Swetha Balakrishnan leads the Fellowship Recruitment team at Teach For India. She first joined the Teach For India Fellowship in 2012 and taught Grades III and IV in a government school in Pune. Swetha holds a masters in International Logistics Management & Engineering from Jacobs University Bremen in Germany.
Tanya Jha is Communication Manager at Teach For India, and holds a master’s in Media Governance from Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.
Picture this: You step inside a classroom, and the smell of fresh paint wafts in the air. You walk further in and see sustainable kits and period kits adorning the side shelves. As you turn to your right, you see a hand-painted picture of a rainbow pinned to the wall above the gate. In this well-ventilated classroom in a low-income school in Kandivali, you see shades of change and hope in many colours, shapes, and sizes.
But this isn’t how the classroom looked like a year ago.
“I saw over 37 students sitting in a cramped classroom with no windows. The wall paint had come off, the washrooms weren’t in a usable condition, and the water supply was irregular,” says Archa Chaudhary, a Teach For India Fellow.
She partnered with an organisation to fundraise Rs 7 lakh to refurbish her classroom and make the space comfortable for her students. She also encouraged her students to adopt sustainable habits to nudge them towards thinking about climate change. Additionally, she created employment opportunities for her students’ mothers whose husbands — among other 2.3 million workers — lost their jobs during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the parents weren’t able to pay the school fees, Archa used the money she received from a grant to buy raw clothing materials from a factory in Surat. She then employed the women of the community to stitch cloth bags for her students who were creating sustainability kits.
Archa, like many other educators during the pandemic, didn’t just focus on the academic performance of her students but also ensured that the overall environment around them was conducive to learning. This was all the more essential back in mid-2021 when schools were briefly reopened. Students suffered losses of various kinds around that time, according to surveys. In a 2021 study titled ‘Loss of Learning during the Pandemic,’ it was found that 92% of children, on average, had lost at least one specific language ability from the previous year across all classes.
A Boston Consulting Report, a study published in collaboration with Teach For India, indicated a massive learning loss of students up to Grade 8 because elementary schools mostly remained shut in 12 of 22 major states. While schools have now reopened across the country, the impact of the pandemic on students has not quite died down. As a result, educators, academicians, and working professionals worldwide are mulling a new definition of leadership — one which builds on empathy and love. In the same light, teaching is no longer defined by one’s ability to teach, it has morphed into an encompassing profession that allows one to cultivate valuable skills for life. For instance, Archa invested a reasonable amount of time refurbishing her classroom, encouraging eco-friendly habits amongst her students, and opening small-scale job opportunities for the women of the community. And she did it all while also working towards improving the academic performance of her students.
Data Analysis Skills
To multitask at a time, one needs a meticulous plan in place. Educators, who come from corporate life, have been making use of their excel sheets to assess the performance of each of their students accurately.
“…I felt lucky I had solid exposure to digital solutions, and it made much of the work easier as Students continued to learn on Zoom classes and WhatsApp groups. Trackers and statistics became vital. It was challenging, but I was happy that everything I had learned during my corporate journey came alive here. The only difference — the project plans, strategies, and goals I used to work on while sitting at my desk for all those years really meant something now, something more tangible,” says Saheli Pal, who quit her corporate job in the pandemic to teach in a low-income classroom in Hyderabad.
Many studies suggest, especially in the field of higher education, that a better understanding of data maximises organisational output, provides a better experience of learners of students and thereby helps one make better strategic decisions at various levels. However, using data in underserved communities come with its own set of risks because children aren’t just a number to be entered on an excel spreadsheet. They are humans with their own social circles. While Saheli may be using her corporate tools in a classroom setting, her approach may not have been the same. This is the reason why many educators try to connect with the community they teach in to bring out the best in their students.
Connecting With Community
Dawny Johnson, for instance, lives in the same community as his students in Mumbai to understand the sociological position of each student. A public policy enthusiast, Dawny believes that the experience has brought him up close to Indian society and has opened his eyes to the ground realities of the country. From water shortage issues to everyday conflicts, Dawny has seen it all. He now considers himself very much a part of the community and continues to raise questions about those who are disconnected from reality. “How can you think about drafting a policy in the public interest if you don’t know anything about the many communities in India?” he asks.
In a way, this also indicates that education lies at the heart of various other issues plaguing our society. And while educators definitely cannot wave a magic wand to solve all the problems, he, she, or they can find ways to address small-scale issues to avoid a conflict-like situation in a classroom. Dawny’s classroom, he adds, used to have everyday spats and fights, which he realised were rooted in systemic irregularities. While the conflicts in the community continue, Dawny’s students have found solace in football to channelise their inner frustrations.
In short, a classroom can be considered a microcosm of Indian society, where students come from various castes, classes, and religious backgrounds. And to be able to lead a space like that, an educator needs to operate from positions of empathy, conviction, and love.
Classroom as a microcosm of society
School, as a system, also exposes you to policy implementation processes, mainly if you teach in a government school. In other words, you get to understand and observe the midday meal schemes, education policies, curriculum designing, crisis management, inter-school collaborations, innovations in the education space, and so much more. In many cases, you also get to work closely with the government to ensure the smooth implementation of all of these policies.
In Delhi, Harsh Yadav teaches in an all-girls government school. Being physically disabled himself, Harsh is on a mission to ensure that all the students in his school who have a physical disability get to register on the government of India portal to avail all the resources. In the process, he also gets to see how policies work on the ground level and the loopholes therein. “I have observed that we have great policies in place, but there is always a delay in the delivery of services,” says Harsh.
As a teacher, you start with a classroom, move into the community of your children, work closely with the school team, and eventually gain an understanding of what largely ails your country. You walk into a classroom as a teacher, and you walk out as a leader who empowers not just your students but also the larger community. You create an impact that lasts a lifetime.
While Archa is no longer teaching in the Kandivali classroom — as she is taking her passion forward in another school — her students are spreading awareness of climate change in their community. They are collectively envisioning a future that is going to be as bright and colourful as the rainbow they painted on their walls a year ago.