In conversation Education

Transforming lives

Well into its 10th year, Teach For India has produced a pool of individuals of all ages, across the country, who are helping address a crisis

Some time ago, a photo of a small girl standing outside a classroom with an empty bowl, in the hope of getting some leftovers from the students’ meals went viral. However, her fortunes vastly changed when a good samaritan decided to step in, and got her admitted to the school. Not every child, though, is as lucky. Many children miss out on this basic right and that is what Teach for India (TFI), founded by Shaheen Mistri, decided to address.

A few months ago, TFI marked a decade of service by releasing Grey Sunshine, a collection of stories, authored by its chief of city operations Sandeep Rai, highlighting the organisation’s journey. He explains that the book is about human stories underlying a national crisis we see, and yet don’t see every day — the state of Indian education.

“Over the last 10 years at TFI, I have met people who have moved me to tears. Their stories have been simultaneously filled with despair and hope. They have also been filled with leadership and courage,” reminisces Rai. “Together, those stories have repeatedly reminded me that we have an injustice in this country that today, guarantees that more than 75% of the country’s children are destined to drop out. Those kids are destined for a future that is, at best, bleak. Those stories — and the immense and urgent need for change that underlies them — need to be told.”

TFI serves more than 38,000 low-income children across seven cities. Children enter their classrooms with strengths and assets that are seldom noticed by the world. They also enter, though, battling challenges. How does one study when one is simultaneously battling issues of malnutrition and scarcity? How does one catch up when one enters school — at the second standard — already multiple years behind one’s more affluent peers? And how does one complete school when one shows up, every day, confronting realities of corporal punishment, teacher absenteeism, and of apathy? Rai says that confronting these challenges every day and ensuring that they are rooting themselves in a grounded sense of optimism that doesn’t get jaded, has forced them to continuously evolve.

“Our children, over time, have forced me to recognise that seeing them as mere recipients of an educational process is, by definition, embracing an anachronistic view of today’s world. The more time I spend with children — within our communities and classrooms — the more I am convinced that we actually have much more to learn from them,” adds Rai with conviction. “Our children are the direct recipients of India’s inequity. They understand the depths and implications of the educational crisis far better than any scholar or practitioner; that’s because they have experienced it. Yet, they are too often powerless and voiceless, largely because of their age and penury. Solving this crisis isn’t going to happen through recycling of old, detached ideas. We need our children — the recipients of these solutions — to be co-creators along, and lead change, along with us.”

Teaching leadership

Rai opines that leadership and teaching are intricately tied. “I have had the remarkable privilege of watching more than 4,000 people enter and complete TFI’s two-year fellowship. These are young Indians who decided to leave their pre-defined career paths and teach in a low-income classroom for two years. Afterwards, 70% of them continued to remain in education. Today, those leaders are starting their own schools, running organisations that are serving the poor, holding important roles in politics, and so much more. Together, those numbers give me hope. They tell me that we have a country that wants change — and they are willing to do something about it,” he says.

It is also essential to note that each of those 4,000 stories started out in the classroom. They were made possible because of a decision to get proximate to India’s realities. “Our Fellows overwhelmingly point to one big reality underlying their teaching experience: in the process of changing their students’ lives, they themselves are growing and transforming into better human beings,” explicates Rai. “They are growing into better listeners, planners, and influencers. And because of all that they are witnessing, they are growing more aware and hopeful. It is that transformation — facilitated by the process of teaching — that is equipping them to lead towards a better tomorrow.”

Alumni network

Around 70% of TFI’s alumni are today, through various roles across the education system, striving relentlessly to eliminate educational inequity. Take for instance, the case of Santosh More, who runs a Bengaluru-based organisation, Mantra4Change, that is working to transform schools and empower communities. His organisation is impacting tens of thousands of low-income children. Then there is Merlia who, after working with Teach For India, now runs an organisation, Madhu, which aims at strengthening foundational learning for early grades. Along with the government of Tamil Nadu, she is revamping curricula and strengthening teacher training programmes — efforts that are reaching hundreds of thousands of low-income children.

Undeniably, teaching is a transformative experience, and Rai concurs, “I started my journey as an eighth-grade science teacher. My initial years in the classroom changed me in ways that few other things could. They made me more persevering, and left me with skills I still use today; my classroom taught me how to invest and listen; how to present and plan; how to set goals and be strategic. It was in the pursuit of transforming the lives of my kids that I found my life fundamentally altered,” he smiles, signing off.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 6:25:05 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/transforming-lives/article30418932.ece

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