• Jyoti Pande

Teaching for bharat

A project aimed at educational equity is engaging young minds turning them into leaders in the process


Jyoti Pande Lavakare / Sep 24, 2011, 00:39 IST


I recently discovered that my hyper-intelligent, uber-cool 21-year-old nephew who has been in lifelong training to become a full-time hedonist is actually a closet idealist. He just returned from an uncomfortably hot, intense summer, learning innovative ways to teach underprivileged children to bring them to beyond grade-level literacy. He now teaches 34 third-graders between ages seven-11, full-time, at an under-resourced municipal school in Delhi, where one of his earliest challenges has been to get one of the little girls to stop biting his hand every day. His bigger challenge remains his goal to make education interesting and fun for these children, awaken their curiosity, ambition and sense of possibility, and put them on an entirely different life trajectory. And oh, he’s committed two years of his life to this.



Of course, he’s not doing this randomly or in isolation. In two years, Dhruva will pass the baton to another brilliant, enthusiastic cohort, and so on, until these 34 kids graduate from school. And elsewhere, others of his tribe are doing the same, some 250 of them this year and growing. If all goes well, by year 2015, there will be 2,000 of them, all part of a movement called Teach for India (unrelated to Teach India, an initiative begun by a media house recently), a project of the non-profit Teach to Lead.



Led by serial social-entrepreneur and Ashoka Fellow Shaheen Mistri, a group of young leaders seeking to find innovative solutions to India’s educational inequity has managed to tap the idealistic streak of dynamic young people like Dhruva and put them to work to build that critical “structure of excellence,” necessary to create “transformational change” in our society.


The first time I heard these words in relation to education were from another social entrepreneur, Wendy Kopp. Her talk, part of the Stanford University Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders seminar series, focused on her “mission” to help children beat the odds and “do whatever it takes” to transform their lives. Kopp founded Teach for America in 1990, inspiring Ivy League graduates to teach disadvantaged children for two years.



In 2001, a McKinsey study concluded that the circumstances into which a child is born are a major factor in determining academic success and found that the most effective solution for such educational disadvantage was excellent teachers. Brett Wigdortz, who had worked on the study, put this idea into practice in 2002, and Teach First was born. Its mission: to address educational disadvantage by transforming exceptional graduates into effective, inspirational teachers and leaders in all fields.



So if the US and the UK have disadvantaged children with huge achievement and accessibility gaps, can you imagine the size of those gaps in India? Mistri already had — which is why she’d founded Akanksha, a non-profit, in 1991 to make high-quality education accessible to children from low-income communities in Mumbai and Pune. A few years ago, a TFA volunteer at Akanksha helped connect the dots, and Mistri and Kopp met. A McKinsey feasibility report on adapting these models to India catalysed Teach for India (www.teachforindia.org) — and a movement was born.



But wait, this isn’t just about transplanting an innovative idea to the Indian context. This is about creating a meaningful movement that today’s privileged Indian youth can identify with and participate in. More than anything else, what Mistri has done is given our brightest youth an authentic cause to work for, a formidable reason to stay on in India or come back to the homeland. And above all, she has done the near-impossible — made teaching a really cool thing to do. The 250 TFI Fellows this year were chosen from over 5,000 applicants, and applications for 2012 are pouring in ahead of the October-16 deadline.



Her team has captured the imagination of the young and is making their inherent idealism work for the country, instead of letting it burn out into the empty activism of lighting candles at India Gate. In the process it hopes to create a generation of advocates for educational equity; idealistic thinkers and doers in whichever field they ultimately end up in. Because it’s not just schools TFI wants to transform; it’s the entire educational system, policies and their implementation.



“We need a new generation of leaders... to think differently. And we have to create that generation.” Mistri tells me in a cramped cafe in Delhi between a million meetings crammed into her schedule. At the end of two years, these young professionals and college students will get embedded in leadership roles in every field.



“The leadership lessons that come out of this form of teaching are compelling,” Mistri says. “There will be an exponential impact when they graduate from the fellowships and become our ambassadors in organisations.” Infiltrate and fight for the mission from within, she says, making it sound like a jehad. “The experience of teaching at these schools is so transformational that it motivates the young and converts them to our mission,” Mistri says.



People apply for a TFI Fellowship for different reasons, but whatever it be – patriotic, charitable, maverick – end up being converted to the cause. “Something about this experience pushes your sense of possibilities,” admits Natasha Joshi, a TFI Fellowship recruitment manager. A Fellow will have, in addition to excellent academic qualifications, soft skills that include critical-thinking, perseverance, ambition, respect and humility. And for those who think of this as a resume-building exercise, think again.



Dhruva’s day begins with sweeping his classroom (think grimy, tiled walls, iron barred prison-like windows here), finding creative ways to make it more inviting for his students and constructing lesson plans customised to individual learning. This for kids who can’t speak English and barely have access to education, who have never had the privilege or experienced the pleasure that comes from learning things taught in interesting ways by engaged teachers. For all this, TFI pays him a small monthly stipend.



If there’s anything this is building, it is character and leadership skills.



Every Fellow is the CEO of his classroom start-up — and he has to make it work. His success depends on the outcomes of the children in his class. If he can meet this challenge – essentially make something out of nothing but an idea and an ideal – he’ll be a leader in any field he chooses after two years. And that’s what true entrepreneurial spirit is made of. That is why, if you were wondering, this story is figuring in a column on entrepreneurship – because its canvas is broader than business entrepreneurship.

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