Teach For India helps bring quality education to under-resourced schools with its army of bright and motivated fellows 

Abhishek Asthana, a former consultant in a multinational firm, was all set to prove his mettle in the corporate world after graduating from a prestigious college in Delhi University. While working in the MNC, he volunteered at Umeed — a shelter for orphaned children.

“I was surprised by the response from the children and the changes I witnessed in them in a matter of few weeks. One of them even got selected for an interschool Mathematics competition. This made me think of the impact I could possibly make if I devoted myself full time to such a cause,” said Abhishek. Realising his passion lies in teaching, he took the first opportunity to exercise his talents in the classroom as a Teach For India fellow.

There are many like Abhishek, who leave their well-paying jobs or don’t take up jobs after graduation, in order to become Teach For India fellows. Neil Maheshwari taught English briefly at a neighbouring municipal school while pursuing his undergraduate studies. He decided to continue with the profession and enrolled for the fellowship programme to formally teach at under-resourced schools.

Initiated in 2009 with 87 fellows in 33 schools across Mumbai and Pune, Teach For India currently has 730 fellows teaching around 23,000 children across five cities and plans to expand to eight cities by 2015-16. The model is an adaptation of the global education movement Teach For All, which with the help of McKinsey & Company conducted a study for the feasibility setting up the model in India. The campaign kicked off with its initial funding from Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

Shaheen Mistri, CEO and founder of Teach For India, did not believe the common refrain that graduates from top colleges would never dream of teaching instead of taking up plum job offers. She was sure that the programme would be a success. “Just a few weeks into our first year recruiting cycle, we realised that many of India’s smartest, most driven people wanted to do this. In our first year, we got nearly 2,000 applications and through a rigorous selection process, we selected our first cohort of 87 fellows,” said Shaheen.

The fellowship programme is also known to attract passionate Indians from around the globe. Kimberly Fernandes, who grew up in the U.S., first learnt about Teach For India through Teach For America. “During my junior year, [I] came to know about Teach For America and the work they do. I thought it was a great concept, but wanted to be able to do the same in India and luckily enough, there was Teach For India too. I thought this was a great opportunity because it would allow me to teach even though I had not earned a degree in education,” said Kimberly, who is currently pursuing higher studies and plans to work in the Indian education sector.

Many fellows faced challenges of cultural differences in the schools. “My students used to cringe when I raised my hand to high-five them; they thought I was going to hit them… It's taken me a year to convince parents that their children can and will achieve - that each and every one of them will go to college. It took me three months to realise that Sunil [one of the students] hadn’t absorbed a word I was saying because he didn’t know alphabets or numbers,” recounted Neil.

Several fellows, during their initial encounters, realise that the children lag more than one to two years behind. Bridging the gap takes up the majority of the first year’s time. Many fellows have successfully reported higher attendance rates, improvements in reading, writing, mathematical and other academic skills by the end of the first year.

The program is currently inviting applications for the next fellowship batch.