Teach for India fellow stories

In which Levin Stamm talks about his volunteer experience in a government school in Pune

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Hundreds of children in uniform stand on a gravel field in front of a dreary concrete block and sing the Indian national anthem. They are pupils of a public school in the midst of the 7 million metropolia of Pune, three hours’ drive from Mumbai. The morning ritual’s peaceful atmosphere is deceptive. As soon as the students enter the building, loud chaos arises. Despite being named after Maharashtrian resistance fighters, things at the schools rarely go heroically. And the addition of the name “E-learning” refers to some malfunctioning computers and televisions that stand here and there in the classrooms. This is where I spend my days as an overwhelmed teaching assistant.

Meanwhile, inside the building, the daily struggle for attention is raging. Teachers and students seem to bring the chaos from outside into the classrooms. Some teachers speak with threatening voices to their protégés, others have already given up and left the students to their fate. Productive work happens, but productivity is subjective. The reasons are numerous – and run deeper than the dilapidated infrastructure. 

India is young. More than half of the inhabitants of the world’s second-most populous country are under 25 years of age, more than a quarter 14. Of the more than 170 million school-children, more than a third attend a private school, usually the ones who can afford it. A veritable industry has emerged, which sells access to quality education, for a high price. The children at the end of the socio-economic ladder are left behind in a hopelessly underfunded public education system that is still based on the colonial heritage of the British.

 

English mastery is a prerequisite for professional success in India – the well-paid jobs are only to be found in international corporations. Thus, the public school system is also completely geared to the colonial language: Language of instruction, textbooks, examinations; everything is in English. And yet: the majority of pupils will only have beginner’s knowledge by the end of their compulsory schooling. Half of the fifth graders can’t understand a text for second graders nor are they able to solve a simple subtraction calculation. A look at a typical lesson shows why. The teacher, often only possessing limited English knowledge himself, writes on the blackboard, the pupils copy into their notebooks without understanding the material, let alone analyzing it.

But the state prefers to look away. A teacher recounts how she regularly forges the results of state examinations in order to meet the requirements of the Ministry of Education. She has no other choice – the school would lose its fundings otherwise. And: Due to the focus on English, most students have only a limited command of their own writing system, Devanagari, and thus of India’s official language, Hindi, which means that a large part of India’s cultural heritage is in danger of being forgotten, while the children exit the school system, not properly knowing English or their own language.

If you leave the school area and walk for a few minutes along the main street and its never-ending traffic, you will notice the numerous poor barracks that stand next to luxurious buildings of western corporations. A short distance away is one of the largest high-security prisons in South Asia, whose “shadow casts a gloomy atmosphere over the entire district”, as a teacher at the school says. Most of the students live in this environment of stark contrasts. Most of them live with numerous members of the extended family in the smallest of spaces, without any privacy. No place to study. They look after their younger siblings, while the parents slave away in the wealthy neighborhoods for a pittance. Homework is no longer a priority. 

They talk about violent fathers in a drunken frenzy, the parents’ financial ruin, the death of family members. The family problems weigh heavily on the children’s narrow shoulders, making learning difficult. Faced with the hopelessness of their homes, they often lack confidence in their own abilities and the belief in a better future.

Reflecting on my six months as a teaching assistant in an Indian government school, I believe that my students have actually taught me more than vice versa. Deeply impressed by the enthusiasm of those bright girls and boys – against the odds that make their lives look like an insurmountable mountain of challenges – I have had the opportunity to see the immense latent potential of each of them. Having experienced the amazing work of my Teach For India colleagues, I am inspired to believe that a brighter future for these students is indeed possible. Enabling a system in which this potential can be fostered will take time and hard work – a long struggle, but definitely a worthwhile one.

In which Sakshi Sohoni is enabling her class visualise Women Empowerment

Gender inequality is perhaps the oldest problem faced by humankind.  The majority of my students come from an environment where women hold a secondary position and lack autonomy. There are hardly any women who have shattered the glass ceiling and have an individual voice. The idea of inequality is so internalised in minds, that it becomes difficult to unlearn it. My belief that women can achieve everything they set their minds to, is shaped through observing several role models around me. I’ve been lucky perhaps, to have seen so many superwomen make their way into the world. My conviction for gender equality was developed through these experiences. I realised that if I wished to build the same values in my students, I need to curate that experience for them – so that they may be able to visualise women empowerment. Thus began “Mission Women’s Day 2020”. The idea was to invite certain exceptional women role models to the classroom and conduct a Townhall style interview session with them. My hope was to make the class aware of the diverse roles played by women in the 21st century and learn from their life experiences.

