Saturday, 29 December 2012

The Making of a Miracle

There are three kinds of people in this world – there are those who accept status quo, those who create change and then there are those who become the change

So how many of have heard of Roald Dahl? And please don’t check on Google before you answer….ok an easier question, who is the author of The Famous Five?  Now I can sense some more grins and hands raised. And why not, after all, these are elementary questions meant for SECOND grade students in a ramshackle Marathi medium MUNICIPAL school in Mumbai!!  When a smartly dressed teacher asked these questions, I barely had time to think when about 40 pair of hands went up in the class at the same time.  One scraggy kid, no taller than 2 ½ feet in a disheveled soiled frock and a crumpled tie spoke up in chaste English ‘Roald Dahl is the author of the Twits, the story that you will be teaching us today. The writer of the Famous five is Enid Blyton’.

The teacher, who had  energy levels which would give Boost and Complan a run for their money, then asked “ what is meaning of the word disgusting ?” and again 30-40 hands went up, before one kid answered innocently “Teacher, when we do not want to discuss with someone, it’s called ‘discus ‘ting ”.  There was some good spirited laughter all round before another small boy stood up and gave the correct meaning.

I was zonked, to put it mildly.  I mean, these kids could not have been more than 7-8 years old and lived in shanties and chawls, spoke better English than my kids, who were studying in an up market ICSE school in Mumbai. And what confidence these kids possessed!! Looking around at the classroom, I saw that individual photographs of the children had been put up along with their aspirations when they grew up. Interestingly, on one of the walls, amidst the collage of trees, animals, birds, one observed that the children’s names were divided into groups of Oxford, Harvard, Wharton, and Stanford. Looking at the young teacher more closely, she looked fresh out of college, could well pass off a prospective TV anchor and looked so out of place in this municipal school.  I happened to glance at an adjoining class room and saw that there was no teacher, the classroom walls were barren, weary and tired, and the children were making a ruckus. I learnt later that teachers were mostly absent# in municipal schools and even if they were present, the students barely noticed. 

Every child has an aspiration, we have to nurture them, as shown in this TFI classroom…aspirations have been written by the each child..

See the Thank You video below

So, what on earth was going on in the first classroom?

Let me rewind the story a little. Pursuing my PGPX course from IIMA, I had recently bagged an opportunity to interact with the CEO of Teach For India (TFI), Shaheen Mistri, as part of the Shadow a CEO program, organized across business schools. On the scheduled day, I reached Akanksha office (another organization founded by Shaheen) at Tardeo early, and was waiting when suddenly this frail, petite lady came up to me and warmly asked me “You are Anirban aren’t you? Hi, I’m Shaheen“after which she served up a cup of tea whilst introducing me to her team. I was taken aback, maybe someone had not told Shaheen that CEO’s in India are not supposed to be so humble. The TFI team resembled a mini United Nations, with a youthful diverse team from different parts of the world, and a common thread – each one had left behind successful careers to work for TFI.  TFI’s vision, Shaheen explained to me is “One day, all children will attain an excellent education”. We were soon joined by a special guest for the day, Jon Scnhur, education advisor for President Obama. Shaheen then took us to the first Municipal school, so that we could understand for ourselves what TFI was trying to do.

Let’s come back to the classroom. Pointing out to the teacher who was clearly totally engrossed in her students, Shaheen explained that she was a TFI Fellow. The typical Fellow profile was 20-25 years old,      had rebelled  against his/her parents wishes by “doing a lowly teaching job in India at the beginning of the career and was a fool in spoiling his/her bright future”. Not only that, these guys had to give evidence of demonstrated leadership in their education/ career and undergo the strict selection criteria for TFI, after which they would need to spend 2 years, teaching the most deprived children in India for a token monthly salary, whilst most of their peers were busy minting money or climbing the corporate ladder.   Surely the Fellows were “impractical fools”. Did they think that they could really make a difference? On interacting with the kids from the Municipal school, the answer was a resounding YES. 

Students listening with rapt attention to a TFI teacher telling a story in class..

In the afternoon we visited another Marathi medium Municipal school near Worli sea face. In one of the TFI taught classrooms for Grade 4 students, we heard another smart, energetic teacher putting up interesting questions for debate, to illustrate the usage of the sentence “In my point of view”. She asked the students “Is there a God?” One girl replied “ In my point of view, there is, because my parents tell me so” Another boy replied “ In my point of view, God is not there in reality  as what we pray are simply photographs, sticks are stones”. It was an amazing demonstration of how to inculcate respect for other’s view points on such an emotive subject like God in India. Then the teacher asked “Should there be school on Saturday?” Pat came a reply from a front bencher with a mischievous twinkle in his eye “No teacher, in my opinion, we should not have school on Saturday, it is bad luck. There will be lots of studies, exams and we will not get to see TV or play with our friends “, leading to grins all around.

When Jon Schnur, education advisor to President Obama and special guest for the day, learnt that the kids had to make a promise to their classmates which they had to honor, Jon asked a boy at random “so what have promise have you made?” and the boy replied “I will respect my elders, will always be polite, will always tell the truth, will help others “. Jon had to decide whether he was awestruck or happy with the reply, and finally settled for both..

Shaheen then took  us to visit a non funded  private school , receiving no aid from the government and run by trustees– It was probably impossible to sell even fish here, it was that noisy, as twin classes were held side by side, with 2 teachers and 2 sets of students in the same room. But the kids were not distracted, as they grasped and absorbed every word said by their teachers in the midst of the din. It was almost as if these kids were aware of the expectations of their parents on their young shoulders and trying hard to succeed.

Different setting, same miracle...

Towards the end of the day, a Muslim girl, who could not have been a day over 14 years, walked up to us in a pre dominantly Muslim locality. The soft spoken girl, who has been taught by a TFI Teacher, expressed her desire to become a TFI Fellow Teacher and wanted to understand as to how she could become one. She was soft spoken but her eyes displayed a determination and self belief that she too could bring about a change. Shaheen had to explain to her that she would have to wait for a few more years.
Yup, it was day of miracles all right, and I had the privilege of seeing how they happen …but the big one is when we can claim that 100% of India’s children attain excellent education. Consider the numbers. Over 90% of India’s children do not go to college, which translates into 172 million children*. Could such children be converted into productive citizens?  One would think that providing classroom, school books, a teacher and mid day meal is the simple solution. Sadly, no. What matters more, is the Quality of education. This was where Shaheen’s vision would be a game changer. She is planting seeds for the future in which the Fellows would be the harbingers of change, in their areas of influence. Of the 200 Fellows who completed the program, 43% percent were now working directly in the education sector and 54% in socially relevant fields, indirectly linked to education. The TFI program has given young adults a platform to shape their leadership skills and create a positive difference to society.

Visionary, miracle maker – Shaheen Mistri

*From Teach For India website.
# Average teacher absenteeism in India is 25% and in some states as high as 44% (source )


  1. good working tech in india Child so great work :-)

  2. A great deed is remembered for a longer time if versed well in the history books.
    This piece is certainly etched in my heart, both for the noble deed as well as for being so beautifully versed.