Shaheen Mistry – The Face Behind Teach for India

Despite multiple challenges, Teach for India and Shaheen have succeeded in setting in motion, a nationwide dialogue about the evils of educational inequity. According to its 2014 financial report, Teach For India serves 23,000 students in the country, with over 700 fellows in 200 schools across Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai. This powerful movement is currently drawing up plans to expand to eight more cities by 2016, and reach out to 60,000 children. With a career in education spanning over 26 years, Shaheen has great passion for the cause of eliminating educational inequity.

 Shaheen Mistri, CEO of Teach For India, in a conversation with Sharad Mathur.

Shaheen Mistri

You started fighting educational inequity in India from the age of 17. What led you to it? 

I have always loved working with children. Growing up, I spent summer holidays volunteering, and lot of my understanding of the problem came from spending time with the community, and observing what lack of education can lead to. I have seen rampant superstition among those without education. I’ve seen children fall ill and even die because the parents refused to take them to the hospital, as they do not believe in modern medicine. Then you have family planning issues. I have come across families where children do not go to school only because the parents or guardians lack the confidence to visit schools and carry out the admission procedures. Lack of education affects all other social indicators.

I wanted to do something to change it. A combination of all these factors led me to start Akanksha, and Teach For India was a natural outcome of that.

What is your early story like?

I was able to see the root of the problem – a leadership gap – a lack of committed teachers to impart learning to a growing number of children. While pursuing my bachelors in Sociology at St. Xaviers College, Mumbai, I could see around me a large number of young, talented college students with the energy and enthusiasm to teach, and on the other hand there were a large number of underprivileged children who were deprived of quality education.

I started out by going to the lower-income communities, introducing myself, and talking to them about their problems and teaching them. With the first batch of children, I would take them to volunteers’ houses that doubled as makeshift classrooms. It was a few months later that it struck me that it was really important to give these children a more structured environment. That was how the first Akanksha centre came about in 1991.

And your challenges when you first started?

When I started the Akanksha Foundation, funding was a headache. Finding teachers was another uphill task. Nobody would lend us space for classrooms. The Indian education landscape has some complex, deep seated issues that include traditional, sometimes restrictive education systems and policies.

To change mindsets, where does one begin?

By spending a lot of time engaging with the community! Even today, at Teach For India, we try to build conviction in the parents that if they can send their children to school, it can change their lives. We invite family members of the students to be as involved with their educational development as possible. Getting them involved in the process helps positively affect the lives of the children, even beyond the classrooms.

Can you give me an example of Teach For India positively affecting the lives of children beyond the classroom?

Recently, our fellow Anurag, who teaches class five students, taught children from South Delhi about the Right to Education. Perplexed at how the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) did not cover their neighbourhood, these students then studied the methodology of ASER, practiced the process and then effectively carried out a survey of 400 families in their community based on it – which provided estimates of schooling status and basic learning levels in their area. The students are planning to hold a conference soon, and submit the findings of the survey to government officials. This is incredible to me as it shows us how we can help shape these children into the leaders of tomorrow who will transform the nation.

How did Teach For India come about?

As you know, the movement is a part of the Teach for All network. It is a collaboration founded in 2007 by Teach for America and Teach First – which spans 33 countries worldwide, with an aim to nip the problem of educational inequity, in the bud. I was inspired by the Teach for America model when I was working with Akanksha. I met its founder Wendy Kopp, and then took the idea to local educators in India with a bid to replicate the model by customising it to the Indian scenario.

We decided to focus not just on academics, but also on building values that shift mindsets. We decided to focus on the aspirations of the children. So, unlike Teach for America and similar movements in many other countries, Teach For India fellows stay with the kids for a longer time period. They get really invested in their students. We also stand out from our counterparts under Teach For All for being the only movement where fellows are paid entirely from funds we raise on our own.

What are the systems and processes critical to the success of Teach For India?

The success of an organisation like ours depends on its people as much as on its internal thinking processes and systems. Having a dedicated, passionate team makes all the difference. Over the time we have developed all systems and processes that any corporate would have, but most critical of them is our selection process.

We select people who have a real growth mindset, are open to learning and have a high degree of humility and respect for others. Our fellows are trained to manage, and often nurture, not just the students under their care, but also families and social structures these students belong to. Finally, we also track the development of both, the fellows and their students, in order to bring about efficiency in the model.

Your fellows, in most cases, belong to the upper strata of the society. How do you prepare them to relate to the realities of underprivileged communities they operate in? 

 It is obviously a massive adjustment on both sides – for the students and fellows. Developing empathy and spending time with the families and the community is a big part of the program. We’ve had some great stories as a result. One of our fellows in Delhi, who had quit after working as a news anchor for 10 years, started out with a group of children who could not read. Eighteen months into the fellowship, her students could read the unabridged version of Oliver Twist – which, by the way, is a great read. The core premise is that, the more you push your kids to achieve, the more you (the fellows) develop at the same time. We see a direct co-relation there.

What are you doing to create more social entrepreneurs like you?

Two years into their fellowship, the fellows are inducted into the alumni movement, which is a team of social entrepreneurs who are committed to enhancing educational opportunities in the country. The fellowship will always be a drop in the ocean and a learning phase for fellows. However, the numbers, the scale and the impact comes from our alumni movement. We have over 400 Teach For India alumni working today in different capacities across India. Some alumni ventures include the 321 Foundation in Mumbai, an education technology startup in Bangalore and schools and teacher training institutes, among others. As an alumnus, you are always thinking about how you can affect the lives of the children at an exponential level. We have an elaborate alumni network in place to help them with networking, funding and support.

How did you go about scaling Teach For India and establishing it as a powerful brand it is today?

I knew that we had created something that was not highly aspirational. In India today, when you graduate from an IIT or an IIM, the last thing on your mind is to go and teach in a government school. That being said, we really believed that the best talent in our country should be engaged in education. That was a huge ask, and I think we could grow because we were able to work with others at every level – be it the stakeholders of our training programmes, our schools, or our corporate partners.

I truly believe that we are only one part of the solution, and that to solve the problem, we have to work with everybody. I trust that there are many people in this country who want to help, and that you will receive if you ask. Being really open about our challenges, our strengths, and weaknesses has helped build us up as a brand. Even when it came to working with the government, having worked with Akanksha aided in building our credibility.

Can you recall any failures or setbacks that you may have experienced in your journey?

I would not call them failures. A lot of social issues rear their heads in classrooms; like dealing with children who have faced sexual abuse, problems relating to the children’s safety, etc., are some of the day-to-day challenges we face.

What would be your crucibles of leadership? How have your experiences helped make you a better leader today?

My biggest life learning comes from my kids. It is derived from observing people and the work they have done. It has been a long journey which has also helped me evolve. It’s not just the destination, but also the process and the journey that matters. Straddling two worlds, one with the students and families we impact, and one that is run by the powerful and the influential, has taught me a lot. I truly believe that we haven’t done anything to be born where we are, and that it is our moral obligation to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity. I want to spend my life working so that every child in the country has the opportunities the rest of us had growing up.


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