“I would recommend teaching to anyone in the world. Teaching is learning and testing what you think you know. It consumes every inch of you”

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Teach For India (TFI) is an NGO and a movement that is working towards alleviating educational inequity by placing leadership Fellows in government and low-income private schools. Its vision is, “One day all children will receive an excellent education”. Siddhant Sharma was my student at Jai Hind College (JHC) in Mumbai. He went on to volunteer in TFI from 2014 to 2016. I visited his school and attended the Forum Theatre recently in Ahmedabad.
Anuradha Kalhan in conversation with Siddhant Sharma.

Siddhant, when and how did you volunteer to be a Fellow teacher for TFI?
This is something that happened in my college days. I got an opportunity to volunteer in a school near Matunga in Mumbai. After college I would run down to the government school and help the tiny little, under-nourished, often foul mouthed children. I would listen to the teacher teaching passionately. After class, I used to talk to the teacher, she was so immersed in that world, she was so absorbed with what she did. She didn’t care about what others were doing or about other problems. She was fully immersed in solving the problems that she felt were the root cause of student apathy. My experiences of those days sort of coined my desire to do the same Fellowship. It’s a once in a lifetime chance to change some things around on your own!

And why did you choose to be a Fellow after you graduated from JHC, instead of any other kind of job?
I guess, I sort of already answered that! But look at the other options available to a graduate. I was not a 21-year-old who feels fulfilled wearing a suit, tie and doing work that does not seem to impact anyone. I wanted a challenge that pushed me to evolve constantly. You realise that doing difficult jobs is one great way to grow. Working in a corporate sector job is not at all a bad thing, in fact, if done right, you can also change society. But at 21, you have an emotional need too, one that pushes you to want to do something bigger and better. So I picked this as a journey and a challenge at the same time.

Why did you choose a school in this impoverished community with a troubled history?
So the name of the school is Brighton School. It’s in an area called Chandola in Ahmedabad, but locally known as the Bombay Hotel. This area is right in the city, yet is so isolated and disconnected. It is an area occupied completely by Muslims, who were sort of pushed into this land given the recent history of social discord and displacement in Gujarat. There is an entire garbage mountain or a dumping ground right here. Water is a big issue here and the water they get has around 1800 TDS (total dissolved solids). You can practically see particles when you drink it. When I first came here, I literally broke down. I had never seen people live so miserably.

Getting this school was completely by chance. It was the first time TFI was coming into Gujarat, and they were picking schools. Our City Director, Saahil Sood, chanced upon this school and the school’s headmaster, Sarfaraz Sir, convinced him that TFI was needed in this community. There were logistical issues because there were no roads there and the rain made it hard to even reach there, so there were concerns about sending Fellows. But TFI decided to go for it, so they sent me, Irfan Lalani and Revanth here.

I can see the conditions around you and in the school. I can also see the difficulty of living and commuting on small salaries in our cities. What were the most demanding experiences you had in this school?
Money is a problem, but it is not the biggest problem, there are worse problems here. There is no clean water. There is so much pollution. There is an immense amount of garbage dumping, burning and recycling going on in the most unhygienic conditions, right here in the locality. There are ferocious street dogs that need to be euthanised. Till very recently, there were no roads and no drainage system. It is only over the last few months that some infrastructural developments have been made. But the dumping ground and its harmful effects are not going anywhere. Anyone who comes here for the first time goes home with a headache. After being here for two years, I am sure our health has been compromised.

The thing that I notice here is that people are used to this kind of life. They are even used to having their children living in these conditions. These people don’t have the mental freedom to even think about the future as they are so busy battling the present. Shortage of clean drinking water, absent health care, high morbidity, high unemployment, hunger, malnutrition, mental disorders, domestic violence are all pervasive in an interconnected web. Education is certainly a basic need, but other needs are equally pressing, if not more so.

How did you overcome those difficulties?
We all just stuck it out together. All of us decided that we will start by bringing changes in our classrooms, as well as take on projects for larger scale change within the school and community. Our Principal was most supportive and he gave us the thumbs up for everything. He is committed to improving the school. Revanth and Irfan, my co-Fellows are amazingly dedicated too. They have given up corporate offices to do something more significant. Today, if you see their classrooms and the amount of work they have managed to get done, you will be astonished.

