection of lesson plans, classroom footages, vision statements and discussions, Nirali Vashist, Archana Iyer and Sapna Shah’s classrooms were chosen.
The founding values of Teach for India
Shaheen had first met Jayeshbhai when she took a group of Akanksha students to visit Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Shaheen attributes her idea of impact through small acts of kindness which led Teach for India to him. Jayeshbhai had narrated the story about how his father Ishwarbhai, a Brahmin, associated with Mahatma Gandhi’s movement had been entrusted the responsibility of sanitation. The thought that no work was below him was inculcated in Jayeshbhai quite young. Shaheen remembers how Jayeshbhai would smilingly arrange all randomly strewn slippers of the kids in a neat row every time without reprimanding them. Then the kids themselves started arranging the same. There were many inspiring stories associated with Jayeshbhai. Polio afflicted Raghubhai who started a tiffin business & Anjali Desai who started a school in Ahmedabad for street children are just two of them. Shaheen learned a lot from her visits to Jayeshbhai whose loving nature enabled him to cross the many boundaries of societal divides.
Shaheen also explored visits to Baba Amte’s Anandwan, Sevagram Ashram, Barefoot College and Auroville in order to ensure all Fellows and staff had transformational experiences. Ahmedabad also inspired Design for Change initiative. Mahatma Gandhi believed in being the change he wanted to see and he wrote about his life experiences and the learnings. Teach for India tried to replicate this in their classrooms through experiential teaching.
Building the roadmap for future
One of the three leadership values that drove Teach for India was Commitment to personal transformation. Extreme circumstances are what spurred inner growth and personal transformations. Teach for India Fellows were taken through many challenging tasks which pushed them to rise above their fears. The second leadership value was Commitment to collective action inspired by the ‘many to many’ concept of Nipun Mehta, founder of Servicespace.com. Fellows were encouraged to build relationships and partnerships that helped them overcome the challenges they faced.
The Teach for India path was categorized into 3 phases. Phase I (2009 to 2013) ensured that the concept started off through Fellowships and Alumni movements. Phase II starting in 2014 would strive to be one of steady growth, depth and deeper systemic impact. Through a constant sense of commitment, love, leadership, teaching and transformation, Teach for India classrooms became hubs of learning. The impact of this incredible movement was being felt through the achievements of the kids. For Phase 3, the objective is that 50 years hence each and every child in India would have access to excellent education, thus ending the educational inequity.
Shaheen’s search for light
I am deeply moved by my journey that started through Akanksha and resulted in the magic of Teach for India. Each and every child’s life that we touched through this movement is a story of hope, courage and compassion. However we cannot rest on our laurels for the journey is incomplete. The number of children that are left out, waiting for someone to reach out to unleash their potential is simply too much. The newspaper headlines mentioning statistics on children still out of school, class 8 students who cannot read, lack of toilets in schools, forged degrees, child brides etc. force our conscious into thinking on the way forward.
The mid-day meal schemes, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan by the Government of India and Right to Education (RTE) are stepping stones in the right direction. However we are still faced with a sorry state of affairs on the education front in this country. The Teach for India Alumni had set out on a journey to bridge the gap and solve the educational inequity puzzle, piece by piece.
I had a favourite student Latif who wanted to be a Bollywood star. He was the star of the show ‘Kabir and the Rangeen Kurta’, in which he held the audiences with his riveting performance. A year after the show, I got a call that he was very unwell and by the time I reached he passed away. His grandfather said that he had been gravely ill. But he refused the lifelong savings of his grandpa to take treatment at a private hospital. In that moment Latif taught me about the limitless heights of human capacity to give and love. He had perhaps sacrificed his life for the sake of his grandfather’s security to be able to live without working any more.
Every child holds this potential. It is only opportunity provided that separates the ones who manage to find their light. And importantly, it is only the driven people like you and me who can make this difference by creating these opportunities. I look beyond and try to imagine, but only time will tell if fifty years hence, we will indeed have India redrawn.
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