 

 

To make sure that this would become a learning opportunity, we created an 8 member organizing team of Grade 6 Girls. While I was in charge of getting the speakers, the organizing committee took care of planning the schedule, making the invites, designing the questionnaire, and conducting the interview with our speakers. I was fortunate enough to get four extraordinary, highly enthusiastic speakers who were more than happy to come and interact with the class. Our speakers represented four fields – Entrepreneurship, Academia, Leadership, and Sciences. The organizing team worked diligently throughout February, to make sure every detail of the program was perfect.

 

As the day of our first session dawned, excitement levels were at an all-time high! Grade 6 was determined to put their best behavior on display. We had Ms. Sayalee Marathe, Founder and Creative Director at Aadyaa, a jewelry start-up, as our first speaker. From what it takes to start a business to ensure it thrives, we truly had an opportunity to hear from the best. The discussion ranged from dealing with a competitive market to understanding the important character traits required to become a successful entrepreneur. The girls and boys were wonderstruck as she explained the intricacies of jewelry designing, choosing different materials, and making unique handmade pieces. The creative dimension associated with the profession resonated with several students and several boys from the class expressed an interest in becoming jewelry designers in the future!

What would it feel like to learn a college-level subject from a college professor (who also happens to be Didi’s teacher) as a Grade Six student? Day two, gave Grade Six an opportunity to find out. Our second speaker, was Ms. Saylee Jog, an Economics Professor at Gokhale Institute of Economics and Politics, Pune.

The class explored the ideas of consumer behavior, producer behavior, demand prediction, and more. The interaction greatly motivated the class to develop an economic lens of looking at everything around them. Post the session, my co-Fellow and I were inundated with questions about getting into college and pursuing Economics!

Teach For India Didis and Bhaiyas are an integral part of our school. Day three, gave Grade Six a chance to immerse themselves in the world of Teach For India Pune, with Deepika Didi. Our third speaker, was Ms. Deepika Guleria, Senior Manager for Partnerships, at Teach For India, Pune. A former Teach For India Fellow herself, Deepika was able to introduce the development sector to the class, which was a completely new and fascinating concept for them. The session opened new doors for imagination, as the kids enjoyed learning about the different aspects of Fundraising and Development.

With most of the class aspiring to become a doctor in the future, our fourth and final session with  Dr. Meenal Sohani was a huge success. A renowned Pune based doctor and counselor, Dr. Sohani helped the kids understand medicine as a career and introduced them to the importance of mental wellbeing. Hearing from a doctor and learning from her experiences was a hugely motivating experience for Grade Six.

 

 

Once our sessions were done, it was important to help the class synthesize their understanding. I gave them a few personal response reflection questions, to encourage them to think and articulate their learnings. I was amazed as I read their submissions – every student had perceived each session in a very different way. Students who generally took little interest in writing and expressing themselves had taken a lot of effort to submit their work. A lot of responses also spoke about how a certain speaker had inspired them to pursue a similar career. Most importantly, however, my students realised the importance of making opportunities available to every person, irrespective of their gender. Understanding the lives of these four speakers helped them visualize the idea of empowerment and how it might look like in real life. We also tried to collectively build an understanding of the importance of gender equality for everyone through classroom discussions and learning circles. We explored the idea of gender roles and how they set us all up with unfair, discriminatory expectations. Several students shared their experiences of gender roles and prejudices. Boys spoke at length about not being allowed to express themselves creatively while girls spoke about the unreasonable expectations put on them.

The sharing happened in a very organic way – every student in the room was respectful of the other. The question they were trying to grapple with, was far from simple. Yet, each one of them articulated with the conviction that this unfair system needs to change for it benefitted no one. The class values for my class are Liberty and Equality. A lot of their answers and opinions were shaped on these lines, and the sixth graders came to terms with the fact that the world outside doesn’t necessarily uphold these values. While the realisation can be daunting for a person (especially a twelve-year-old), my students chose to take it with a pinch of optimism. Their resolve to change things for themselves and those around them gave me hope that the status quo can change. These kids will go on to become citizens of this country and contribute to developing the societal conscience further.