You have been here for two years now. Tell us some of your experiences – about gaining the confidence of children, using multiple teaching and learning strategies to make a breakthrough?
Let me first tell you a little about my colleagues and their classroom work. Revanth started teaching his children Forum Theatre and they performed as a class in a place called Ahmedabad Haat. Everyone was there; the parents, the school staff, all of Teach For India, my professor from Jai Hind College came down at that point too.

Irfan, on the other hand, has really made Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg proud. He has taught children coding using the Scratch tool, and has been at it for a year. Imagine teaching and learning coding in Bombay Hotel zone. These teachers/ Fellows are giving kids what private schools don’t even dream of. This is what Teach For India can do!

I also tried different methods in the classroom. I have introduced football to my children; brought tools like the Abacus alive in the classroom and have also have started an after-school workshop. In the workshop, these kids play chess, make 500 piece puzzles (over time), build with blocks, make jewelry etc. With some motivated children, I have introduced the International Math Olympiad material, and they have finished multiple books on the same. Look, teaching is nothing but immersion. I have failed at immersing so many times and that’s why I can tell you that more than the strategy, it’s the teacher. When the teacher is there, these champions learn, because their souls are waiting to learn. There’s a saying, “When the teacher appears, so does the student”, and vice-versa.

What have you learned from your experience of working in the neighbourhood? What will you take away with you as you move on to pursue post-graduate studies in USA?
I will take away experiences of love, failures, joy, tremendous anguish, the battle against laziness, the passion, the inspiration. I have given myself to these kids and in return, they have given me their lives and their hearts. Both of us have reached the ultimate of giving – at least as Kahlil Gibran talks about giving. This is the most ‘real’ job I have done – I don’t know if I will struggle so much again! A part of me is so tired, really so very tired, but then there is a part of me that is asking myself, are you really done? Is that all you have got to give?

Life is a journey, I am going to the US because that’s my physical home, but I will never let go of these children. They will inhabit some part of my mind and heart mainly because for two years I thought of little else. They became part of my blood stream. I love them dearly and sometimes while applying to colleges for post graduate studies, I would weep. We are asked to describe our work experiences, but I felt that I didn’t ever want to talk about what we do. It is more than can be put into words. It was not just work. It was a labour of love and hope and living in their eco-system, in the hope that love will make a difference to these children.

Any suggestions to strengthen school education among poor communities in India?
There need to be more such partnerships between local governments and NGOs. Often, there are also low-income private schools that are trying hard to ensure that students learn. Especially in communities where government schools do not exist, or do not function well, such private schools play a critical role. Like this school in Chandola where I have been teaching for two years. Partnership with such schools is also necessary. NGOs like TFI supply motivated young teacher volunteers with diverse educational and professional backgrounds on two year contracts. But to be honest, there is no short-cut. You need a large number of passionate, trained teachers, who can give themselves, over long spans of time to these children. NGOs can only play a supporting and stimulating role. If we make every empty room into a school or a classroom, we can make a big change. But we have to start with teachers. Strategies to change things like this are great to share, but not easy to implement on the ground. It takes time and social entrepreneurs like Shaheen Mistry (who heads TFI), who dare to enter this labyrinth.

Would you recommend this experience of teaching in under privileged communities to other young graduates?
I would recommend teaching to anyone in the world. Teaching is learning and testing what you think you know. It consumes every inch of you. Teaching well, can be very difficult. Teaching in such communities all over the world, is even more challenging. But when you accept that challenge, then suddenly that challenge grows on you. When you immerse yourself in it, you create and shape new minds, a new world emerges in the class room and you love it! So, I would highly recommend this experience. No two Fellows have the same experience, because it’s all about what you create yourself.

The Brighton School, which is located next to a garbage dumping ground

The Brighton School, which is located next to a garbage dumping ground

Tell us about the Design for Change (DFC) award that your school got recently.
The award that Brighton School won was the Design For Change award. We won the top 5 stories for change! The DFC is a student-run problem solving process where children go along on the process of Feel-Imagine-Do, and share and solve their own problems. It builds leadership in children and makes them realise what they can do if they decide to become problem solvers. The 2015 Fellows at Brighton School – Amit Mishra and Hrishikesh Patil – worked with children and decided to solve the problem of the lack of proper toilets in school. They instilled a multi-pronged approach to solve this problem. The whole thing was done by children and eventually the toilets looked so beautiful and the younger children were trained so well, that within a week we all saw impact.

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