Giving wings to millions of dreams - Shaheen Mistri, CEO of Teach For India

Giving wings to millions of dreams - Shaheen Mistri, CEO of Teach For India

Teach for India is a movement that recruits and trains recently graduated young men and women from all over India to give two years of their life towards removing education inequity. These Fellows attend one and a half month training and then go and teach in municipal and government schools.
Teach For India was founded by Shaheen Mistri, a woman who loves children and believes in educating and empowering less privileged children and envisions building a movement of leaders for educational reform in India. Glad2baWoman recently interviewed her:
1. Ms. Shaheen, you started as an enthusiastic 18 years old with no space to teach kids. Today, as CEO of Teach For India (TFI), you are an inspiration to many. What keeps you going?
Shaheeen: At the age of eighteen I returned to Mumbai, keen to learn more about the city and its slums, when I decided to enroll at the University of Mumbai. I was not naïve: I knew about inequalities in India’s education system. But when I saw — bright kids full of potential living in terrible squalor — it shocked me. I came to realize that children living in the slums lack access to quality education and are deprived of the skills necessary to compete in India’s formal, competitive job market. That’s when I founded the first Akanksha Foundation, but as its recognition grew and success stories piled on, I had a nagging sense of disparity between the magnitude of problems that plague India’s education system and the contribution Akanksha could make to solve them. But I saw an opportunity to expand my reach and work for more transformative changes when I met Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. The U.S. program recruits and trains outstanding recent college graduates, who commit to teach for two years in U.S. public schools,.
I became committed to starting Teach For India because I felt I was giving young people the opportunity to work directly with kids and to understand that eliminating poverty was the way to begin a huge movement towards eliminating inequity. The hope is that Teach For India will become that national movement. I strongly believe that every child needs to be given an excellent education. It is the unrelenting devotion to educating and empowering the less privileged children is what keeps me going.
2. How did you start Teach For India? What was the vision for TFI?
Shaheen: We had a few Teach For America alumni volunteering at my old organization Akanksha; I met Wendy Kopp and was incredibly inspired by the idea of Teach for America; and I started talking to local educators in India about a similar type of movement, and so Teach For India was born. My primary vision for the organization is that we want to be doing as much as we possibly can for kids. At Teach for India we work to eliminate inequity in education in India. Initially, on my part, it was an attempt to learn about myself by teaching children. But the work has outgrown my or anyone’s personal intentions. Our belief is that every child must have an excellent education to develop his or her potential fully. With this vision in mind, we are building a movement of leaders for educational reform.
3. TFI fellows currently teach students of Classes 2, 3 and 4, right? Are there any plans for their higher education too?
Shaheen: TFI Fellows currently teach classes up to the 10th grade, the idea is to adopt a class at the early stages and guarantee a uniform quality of instruction till the 10th standard.
4. Does technology help in any manner in delivering education to the students or is it a traditional learning process?
Shaheen: Technology does not play a huge role in the classrooms as yet. We teach with a focus on language and math because they are both areas of great need and we believe that with strong literacy and foundational skills in mathematics, our students will be better set up for more success in the other content areas. We also teach science, history and other subjects required by the school. In addition to academics, we incorporate values into our instruction, expose students to experiences which could expand their opportunities in life and incorporate students' interests and aspirations into our teaching. Our adherence to the state curriculum varies by school but in our first year, we decided against using the state curriculum because we found it lacked rigor. Furthermore, if it wasn't working for our students, we needed something that would push them more than the state curriculum could. That's why we decided to adopt Education Initiative's learning standards in language and the Common Core standards in Mathematics. We have designed our curricula around these two sets of standards.
5. How does TFI select the schools to provide Fellows for teaching?
Shaheen: We teach in both private and municipal under resourced schools. We first identify clusters and communities that need us, and target schools within those areas.
6. What are key performance metrics of the organization which you monitor as its leader to ensure that it is moving in the right direction?
Shaheeen: We look at the student achievement as our prime measurement of our success, because our students, when we come in, are roughly 3 to 5 years behind where they are supposed to be. We set a target of 1 ½ years worth of progress in 1 year in order to be able to bridge the gap over 3 to 4 years. We want 100% of our Fellows to meet that target. The way we measure it – we have an external body, a group called Indus, they come in and develop a diagnostic which is administered to all the children at the beginning of the year, then at the middle of the year, and at the end of the year as well. So that’s our external student achievement matrix. Internally, we focus a lot on data; our entire teaching model is focused on data, so there is lot of training given to our Fellows. They are trained to test for understanding after every single activity days, weeks, months, there is ongoing continuous evaluation. So that is the biggest thing we look at. We also have Fellows track their own development, over the 2 years, because we believe that it’s a hugely transformative experience since these young people are put way out of their comfort zone. It is possibly the hardest thing that they have ever done, they are completely overwhelmed, not sleeping properly, and it’s just a whole different world for them. We also track Fellow development. And each department has a different matrix that they track in terms of organizational development. But again really, what all of us are focused on is to ensure that every child in the class is learning in the fastest, best, most effective way that they can.
7. What are your expansion plans for TFI in the coming years?
Shaheen: We further plan to expand to all the nation’s major metros within the next five years. We will be doing a lot about refining our programme, making sure we know what we’re doing in our classrooms, and scaling the programme to a mid-level size so that our alumni can begin to be a force in India. But again, addressing scale in a country like India is a very difficult thing to do so we’ll need to think creatively.
8. If any of our reader wants to make a contribution to Teach For India, what are the various ways she can contribute?
Shaheen: They could volunteer in our classrooms, or make a donation directly through our website. www.teachforindia.org will give you an overview of the various ways they can contribute to the system.
9. What would be your message to our readers? Any special message for someone who wants to become a social entrepreneur?
Shaheen: We talk a lot about these words ‘be the change’. I am not sure if anyone of us understands what they mean. You don’t need to tell someone what you need to do, you don’t hope for someone else to do something different, you just need to do it yourself if it’s important for you.

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