 

As Educators, all we can do, therefore, is to expose them to realities and nurture the moral compass within them.

 

In which Ananya Mazumder talks about The Teach for India Fellowship as “A year of self discovery”

My name is Ananya Mazumder, and I taught a class of rambunctious tenth standard kids in a low-income private school in Pune for the first year of my Teach for India fellowship. I joined the fellowship for a multitude of reasons- one of which being that I genuinely had no idea what I really wanted to do with my degree. I knew that a corporate job wasn’t the job for me, and I wasn’t really keen on continuing my education. And the reason I wasn’t so keen on that was that my educational experience in college had been pretty disappointing. Everything was about memorization and very little about understanding and application. I felt frustrated. When I saw the type of work Teach for India does, it was sort of a “Eureka!” moment for me, and I felt like I really had the chance to do something about the total lack of actual learning in schools. I was really excited to finally be able to, cliché as it sounds, make a difference. And I joined with the highest of expectations- for myself, for the organisation, and for the impact, I would make.

Getting selected to teach 10th standard was a bit of a curveball for me, I really wasn’t expecting to teach a class of kids only a few years younger than me. I had very little knowledge about how the state board syllabus works, and I didn’t really understand the context of the classroom I was going to be working in either. And I struggled. I really, really struggled. The struggle was of course, due to all the reasons I have already outlined, but a lot of it was due to my own perception that I had to be perfect.

I had this vision in my head of what my classroom would be like, and it took a very difficult conversation with my children and my co-fellows to realise that maybe the vision of the teacher I wanted to be really didn’t align with the type of teacher that was required to teach a class of 16-year-olds, months away from sitting for the first standardised board exam of their lives. Also, this notion that I had to be some sort of superhuman was really getting in the way of my interaction with the kids. I was too busy focusing on the classes and their outcomes, and not enough time getting to know the kids. Part of that was because my co-fellow and I had to finish our syllabus in time for the pre-board exams, and due to all the time I spent in the beginning just figuring stuff out, I only really hit my stride in October. The syllabus had to be completed by the second week of December.

Help is always there for those who ask for it

I sat down with a planner and all the lessons I hadn’t finished, and I made a schedule for myself and decided that enough was enough. I was going to make this work but I wasn’t going to do it alone. I started relying upon the students more. “Guys, can you read this before class?” “Hey guys, do this work before the next class.” “Hey guys, let’s all stay back for an hour today?” “Hey, I think this student didn’t understand the topic today. Could you explain it to them?”

Once the pre-boards started, my co-fellow and I completely shifted our focus to training the kids for exams. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t creative work but it was engaging and it took a lot of commitment. I showed the kids each set of pre-board papers they sat for— 5 exams in total for the two subjects I taught, for 37 students—and asked them the same questions, “Where are you struggling? Pick out those questions, pick out those chapters. Work on them.” I made some students re-write their entire exams. And while all of this was happening at school, my co-fellow and I were making home visits to find out how our kids were preparing at home and what our kids would be doing after the 10th. We found out that so many of our kids really had no idea of what they wanted to do and very little idea of the streams and options available to them. That’s when we started working with the Student Alumni Wing of iTeach, which works with kids from lower-income schools on post 10th opportunities.

Our kids started their board exams on the 4th of March. They were supposed to end them on the 23rd but due to the coronavirus pandemic, they weren’t able to do so. The pandemic forced is to shift priorities and find out what the situation was for our community and families, most of them daily wage workers, and then reach out and fundraise to be able to support them during these times. Thankfully most parents are returning to work now, and the students, my co-fellow and I are just anticipating their results, coming out sometime in June, and I just got the good news that three of our girls were shortlisted for the Mahindra International School scholarship. Maybe they get in, maybe they don’t. But they tried anyway, and that’s what counts.

So really, if there’s anything that I learned it’s definitely this: teaching kids isn’t just about class. It’s about all the relationships you form outside that classroom-with kids, co-teachers, and co-fellows. Those relationships and the support you receive from them are the only things that get you through the dark days, the days you feel nobody has your back.

