Teach For India: Providing Education That Empowers and Liberates India’s Children

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Tanya Jha

It is a Monday afternoon, and the corridors of a dilapidated school building on the outskirts of Delhi are buzzing with the cries and laughter of Grade II students. When a young man in a dark green jacket, black trousers, and a laptop bag enters the premises, the students run toward him to hug him. “This is how I am greeted daily,” says Sunit Srichandan, a former entrepreneur and now a Teach For India Fellow in the school. “I am an educator in this school, and it is my responsibility to ensure that I create a safe and healthy environment for my students.”

Our Teach For India Fellows, just like Sunit, are not merely teachers in the conventional sense. They are bhaiyas and didis for their students, and their sole aim is to ensure that each of their students realises their true potential to be the best they can be. To that end, they go above and beyond to make classroom learning a fun, engaging, and enriching experience for their students. Sunit, for instance, often walks into his classroom and plays Linkin Park’s songs to start the day on high energy levels. As he waits for everyone to come on the same page, he nudges students into opening their Math textbooks. As soon as they get to solving the sums, the music gradually fades out in the background.

“That’s the best part about being a Fellow. The classroom is your playground, and you can use creative means to teach and learn with your students,” he adds.

Like Sunit, our 1000+ Fellows are working as full-time educators in low-income schools across eight cities in the country. Our 4500+ alumni are working in several leadership positions in reputed places such as the World Bank, the Government of India, Teach For All, Dalberg, Columbia University, Central Square Foundation, and so on. And each of them, in their capacity, is working towards a common goal: one day all children will attain an excellent education.

However, the path to achieving excellence is fraught with challenges, especially in a country like India, where there are limited essential resources for most of the population. In such a scenario, education for children is not always a priority. As a result, numerous children from marginalised communities had no choice but to discontinue their education during the pandemic. Reportedly, the pandemic severely affected over 24.7 crore children. Many children, particularly those from marginalised communities, had to work at brick kilns, plantations and enter other occupations to support their families financially. Two years later, the repercussions have not entirely died down. While the dropout rate has not considerably increased, as per the ASER 2022 report, there has been a noticeable drop in the learning levels of children. Therefore, global education experts and scholars have been mulling an overhaul of the education system post-pandemic. 

Our Teach For India Fellows are not merely teachers in the conventional sense. They are bhaiyas and didis for their students, and their sole aim is to ensure that each of their students realises their true potential to be the best they can be. To that end, they go above and beyond to make classroom learning a fun, engaging, and enriching experience for their students.

Our two-year Fellowship programme has carved out a niche in modern pedagogical practices by emphasising innovative teaching and learning methods. We recruit aspiring changemakers to serve as full-time educators in under-resourced schools in eight cities across India. Collectively, our Fellows and alumni impact the lives of over 32 million children. To date, we have operations in eight cities across India, which include Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, and Kolkata.

Our journey, however, dates back to 2009.

Building a Movement

After returning from the US, Shaheen Mistri launched Teach For India in 2009. It is a part of the Teach For All Network, a growing group of independent organisations working on expanding educational opportunities in their nations. The 60 countries in the network today share a common vision of an excellent education for all children. Fellows from across the globe routinely connect and collaborate to make classroom learning a fun and engaging experience for children.

Initially, we were only able to place our Teach For India Fellows in Mumbai and Pune. As the impact grew, we launched sites in Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, and eventually, Kolkata. In the meantime, we also launched, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, a Broadway-style musical, setting the bar higher, and innovations around teacher training, student leadership, and social entrepreneurship.

As an organisation, we continue to challenge convention with every passing day. Many of our students are now becoming Fellows to bridge the gaps of educational inequity and give back to others what they received.

One such student is Kunal Dhangar, a 2022 Fellow in Pune. Thirteen years ago, he was a student in a classroom taught by Madhukar Banuri, a Teach For India alumnus, who currently is the co-founder of Leadership of Equity. “In this monumental quest of building leadership across all levels, such moments give our work meaning,” says Madhukar. As a Fellow, Kunal is now impacting the lives of other Kunals in his classroom, all waiting to shine in their respective fields. 

