Learning Never Stops: An Interview with Teach for India’s Freya Ray

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 Ms Freya Ray, a fellow for Teach for India. 


MTTN: How long have you been a fellow with TFI for? How has your journey been?

Freya Ray: This is my second year. My journey has been dynamic, I would say, since my first year was completely inside a brick-and-mortar classroom and my second year has just resorted to being completely online. So sometimes it’s been not very satisfying, and sometimes very satisfying depending on the kind of work. I teach grade five kids, with an age group of nine to eleven—so it does get a lot at times.


MTTN: So Teach for India believes in equity in education, how do you think that teachers can help achieve this?

Freya Ray: I do something that a lot of fellows in Teach for India also do, which is something called differentiation. What it means is that we cater to students based on something called their reading levels. For example, a grade five student is supposed to have a 2.5 reading level. However, a lot of kids in my classroom are at a 0.5 level. A lot of my kids are also at a much higher level, which basically means that their reading comprehension is at a much higher place than what a grade five student needs to be at. However, a majority of my students are below the reading level that they should be at. So something that I do, that a lot of other fellows do as well, is that we take differentiated classes. What that means is that the content that the kids are receiving is based on their reading level. So kids who are at a high on readiness are very capable of learning rigorously and so I provide them with content that is accessible to them. However, kids who are at a low reading level probably might not even be able to read easy words. So they get content based on their reading level for test. Because if I’m teaching them something that actually might not even be accessible to them, it’s not really fair, right?

So that is one way academically and content-wise, we provide equity. In this situation, thinking about covid and how it has affected people otherwise, a teacher or a fellow has to understand what the kids and their families are going through and what their struggles are. Something that a lot of us do is community visits. I did a lot of community visiting in my first year, which basically means I went to my kids’ houses, and spent two or three hours with them, their families, and friends to understand what kind of background they come from. So now I know which families might need help with what and when since the lockdown started.

I made a list of students who I knew would need immediate help—be it financially or medically or anything else. Keeping that as a priority was something that I was very conscious of, and still am conscious of. I still know that if I don’t recharge the data for a few kids, they won’t be able to learn because their parents won’t do it. This is because they’re not financially able to do it. A lot of them don’t have access to smartphones or rashan. So it is very important that I help them in whatever way possible.


MTTN: Since there is such a large digital divide and so many kids don’t have a stable net connection or even a device at that, how does education take place?

Freya Ray: So schools were shut down in Mumbai on 16th of March. A lot of kids didn’t really have access to smartphones at that point of time. Around 65% of kids had a smartphone, and they were a part of our WhatsApp group and were still continuing to get worksheets.

However, a lot of people didn’t really have access to smartphones. After a point of time, I started to realise that almost 90% of the parents of my kids are daily wage workers, which includes rickshaw pullers, or vegetable vendors, etc. And obviously, their income stopped due to the pandemic, and I predicted that they would start having problems with respect to ration as well. Also in Mumbai, they live in a red zone area. And I also realised that very soon, there were going to be COVID cases around and they would be in need of money for medical treatment. 

Considering the situation in Mumbai right now, BMC hospitals are over-flooded and private treatment is extremely expensive. For these families, I started to raise funds in May for ration, for medical emergencies, for data recharges, and also for purchasing smartphones for students who didn’t have access to smartphones. And thanks to a lot of partner organisations who extended their support, by providing ration and helped these kids out with medical emergencies.

A lot of really nice and kind people helped me out. With the help of their funds, we are now at a place where all my kids have smartphones, except for one child. We bought a couple of smartphones, and we arranged smartphones from people who were willing to donate. We also got data recharges done from the sum that I raise on a day, on a week, and on a monthly basis, and ration distribution on a weekly basis. 

Considering I know that if I stopped doing the data recharges, a lot of these families are incapable of recharging, because that’s clearly not a priority for them right now. So yes, thanks to the funds that I was able to raise at that point of time, a lot of it really benefited. 


MTTN: How different is the experience of teaching in-person to teaching online?

Freya Ray: Online teaching is definitely 500% more challenging than classroom teaching. It’s super overwhelming, considering there is no starting time and there is no ending time. These kids get access to a smartphone at different points of time. So the best-case scenario is if the mother is a housewife, and she has a smartphone, then the child has a smartphone for the entire day and can come and attend all the classes. But if the father is the only person in the family who has a smartphone and he has a job, the father generally comes home by 9 or 10 o’clock at night. So timing is a big issue.