Because help is always there for those who ask for it.

 

In which Trupz explores the IDEEP of the Teach for India fellowship 

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As RC teachers, we learned the IDEEP practice for teaching kids how to get started with writing. By far this was the toughest ask of being a language teacher. It took a while to get used to the English my kids knew and for me to figure out what needs to be worked on to help us both get started. My kids were innocent little 5th graders studying in a government school in Yerwada, who would just as easily make a mistake between “it” and “eat”, “this” and “these” as well as “sit” and “seat”. We had a long way to go! 

IDEATE

After 10 years of working, in 2018, I had a feeling that I’m not investing in my efforts in the right place. Working in the managing committee of an international digital marketing company, a partner of the company on paper, managing three different teams just didn’t feel good enough. It took a while to come to terms with the fact that I can take a risk and steer my life in another direction. While exploring other alternatives, I was kindly reminded of the Teach for India fellowship, by a dear friend (also known as my husband :-)) and I dove right in. Although my heart was in the right place, landing the fellowship meant I had to do a ton of reflection even before I made an application. This not only helped me answer the questions in the application form but also gave me the clarity to pressing the submit button. A vague IDEA to do something for society, leverage my potential to uplift those around me found my way to the sector I care about the most, education.

DRAFT

I love to learn, given an opportunity, I don’t think I would want to stop, ever! So when fellowship offered a chance to be back at a college campus for a whole 5 weeks, I was excited and petrified. The classrooms and sessions were super fun, but I ached to sleep in my bed. The first few days were tough, early mornings, long hours, learning concepts you’ve never heard before, teaching in summer school, and failing miserably. But the toughest part of it all was, keeping a straight face through it all, continuing to learn. Institute challenged me to explore all dimensions of my emotional and mental strength. It helped me unlearn my biases and become more accepting of myself and others. Of course, it’s not an overnight process and I don’t always get it right, but today I accept myself with my flaws. As we concluded five weeks of Institute, singing, “We are the ones, we are waiting for”, each one of us knew somewhere in our hearts of hearts, a new ‘YOU’ was taking shape.

EDIT

Equipped with pedagogy, methodology, and the newly acquired title of “didi”, I made my way to my school. There is no training in the world that teaches you to deal with hostility. There is no secret super-power that helps you cope with the feeling of alienation except for the power of love and the power of reason. As a woman, it will be fair to say that I have had to work my way up the ladder to find my place and my voice in life, I had to deal with something similar in the school system. My kids were more considerate than the system. Coming face to face with some of the flaws in the Educational system and feeling completely helpless. I realized that I can’t fight them but only try to fix them with patience and virtue. So I started working on my fellowship, bringing in a more productive line of thought, focussing on things I can change and that led to two memorable events

The Student Council

The Republic Day

ENHANCE

Immersing myself into the unpredictability and uncertainty of the outcome was a very conscious choice. In such situations, there is no way to know, just how much is enough. Most of the days, anything I did, didn’t work, sometimes I surprise myself with the most unexpected results. I struggled to find a normal, till I realized there isn’t supposed to be one. I found myself within the most extraordinary situation and if I choose to keep my lens focussed on the ordinary I would learn nothing from the Fellowship. When I was in school, I learned most from being in the student council and participating in sport. If I have to attribute the never give up attitude to anything, it has to be to sports. Teaching as leadership is an important aspect of the Fellowship, it presents you with a unique challenge of being competitive and fair at the same time. It’s a fine balance of biases and beliefs.

We held the investiture ceremony for the student council and a sense of achievement came over me like never before. A realization that it is these small victories that will eventually win us the war. With a house system in place after the student council invested, the school team got the much-needed ecosystem to execute other plans. The whole month of January planned as a culture month on the theme of patriotism leading up to the Republic Day. Every Saturday we held house competitions for poetry recitation, speech, singing, and dancing. It was decided that the winners of each will be performing on Republic Day. PMC teachers paired up with TFI fellows were the house mentors and it was the student leaders who got their teams together, practiced, participated, and led with a sense of belonging and accountability. Competitiveness was in the air and every house gave it their best to win at everything. The school team put their back into making this successful and the result was a student performance to remember. I think we all felt our purpose complete.

