Teach for India is graduating to a different level

Shaheen Mistri, TFI’s founder and CEO, reflects on the last few years and talks about their plans for the next five, including an innovativenew Fellowship

October 25, 2016 12:00 am | Updated December 02, 2016 11:36 am IST - MUMBAI:

TFI founder Shaheen Mistri.— Photo: Special Arrangement

TFI founder Shaheen Mistri.— Photo: Special Arrangement

“We started out very small,” Shaheen Mistri remembers. “Everything was a huge question. It was a very crazy idea: get in people who had no idea they wanted to be teachers, largely from middle-class families — where parents had spent their lives educating their kids so that they didn’t become teachers! — from the top schools and telling them, ‘With your IIM-A degree, leave that McKinsey job, and come and teach in a government school for two years.’ I remember standing in front of 80 to a 100 college students — shaking inside — saying, ‘Ten per cent of you in this room may even want to do this, and of that ten per cent, maybe one per cent is even capable enough to do this. Because, you know, our kids need our best.’ I really did believe that, but I was very nervous about whether other people would believe me.”

At the time, Shaheen Mistri had already been with Akanksha, the organisation she founded, for 17 years, and its work with kids and teachers had won much acclaim. But while she is proud of those years, she had also developed a feeling that she could do more. After all, if just giving kids an opportunity helped them discover so much more of their potential, why not try to reach a lot more than the around 4,000 children that Akanksha had made a difference to?

The more she thought about it, the answer that kept coming to her was leadership. “I felt that wherever I saw change happen, there was a good and motivated person behind it; where there was average change, there was a mediocre person motivated person behind it, and wherever there was no change there was someone who didn’t care. Across all sectors, if you have a really big problem to solve, put your best, most talented, most committed people behind the problem and they’ll figure out a way to solve it. In India today, if the people with the greatest influence across all sectors cared about giving children an excellent education, every child in this country would have an excellent education.”

Struck by the passion and conviction she had seen in Teach For America alumni volunteering at Akanksha, she decided she needed to know more, so she went to the US and met Wendy Kopp, TFA’s founder. There she found that they both shared the belief that leadership was the key, and the seed of Teach for India took root.

Baby steps

Back in India and while she was still with Akanksha, Ms. Mistri, with a small group of people, began “dreaming about what creating that movement of leaders would look like”. The fellowships they planned entailed people working on ground, with disadvantaged children. The goal: “Can the two years give you enough possibility and the anger at the same time, to say, I’m going to work for kids for the rest of my life, in whatever capacity?”

TFI wanted to start with around 100 Fellows, and they wondered whether they would get enough people. But they got thousands of applications in the first year itself. The first cohort was 87 Fellows across Mumbai and Pune, teaching for two years in either a government school or a low-income area private school, and also getting constant learning and leadership development, what TFI calls ‘teaching as leadership’ which translates to this: all the things a great leader does — sets a vision, invests people in that vision, plans towards it and executes effectively — are all things a great teacher does.

Ms. Mistri describes it more vividly: “You’re going to come into a classroom where your kids are five to seven years behind, every child is at a different place, facing every social problem. You have no understanding of them. Now go ahead and get them to learn in the best possible way. It’s incredibly complex, but if you’re able to do that in a classroom of 40 kids, coming in two years later to a corporate boardroom and knowing what to do is not that difficult.”

The next big test was two years later, when the first TFI alumni went out into the world. The hope was that each one would have a multiplier effect in different areas. “We saw pretty amazing things pan out,” Ms. Mistri says. “They went out and started schools, worked in teacher training, worked in curriculum. Though just five per cent of them had entered the fellowship saying ‘we want to be in education in two years’, 60 per cent stayed full-time in education. That was exactly our goal: let 60 per cent stay within, because we need them as teachers, teacher trainers, school leaders; but let 40 per cent go out, because also need them in politics and business and media. And that’s played out, year after year.”

A pause for reflection

Today, TFI is in its eighth year, with 1,200 Fellows teaching 42,000 children in seven cities. A significant portion of its 1,500 alumni also work directly with kids, touching another 115,000 children. This is the first time they have more alumni than current Fellows. TFI is also limited: it is English medium, urban-centric, in just seven cities. What about kids in a tribal or rural areas? What about, say, vocational education or arts-based education?

Thus the year has also been one of introspection, and planning the next level of growth. And the question they set for themselves is, Ms. Mistri says, “Can we have a direct impact on one million children in the next five years?’ We spent a large part of the last year in a very creative ‘design thinking’ process, working with students and teachers within TFI as well people from outside.”

The approach in the next five years, Ms. Mistri says, is going to look different from the approach in the last eight. “It’s much more of a partnership approach, a collective action approach, a systemic approach. Children need an education, but they also need healthcare, a better environment to live in, safety. How can we bring partners together to give a children what they actually need?”

One goal is to double the number of Fellows. Less measurable, but crucial, is to deepen and broaden the impact of TFI alumni. To help with that, TFI is creating incubators and leadership accelerators, and finding ways to connect them, both with each other and also with the wider ecosystem.

The x-factor

There’s also a new Fellowship for which TFI is currently inviting applications. It’s called TFIx.

What does the ‘x’ mean? Ms. Mistri says, “‘x’ to us represents a multiplier. It is also to me symbolic of the unknown; TFI is not well-positioned today to know what programme is going to work in rural Bihar or for children with disability. So we’re really learning from entrepreneurs who are passionate about either their region or a particular aspect of education.”

TFIx is the basic Fellowship model, but adapting it for very different parts of the country so as to reach more, and more diverse, children, in a decentralised way. It will select a very small cohort, five to seven entrepreneurs, who could be TFI alumni or from elsewhere, and work with them very intensively. Each will have a customised programme — based on their strengths and needs — designed to make them independent as quickly as possible, and supporting each other. Each Fellowship would need to serve disadvantaged children and be connected with teaching, TFI’s core mission, but not necessarily in a formal school; it could be two years of sports education, or working with children in remand homes.

For the TFIx Fellows, each of their initiatives will be their own — their own name, their own funding, their own governing boards — but they will have TFI as a space for them to learn together and to teach other and the organisation. “We’ll find mentors for each of them,” Ms. Mistri says, “We’ll help them set up an ecosystem of support in their locations. We’ll spend a lot of time with them aligning them to the idea of excellent education, getting them up to speed on our understanding of what children need, learning from them what their context requires, so that we help them work and adapt their own educational programme on the ground. We envision them spending a fair amount of time travelling, so they will have access to the whole TFI network; if they want to shadow a staff member, spend time in classrooms, all of that will be open. Everything we’ve developed at TFI will be open-source for them to access and learn from.”

TFI is also partnering with organisations that have run really strong entrepreneurship programmes, like Acumen and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “We know how to run programmes, to raise funds,” Ms Mistri says, “but there are people who really know how to teach people these skills. We want to leverage best-in-class people to work with our team.”

The first batch of TFIx fellows will be selected later this year. Applications are open atapply.teachforindia.orguntil October 25.

TFI is creating incubators and leadership accelerators, and finding ways

to connect them

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