Indian teachers are overstretched, to say the least. There are not enough teachers, and even among those teaching, many of them are not well-trained, making the supply problem even more acute. This is a problem too big for the government to solve alone, and that is where private and non-profit organisations come in. One such organisation is Teach for India, a non-profit organisation founded in 2009 aimed at recruiting India’s brightest and best individuals to teach children in low-income communities in some of India’s most under-resourced schools.
We spoke to Ms. Rupal Chowdhary, a former Fellow from Teach for India (TFI), to understand how Fellows are trained, how she has applied her training in the current circumstances, and how the work she and other teachers like her have done have positively impacted students.
Learning How to Teach
Teach for India aims at "not only bridging educational inequity, but to groom individuals, both students and Fellows, to become leaders working to solve this very problem”, according to Ms. Chowdhary. The training that is given to teachers like Ms. Chowdhary is rigorous, to say the least. “We are recruited from a variety of diverse backgrounds and are given a month’s worth of residential training which is both pedagogical and contextual training. The latter is especially important given that we’re working in the public education space, where the children being taught come from very different backgrounds”.
“Pedagogically, we focus on developing the mindset of the child. We do not merely ask what content should be learnt, but also how content should be taught to and applied by the child, as well as why they are learning them. What are some of the values and mindsets that are being picked up and honed through the content? That’s how we approach it pedagogically”.
When it comes to the kind of children TFI work with, the level of education and learning prior to being taught by TFI Fellows can vary wildly. As Ms. Chowdhary explains, “We learn how to plan purposefully for every child. They come from under-resourced backgrounds where there is a lack of regular exposure to education. Learning levels vary so there are plenty of gaps. We work to bridge that gap between what is the expectation from a child at the particular age vis a vis where the child is really at”.
“We have had children who are in the 8th grade but are struggling to read 4-letter words and 3-letter words. In that very same classroom you will also have children who are reading Ruskin Bond books. We are trained to bridge that knowledge and skill gap. TFI believes that teachers are leaders and we are expected to be far-sighted and methodological in our approach. We use holistic methods to ensure socio-emotional development. The bet we are placing is that we are grooming the change-makers for tomorrow!”.
This is a demanding program that comes with a lot of responsibility. “Some Fellows cannot deal with the environment and pressure, resulting in drop-outs” as Ms. Chowdhary says. “TFI has trainers and instructors who have been with TFI for a long time. TFI has not only supported me as a Fellow throughout the year in pedagogy and curriculum development, but also in conflict resolution that arose with the other school stakeholders. During the 1 month we spend in residential training, we are exposed to various pedagogical techniques and curriculums and eventually develop our own curriculum. The classes are very activity-centric as the children learn by doing as well”.
After the residential training, TFI Fellows are sent into the field for 2 years on placement, teaching at and working with any of TFI’s partner schools, which can be government-run or low-income private schools. “At the end of the program, we have a graduation ceremony where we become part of a community of alumni, who have all committed themselves to resolving inequity in some way, and while doing so are life-long learners”.
Ms. Chowdhary graduated from Teach for India’s Fellowship program in 2016 and has been working with a school in Pune called the National Children’s Academy (NCA). “My Fellowship finished in 2016. I continued to work with the school I worked with on an unofficial basis and then re-joined the Fellowship in 2019 as a returning Fellow until 2020. I have been very invested in the National Children’s Academy personally. We’ve built a great relationship and I continue to be on the management of the school. Even though I do not work at the school on a day-to-day basis, I serve in an advisory capacity”.
“We were operating out of tin sheds when I first walked in; a massive container divided into 4 rooms served as our school. My first objective was to bring about sustainable development and change in the school and make sure the environment was conducive to learning. Phase 1 of Project Drishtata, as we called it, was to develop its basic infrastructure, which was completed in September 2019. Phase 2 of the project, which is currently underway, is about building labs and libraries. Phase 3 of the project is aimed at more intangible aspects of the school, which involves improving the management and teaching processes within”.
And how have the students adapted to such an environment? “Humans at that age are very adaptable. We have around 250 children who have been wonderful due to the environment we created whilst teaching. Even though it may seem inconvenient, the children’s as well as their parents’ response was fantastic and they were very cooperative. As a result, learning did not stop”.