PUBLISH 

Every fellowship story is incomplete without its characters! The school team played a huge role in all aspects of my story. From handling complex emotions to understanding each other’s problems. The weirdest of conversations at tapri, some unforgettable night-outs and birthday celebrations, the joy of finding Delhi-wale Chhole and pani-puri in Pune, and spending 12 hours at TOIT, we did it all. Of course, occasionally, we took the kids for a climate protest march, talked to them about fundamental rights, explained the pre-amble, introduced them to rock music, Winnie the Pooh, The Wizard of Oz, Charlie and the Chocolate factory and Chak De India and even attended the sit-in protest at Pune’s Shaheen Baug. I don’t know if it was the distance or the seriousness of the situation that got to us, but we became closer than ever before during the lockdown. I miss these crazy, funny, determined friends. Each with their own qualities and with a special place in my story.

Ohh yes! The kids, of course. We started with story-writing Fridays and worked in groups. We had fairy tales, jungles, dinosaurs, a village that had to be saved, friends who went on an adventure (inspired by Oz). We even wrote heartfelt letters to friends and parents, expressing gratefulness and love. We even tried our hand at poetry, working on a very simple rhyme scheme. We are not nearly there, where we would like to be, but then we’ve only begun writing our stories!

What this one year of fellowship made me realize that once you‘ve seen the Educational gap, you cannot unsee it. The transformation has humbled me and I am even more grateful for the privileged life I live. When you realize that just your presence can make a difference to someone’s day, you will learn to smile a lot.

When little hands write big words like, “You are the best teacher in the world!”, it makes you try harder and do even better. It changes you as a person forever. 

In which Arunima shares a journey of performance over victory, progress over excellence and perseverance over comfort

“If you get, give.If you learn, teach.If you have power, empower.”
-Maya Angelou 

This quote often reminds me of how far I have come in this journey. I entered my class with this thought in mind and made conscious efforts to build it in the minds of my students. I always told them that opportunities will be provided, but making the best out of it is your choice and if you make that choice or not, make an effort to make that opportunity available for someone else who values it. Throughout the past year, I have been working with the module of independent learners and collaborative effort ie learning through self-awareness for self-transformation and growth and supporting each other to achieve that. This quote has come to life in the four walls of my class in various contexts.

My name is Arunima Sengupta and I am a proud Teach For India fellow. I am a didi to 66 loving 7th graders at Dixit Road MPS, Vile Parle East, Mumbai. From the starting of the year, I have been focusing on extra-curricular to fuel student growth and development. I have tried to expose my students to the best possible ways to gather knowledge and develop their skills and interests.
It has been my dream to make the best out of my capabilities and interests from the time I have begun my journey as a Fellow. A year into my classroom and I find myself discovering and merging my colors with the bounty of talents of my students.

When I entered my classroom in June I had realized that there was a considerably large amount of work to be done to channelize the varied energies I saw and felt in those four walls. I had made up my mind to look at the all-round development of my class as a whole. So I started with what has required the most ie discipline in these students and regard for each other. I then introduced them to social sciences which were not taught to them before in order to inculcate the values of curiosity and interest in learning and researching. As my classes went on from being disruptive to a class where time flew and students were waiting back from their break time, I knew I could take the next step.

I started a drama club (The Drama Llamas) in August 2019. I chose to start a drama club as I realized that these students struggled with expressing themselves and thus faced confidence and adjustment issues. With a group of 12 students, I started off by taking sessions thrice a week after school and realized that the students started enjoying it. I taught them the 9 emotions in acting and set 4 short plays. This is where I made use of my direction skills as I once directed plays in my school and college days. In the process of teaching, I was in turn learning and polishing my skill sets.


