Teach For India is a non-profit organisation that strives to end the problem of educational inequity within India and provide education to all children. Founded by Shaheen Mistri, in 2007, the organisation works across 260 schools across seven cities. We at MTTN sat down with Mr. Abhik Bhattacherji, the Director of Marketing and Communication at Teach for India.
About Abhik Bhattacherji—Abhik Bhattacherji is a literature major from St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi. He has 12 years of experience across the Corporate and Development sector. He started his career as a Corporate Communications Executive at Britannia Industries before becoming a Fellow in the inaugural cohort of Teach For India, in 2009. He’s worked at Godrej in the Design and Innovation Lab, hosted Philanthropy Weeks at Dasra, taught at a Boys Boarding School in Dehradun and consulted at Teach For Bangladesh and Teach for Slovakia.
MTTN: Can you tell us a bit about TFI, its vision and the work it does?
Abhik Bhattacherji: Teach For India was founded 11 years ago, in 2009. In fact, I was a Fellow in Teach For India’s first cohort of the Fellowship and taught 60 kids in a low-income classroom, in Mumbai for two years. Our vision, the cornerstone of our efforts, is that one day all children will attain an excellent education. And that is the work that Teach For India has been doing over the last decade. The Teach For India Fellowship is an opportunity for India’s brightest and most promising youth, from the nation’s best universities and workplaces, to serve as full-time teachers to children from low-income communities in under-resourced schools. Through two years of teaching and working with key education stakeholders, our Fellows are exposed to the grassroot realities of India’s education system and cultivate the knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed to attain positions of leadership in and beyond education, working collectively to build a vibrant movement for educational equity across India. Our Fellows not only aim to bring about academic excellence in the communities they serve but also work to ensure that the mindsets, value systems, access and exposure of our children empower them to reach their fullest potential.
The Teach For India Alumni movement is a growing community who work towards educational equity at all levels of the education system. Alumni start their own organizations or hold key positions of leadership, both within and beyond the education sector, enabling them to impact the lives of millions of children collectively. A few months ago, we conducted a study, the findings of which indicated that 77% of our Alumni stay back in the ed-sector and continue to work with disadvantaged communities. Consequently, one child in every ten is being reached in some format through our Alumni community. So if we really believe that equity in education needs to be achieved, the only way to do so, realistically, is by building a pipeline of leaders, which is what the Teach For India Fellowship does.
MTTN: You mentioned you worked as a Fellow For Teach For India before. What drew you back to the organisation so many years later?
Abhik Bhattacherji: Education is fundamental to an equitable society. An excellent education equips children and youth with the knowledge to be empowered individuals and responsible citizens. The fact that a high-quality education has wide-ranging benefits for individuals and societies has been demonstrated, time and again, by countries across the world. The truth is that today, more than 50% of students in Grade 5 cannot read a Grade 2 text or solve a simple subtraction problem. The truth is that today, the socio-economic circumstances that a child is born into determines the type of school they attend, the kinds of co-curricular opportunities that are available to them, the quality of life outcomes they attain as adults, and the kinds of opportunities they pass on to their own children. The truth is that today, we are failing the majority of our children. I wanted to play a role in changing that. I felt compelled to contribute in some way, be part of the solution and that is what drew me back to Teach For India.
MTTN: The quality of education within the country, especially that directed at rural areas, tends to lag behind. A lot of times kids who are about to appear for higher-level examinations don’t even know basic concepts. How can this be avoided?
Abhik Bhattacherji: In India the crisis in education is layered and complex. The root of this crisis lies in a crisis of leadership. The answer is simple- we need to have driven, passionate and caring adults in service of children. We need to have teachers who want to teach, who want to bridge our widening inequities, who want their students to be on better life paths and who will stop at nothing to make all this and more possible. But before we get there, we need to ask ourselves- are our teachers respected? Are our teachers trained? Are they paid enough? Is anyone holding them accountable for the education that they impart? These are questions that we and our Fellows grapple with.
MTTN: The education system is built on theoretical subjects and the cycle of scoring well and getting into elite colleges to get jobs. What do you think about the integration of holistic education into this system?
Abhik Bhattacherji: Integrating holistic education into our system is extremely important. In fact, the recently launched, National Education Policy, purely focuses on this. How does one get technology embedded in their classroom? How does one propagate socio-emotional learning? But most importantly, how can we stop education from being hierarchical. At Teach For India, we believe that students and educators must work in partnership with one another. A teacher is not solely responsible for a child. They are also responsible for their learning. Are children being invited to talk about what it is that they want to learn, and what the curriculum should be? Are children at the centre of decisions which will make a difference to their lives? For the first time, we put Students on the Board of Teach For India because you can’t serve children, you can’t make decisions for children without taking their point of view. In a democracy—every citizen gets the chance to vote. So if you’re making a plan for students, why wouldn’t you ask the students their point of view?
It is also paramount that we prepare our children with 21st-century skills. One way that we do this at Teach For India is by participating in activities that require our Students and Fellows to develop and hone the following Cs – compassion, creativity, critical thinking, curiosity, collaboration, courage, communication and consciousness. We call these our 8C’s and endeavour to enable our students to embody these skills and through their actions create positive, real, change.
MTTN: The government has initiated many schemes to encourage education amongst underprivileged kids such as the midday meal scheme. What other initiatives do you think that the government can implement?
Abhik Bhattacherji: The Sarva Shiskha Abhiyaan and the Anganwadi workers are both fantastic schemes implemented by the government to encourage education in disadvantaged communities. Additionally, the midday meal scheme has also made a huge difference in school attendance. A lot of great things are being done, the challenge really is, is it being implemented effectively? Is the government reviewing and calculating the impact of the measures it implements? What are the success metrics that are being appointed and why? As a nation, we must consider how we can bring more people into the conversation to determine the success or failure of an initiative. It really does boil down to leadership. Are our teachers being trained with 21st-century skills?