The pandemic hit the NCA quite badly, as Ms. Chowdhary explains: “The pandemic sucked all the funding from Education, which has not been the primary concern of the government given the situation. NGOs are very dependent on CSR initiatives and donations from HNIs, which got diverted to COVID-19 relief. Many of the TFI Fellows were affected as well, in terms of their career prospects. I am merely one among many who have had offers rescinded due to the pandemic. All ground and fieldwork have been suspended”.
“At the NCA, there were only 3 Fellows working at the school and the other teachers were not as motivated or tech-savvy. The background of the students means that many do not have smartphones or good internet bandwidth. The Fellowship training has to be done online as well, which impacts us. We are still learning to learn online and trying to understand how we can adapt to the situation”.
“We focused on the secondary school, specifically the 10th graders, who were about to graduate. Those children were more tech-savvy and were actually helping us! We had an average attendance of around 70% with secondary classes, down from 85-90% normally, which isn’t bad. This number dives with regards to the primary classes, as the responsibility becomes the parents’ in that case. I would say around 30-40% of the children are meaningfully engaging with the homework we give on a regular basis. The levels of responsibility secondary students are demonstrating in particular is a pleasant surprise! They take responsibility for their own learning, keep us accountable for our punctuality and performance and follow up for the next class. They realise and value the idea of the school and drive their learning now”.
“It’s a difficult situation overall, and our biggest fear as educators in the public space is that the pandemic is going to greatly increase educational inequality, given the varied performance of schools during this crisis. For our students, a separate room and online connection are luxuries, as many of our students’ families share devices. As educators in the public sector, our purpose is to bridge the gap of quality education between private and public schools, and taking things online creates bigger problems”.
“Ensuring maximum learning for every student in a virtual classroom is a big challenge, especially given the lack of digital infrastructure amongst the students right now. My attempt is to ensure that every objective taught in the classroom is mastered by at least 75% of the students. They in turn become buddy teachers for their peers, thereby creating an interdependent classroom. Tracking individual progress has become difficult now, given that not all students are regular. As a result, we are now resorting to blended learning, which involves both synchronous and asynchronous learning”.
Could online learning be the future for education in India? Ms. Chowdhary remains sceptical: “I am not the biggest fan of online learning as I would rather go back to the classroom. My concern with hybrid learning is that you take away the exchange of knowledge between teachers and students. That in-person dialogue is extremely important, education without a dialogue is unimaginable for me. Digital-only is not feasible with this country’s current infrastructure and manpower”.
The Students’ Soapbox
To give us a better idea of how well teachers like Ms. Chowdhary have been making a difference, meet Diksha Rajesh Singh, a 17-year-old graduate from the National Children’s Academy, who excitedly tells us about the impact of the TFI teachers. “I have been learning since 2nd grade with TFI teachers and they are the best! They talk to us politely, understand and solve problems with us. They make learning interesting and don’t force us to study. They have even helped me with problems in my personal life. They taught me to have confidence in myself and to never lose hope!”.
Another student who agrees with Diksha’s assessment is Uzer Israr Usmani, a 16-year-old graduate from the National Children’s Academy. “TFI teachers make us feel comfortable and we can be informal with them. They explain everything well with logic and examples and do not emphasise too much writing. They instead ensure we understand the main concept, which is different from what is normally done; many teachers ask us to write a lot with perfect handwriting with no deviation from the textbook”.
Uzer feels that the TFI teachers are somewhat overstretched, as they have to focus on teaching those who are struggling more than others. He would like to see the students who are doing well encouraged to help their peers and make the lives of the teachers easier. In his own words, “we can and should learn by teaching as well. Teach us to teach others! That way the good students also improve”. Backing up his beliefs, he has been teaching 10th grade algebra to his juniors online during this pandemic, a completely self-driven initiative. He professes his desire to help others “understand that they should help others who are struggling in certain subjects”.
Clearly, teachers such as Ms. Chowdhary, among several other Fellows from Teach for India, have been helping to make a difference, one child at a time. With teachers like them, and students such as Diksha and Uzer, India’s next generation is in good hands.
"The National Children's Academy in Pune is fundraising for Project Drishtata and you can contribute to it by clicking here! Any and all donations are gratefully accepted and will be used to help give its students a high-quality education.
Furthermore, if you would like to hear more about the National Children's academy, please take a look at this video!"
Ms. Rupal Chowdhary and her students at the National Children's Academy, Pune