As these students gained confidence over talking on stage, an opportunity came up. Without thinking, we took it up. It was the Brihanmumbai Street Play Inter-school Competition. My 12 students participated and represented the school with 8 more students from our school. I got the chance of directing this play and we won the first prize for the regional and zonal levels for our play “Khoya Khoya Chand” based on digital India. We qualified for the all-Mumbai finals and stood 2nd. We were also featured in an Urdu newspaper on winning the zonal level. We also won the first prize in Play competition for our play “Darwaza” based on religious intolerance at Sangam 2019, a Teach For India inter-school cultural competition. We also won the first prize for the best science project working model at Sangam 2019. In addition to that, we won the first prize at BalJallosh 2019 for our drama “Sochna Zaroori hai” based on the topic: Save Earth. Five students from our drama club also participated in the essay writing competition on the topic: Nature awareness at BalJallosh and out of 343 entries, we bagged all the three prizes. The three students out of the five from our school stood 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. We were also invited to the KE Ward office to perform our play “Darwaza” at their Diwali celebrations. We also won 1st prize for best cultural drama for our play “Diya” based on culture, superstitious beliefs, and devotion through humanity at Balakotsav 2019.

Since January 2020, I have been consistent to provide these opportunities through dramatics, financial literacy workshops, and other opportunities to perform and to showcase their talents. The Drama Llamas, my drama club was invited to three separate events to perform: Rotary Club of Parleshwar’s event Kaladarpan where they performed “Darwaza”; at the Kids Education Revolution 2020 where they performed “Padhe ho? Yaa Badhe ho?”, a play based on the difference between knowledge and studying; and at Dramebaaz Chapter IV where they performed “Diya”. I have also been successful in establishing a girl’s football team and a boy’s cricket team recently giving importance to sports as a medium of instilling values like self-confidence, team-work, punctuality, etc with the help of Lantern Edusports. My co-fellows also started an art club (smART) and a literature club (Saug’s Totts) to facilitate learning through art and expression. 6 of our students put a craft stall at Kaladarpan. Two students have bagged the best actress award for their roles in two different events. One student has got the opportunity to go on a radio show for bagging the best actress award for her role in the play “Main Maut Bol Rahi Hu” based on tobacco awareness at Salaam Bombay’s all Mumbai drama competition.

As a school team, we started noticing considerable changes in these students. These extra-curricular have immensely helped students to focus on academics, gain confidence, present their views, and showed overall development in class. Many of them missed school regularly. But, the discipline that was created through these extra-curricular, especially through the Drama club which was carried on to class. We used to practice from 1 pm to 8 pm after school and noticed that these students who once used to miss school, came to school at sharp 7:30 am and attended school, paid attention, completed notes, and cheerfully and passionately pursued dramatics as their field of interest. We noticed a great shift in their behavior as well. They are well-mannered, show values of respect and empathy, show leadership qualities while working with teamwork as their core value. Their focus has increased and confidence has risen to achieve greater things in life. These extra-curricular have shown a boost in achieving academic excellence and increased participation in class.

I have always been determined to make learning possible through expression. It has shown great results in academics as well, in the answers I check and when my students go on platforms to perform and speak. They have a deepened understanding of their community and the world now. They can differentiate between what is wrong and right behavior. They prefer collaborative learning and understand the values of team-work and hard-work. The students themselves have come up with a lot of project ideas related to the context taught in class to present their learnings creatively. As for student behavior, I have noticed a considerable change in the students, the once rival students have started helping each other to solve doubts and worksheets. Some students who struggled with basics have started seeking help from other students who are good at the subject and they willingly give up their break-time and help too. They have started developing the regard for each other which will grow and strengthen with time.

As a class, we have promised ourselves the following guidelines or principles that we continue to strive for:
“As a class, we have and will always promise for performance over victory because our performance will determine how we see ourselves and how we want to see ourselves (a value of self-awareness).”
“As a class, we have and will always promise for progress over excellence because our growth determines how we excel (a value of self-worth).”
“As a class, we have and will always promise for perseverance over comfort because our grit and determination will pave the way for our dreams (a value of self-confidence).”

With the current Covid-19 lockdown situation, students have been actively responsive in terms of learning and sharing their artwork and extra-curricular activities through WhatsApp. We have been successful in helping their families with groceries and they have been supporting us with co-ordinating. Their grit, sense of possibility, and optimism in this situation inspire me every single day. This makes me realize that Maya Angelou’s words have successfully come alive beyond the four walls of my classroom.

After a year, I can say with pride that their ‘I WANT’, ‘I CAN’ AND ‘I WILL’ attitude has been built. As their didi, this makes me believe in the thought I entered my fellowship with and continue to believe in: ‘I WANT’, ‘I CAN’ and ‘I WILL TEACH FOR INDIA.’