Our education system has many, many jigsaw pieces that need to fit together for India to be an equitable place for all children. But the truth is that no one organisation can do it alone. Currently, Teach for India has 900 Fellows in service of 32,000 children. But when you look at the 3400, who’ve done the Teach For India Fellowship over the past 11 years you see they today reach 33 million children. We can’t place a teacher in every classroom in India, but what we can do is place determined, driven individuals in the classrooms that are in our locus of control. I left my classroom knowing that I had impacted 60 kids but then I thought, how can I do this for 600? Then three years later, how can I do it for 6000? Now can I do it for 6 million? That’s the multiplier effect and this multiplier effect needs to become a change in mindset for our country.
MTTN: Due to the pandemic, education has shifted online now. Most children in India do not have access to the internet or a device to attend classes on due to a huge digital divide. In this difficult situation, how is Teach For India continuing its work?
Abhik Bhattacherji: 50% of the families that Teach For India serve do not have access to a stable internet connection or a smartphone. This exacerbated by few to no literate family members, is resulting in our children losing valuable learning time. It’s a discomforting picture, to imagine students who were already academically behind their high-income peers fall further behind, perpetuating yet another generation of poverty.
We are witnessing the impact, hourly and daily, that this crisis is having on low-income communities. Teachers are finding it challenging to understand progress in students’ learning from a distance with little to no connectivity, low-cost hardware and given the social-emotional challenges that children are currently experiencing. Remote learning is unable to provide the comfort and connection that learning in a classroom provides. Yet, amidst all the suffering, we’re also seeing the deep resilience of our communities.
Virtual education is fostering connections and collaboration between students, parents and educators. We’re seeing teachers do whatever it takes to keep learning going. Learning packets circulated through WhatsApp, teachers recording themselves teach classes and uploading the videos on YouTube, volunteers creating Google accounts for students, photocopy shops in communities printing workbooks for pick-ups, astronomers, rappers and chefs arriving on Zoom to inspire, are some examples of what Teach For India Fellows have been busy doing.
MTTN: Over the years and in collectivity, NGOs have made important contributions to humanity. What problems do they face other than covid?
Abhik Bhattacherji: One of the biggest challenges we face is how do you motivate and inspire young Indians to give two years of their life to an under-resourced classroom so that the following benefit – the classroom of children, the Fellow themself, and our country. That is a big challenge for us. How do you get more talented people into the development sector? Now it’s not just about Teach for India, we need to make people understand that working for a cause is aspirational. It is inspiring. And it is worth devoting your life or part of your life to.
That is the narrative that we need to start building, that teaching too can be an enriching, fulfilling profession. The largest youth population in the world lives in India. If we don’t empower them with caring, sensitive adults, how else are they going to become active members of the country? How else is the leadership in our country going to change? I really do believe placing caring adults in our classrooms will give rise to empathetic, socially conscious future citizens. The kind of citizens that India and the world need.
MTTN: You mentioned that girls are being stuck with household duties, especially during this pandemic. And there is already a lot of stigma around female education in the country. How do you envision the future of education of girls based on all the stigma around it?
Abhik Bhattacherji: That is a great question but when I think of education, I think of ALL children. Whether it’s a girl or a boy, at the end of the day, every child has the right to an excellent education. The narrative in our country is that girls pay the price for everything. We must empower our girls and the rest of Indian society to believe that a girl can accomplish anything. The girl child can and must study all the way up to Grade 12 and go to college. Girls can get married at a later date, or not at all. They can have babies when they want to, or not at all. We must teach our girls that the choice is theirs, one that they should make without duress or pressure.These are the principles, the values and mindsets that we must inculcate. But while we do so, we mustn’t make the mistake of placing the onus solely on girls. We need to teach our boys, our men and family members as well. The best chance we have at an equitable society is an excellent education. Only when that happens, can sections of people be lifted up. The sad truth is that if you are poor and a girl, your chances of going to college are marginally low. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has become worse still because expectations are that the girls in the house will pick up any additional household chores. So, while the boys get the phones to study online, the girls miss classes- their only ticket to a self-sufficient life. In these situations, we must empower our boys to think- “I can pass this on to my sister or to the girls in my community!” That’s why when it comes to education, it’s not gender at all, it’s teaching everyone the values of compassion. To think beyond yourself and to serve everyone and anyone in your radius of impact.
MTTN: After hearing about the work Teach For India does, I’m sure a lot of our readers will want to be a part of this organisation and do some good. How can someone volunteer for or start working at Teach For India?
Abhik Bhattacherji: I think the one thing that I would invite your readers to do is ask themselves, “Can I apply to the Teach For India Fellowship? Can I go into a classroom for two years, change the status-quo and push for excellence? And as a result of this, can my classroom become high performing?” A frequent question we receive, is once our Fellows have understood the ground reality, what can they do next? The answer is simple but true is-anything. The world is quite literally your oyster. You could stay in the development sector and join one of the many organisations doing incredible work like Simple Education Foundation, Leadership For Equity, Haqdarshak, the list is endless. Or you could venture out and join the public sector or the private sector, for the leadership skills you would have acquired during the Fellowship will make you a force to reckon with in any field. And if joining the Fellowship isn’t for you but you still want to make a difference, there are plenty of other ways you could do so. Sponsor a gadget, volunteer in one of our classrooms for a week or a month, apply to a Staff position at Teach For India.
There is much in this world that needs work and a whole host of ways you can help. All you’ve got to do is take that first step.
Interviewed by Tanya Jain for MTTN
Featured Image by Tirthik Saha for MTTN