Another issue is that there’s not just one child in the house, right? There are at least two or three children in the house. And everyone is using the same phone for attending classes or doing their homework, etc. So timing is something that is the biggest challenge. 

Another challenge is following up and giving feedback. My day starts at 10 o’clock and ends at one at night. At 10 o’clock, I send them their worksheets and video homework on WhatsApp that they are supposed to start doing along with a morning “fun activity”. At 12 o’clock is when I have my first phone call with a bunch of students who are at low on readiness. For the next two hours I follow up and give feedback for the kids who were able to finish the homework that I sent at 10 o’clock. And then a day before I also make a list of students that I will be calling. These are the students who might be sick and just need me to chat with them and give them feedback, or who have not been consistent with doing their homework, or who I know will struggle with the worksheet. So I call them up and do it with them. 

Then at 3:30, I will have my second round of call with another bunch of students. And then at 5 o’clock, I will have another bunch of students who I zoom call. Then at 6:30, I have another phone call. So by 7:30, I get free and I sit down to correct the worksheets that the kids have done throughout the day. Then I follow up and get feedback, and then I correct the sheets and send it back. 

Sometimes when I see that there is something fundamentally wrong with the concept. So I will call the child on Zoom call. I mediate with the child and help them finish. Then I follow up with children who have not finished the homework. I call and check on them as to what the problem is. And that goes on till like 9 o’clock or 10 o’clock.

And after that, I then sit down at around 11:30 each to make my lesson plan for the next day. So by 1:30, I finish making my lesson plan, PPT, and worksheets which I’ll be using for the next day. So something that used to get done between 12PM to 6PM in a physical classroom now takes around 14-15 hours. This is because there’s no access to do anything else. And it’s very, very mentally exhausting. 


MTTN: Some students don’t have a good learning environment at home because of noise or they no space to sit and study. How do you handle such situations?

Freya Ray: This is a very, very big issue for almost all my students. It is a conversation that I keep having with their parents. So we have monthly online parent-teacher meetings to make them understand what our classroom culture stands for, and what they need to do. Parents are partners in this process. I give a timetable to my kids’ parents to check on them and all they have to do is sit with them, and make them finish the work in front of them just so that they are focused enough. What ends up happening is when the students are at home, they don’t want to really focus as much as they would have done in a brick and mortar classroom. I also ask for feedback from parentsthey tell me what’s working and what’s not working well, and also what that they really want me to do. So these are the kinds of conversations I have. Also, there are a lot of kids who live in very cramped houses, and a lot of people are sitting together in the same roomthey are watching TV at the same time or there’s some fight going on in the background. It’s a very common situation and this is a conversation I have with the parents all the time to make them understand that this is a long term process. And for that one hour, they are supposed to give the child space, which will only help them help the child in learning. The kids also know that these are things that they have to do to keep on to studyingif someone’s in the room and they’re talking they’re supposed to get up from their place and sit somewhere else. So it took some time obviously initially, there used to be a lot of chaos. Also because they’re kids it’s very difficult for me to teach them how to mute, how to switch on the camera, how to connect to audio etc. But essentially they learned and they are very quick learners. But now they know that as soon as somebody in their background starts making noise, or they’re not getting a silent space to learn they’ll go into somewhere else and then unmute again.


MTTN: How can people help Teach for India in any way? 

Freya Ray: If anybody wants to help, there are several ways to do so. The easiest way to help any classroom, including my own, is by volunteering for the classroom. I have a set of volunteers for my classroom who are my saviours at this point of time. They’re assigned to different kids, and they are responsible for following up with the kids, clearing up their doubts and helping them with other small things. All Teach for India classrooms are now looking for volunteers to come and help the fellows out with their day to day businesscorrecting the work, following up on student’s homework and if they want to conduct a class, we’ll do that as well, based on the timing preferences. The volunteers will also be given a certificate at the end of a month and if they want to continue after the month, they can. So that’s one way people can help if they want to. Another way is to apply for the fellowship. Other than that if there’s any smartphone or any laptop they want to donate or sponsor, that is welcome as well. So all they have to do is reach out to anyone in Teach for India, and anyone in Teach for India will be able to connect them to the required.


Interviewed by Tanya Jain for MTTN
Featured Image by Tirthik Saha for MTTN

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