Kunal and Divya

Kunal’s sister Divya Dhangar has risen through the ranks to become one of our programme managers. Under her leadership, many Fellows in Mumbai are planning lessons and executing projects in their respective schools and communities. Recently, she was part of the Teach For All Student Panel [our umbrella organisation], sharing her journey with early-stage entrepreneurs worldwide.

“To some people, education is just something girls do before they get married. For most students like me, our primary objective is to earn money for our parents. We have been taught to step back from something if we cannot afford it. But why can’t we aspire big?” she asks.

And our students, across all nooks and corners of the country, are slowly inching closer to their dreams. They are dreaming big and how! One of them is Sahil Varma, who, last year, made it to the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee. Once a curious school student who walked the campus with his Fellows (didis), Sahil will now pursue his BTech in Mechanical Engineering at one of the top engineering universities in the country.

As an organisation, we continue to challenge convention with every passing day. Many of our students are now becoming Fellows to bridge the gaps of educational inequity and give back to others what they received.

Our students not only shine in academics, but they also earn awards and applause in sports. Prince Sharma, for instance, was selected to represent India in the International Taekwondo Championship in Vietnam in August 2022. When he was younger, he often got into physical fights and had anger issues. “I would get myself in trouble for hitting someone in my class. I never understood the importance of being a well-behaved student until I interacted with Upasana didi. She was the first one to talk to me calmly and have a conversation about values. Things did not change magically, but after many such conversations, I realised how my actions were wrong,” says Prince.

And today, one wall in Prince’s house is adorned with several gold medals that he won in every State and national championship. Sports also helped him improve his academics, and he became one of the top-performing students in his class. 

Many Fellows use sports to help their students manage their anger and channelise their energy. They tie up with many sports organisations to ensure that students get exposure to various sports they can do alongside their studies. 

Art is another medium to nurture the seeds of creativity within students. Slam Out Loud, for example, is a project that Jigyaya Labroo, a Fellow from the 2014 Cohort, started. It has now grown to become a full-fledged organisation in itself. In 2022, Jigyaya made it to Forbes 30 Under 30 list.

Beyond Classrooms

There are many Teach For India alumni like Jigyaysa who, after taking lessons from their Fellowship experiences, are creating impact at a much larger scale in their career pathways.

Anurag Kundu is the Chairperson of the Delhi Commission of Protection of Child Rights, Government of Delhi. He monitors the implementation of the rights of nearly 5.5 million children in Delhiital of India. However, his journey began in an under-resourced classroom in Seelampur, Delhi, where he taught primary-grade children from communities where basic amenities such as water and food were scarce. As a Fellow, he not only worked to improve the literacy levels of his students, but he also worked with the school’s principal.

Another alumnus, who is working in policy implementation, is Aniket Doegar, the founder of Haqdarshak, a non-profit which makes citizens aware of all the welfare schemes they are eligible for. Recently, his organisation received a joint offer of Rs 1 Crore for 2 per cent equity from judges Namita Thapar, Aman Gupta, and Peyush Bansal at Shark Tank India. So far, he has impacted over 27 lakh citizens nationwide. He was among the five Indians who won the World Economic Forum-backed Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

This is the overarching sentiment of all the alumni — keeping students at the centre of everything they do. It all goes back to the love they received in their classrooms when they were Fellows – the bright smiles that greeted them every morning and the tight warm hugs they received as soon as they entered their school premises. 

Talking about more direct impact in the field of education, we have Raman Bahl, another social entrepreneur, who is currently working with out-of-school children at his organisation, Learning Initiatives For India (LIFI). While talking about what led him to start the organisation, he recalls 11-year-old Neelam, a child he met in a small village in Haryana during the pandemic. She was washing clothes. “She should have been in a school,” he said.

And that is the overarching sentiment of all the alumni — keeping students at the centre of everything they do. It all goes back to the love they received in their classrooms when they were Fellows – the bright smiles that greeted them every morning and the tight warm hugs they received as soon as they entered their school premises. 

As an organisation, we are moving forward to continue impacting the lives of the children we work with—all with love, positivity, and hope. All of this, and more, will come alive in the upcoming musical, “Conference of the Birds”, which will have 24 students from Pune exploring the true meaning of India. During the making of the musical, the student participants have come out of their shells and have found their calling. That is precisely the long and short of a reimagined education – an education that empowers and liberates. 

Tanya Jha is the Manager, Communications at Teach For India.