On 8 June 2019, I found myself looking at a diverse group of young individuals passionate about changing the country's education system. This was the Summer Institute at Teach For India in 2019. With my team, I was entrusted to lead the school site for Pune to bring this exceptionally talented cohort of fellows into the city. With Reflection, Togetherness, celebration, Excellence with Care, and Belief as the cornerstones of our culture, we set off on the path to beating educational inequity. Through the five weeks, I saw these young individuals put endless hours of teaching, reflection, and curiosity into action. These nascent leaders, by their newly learned skills and sheer will, got their students to make progress worth half a year of Reading Comprehension. They also explored their beliefs, biases, and scarcities that affect children and their families. They were now ready to start their fellowship. Every year, I return to the institute to rekindle the shared belief that all children must get an excellent education, regardless of their background. It teaches me the importance of having a community of like-minded people when the odds are overwhelmingly against you.
Back in Pune, I worked with four schools situated in different parts of the city. All of them have one thing in common - all the students from these schools come from underprivileged urban communities where most parents are daily wagers and migrants. My fellows served in these schools as teachers, striving everyday to set big goals for themselves and their students, plan purposefully, execute effectively, and continuously become better through reflection. Every day, they entered their classes from 6th to 10th grade to provide their students with academic opportunities, values, mindsets, and exposure equivalent to any student from the best of schools while managing with meager resources. My job in all of this was to be a coach to these fellows and provide them with a third-person perspective through classroom observations and debriefs. Through Learning Circles, we explore various philosophies of education.
One of my fellows started teaching an 8th grade classroom. This is a text that I received from her when she started out. She was facing multiple challenges in the class. As a mentor, I visited her class. By observing and talking to her, I found that though her students were not learning in the class, her problem was outside the class- she did not know her students as individuals, their motivations, and their interests. So, as a coach, I pushed her to visit her students’ homes to get to know them better. Coupled with a few behavior management strategies and her relationship with the students, her classes started to get better, her students started learning, and she was able to finish her lessons.
Another one of my fellows had a strong passion for social sciences. The fellow teaching the class left the fellowship as soon as the year started. This put her in a peculiar place. She was now teaching four subjects to 60 curious students in 9th grade. She was super prepared for all her classes, her lesson plans were detailed, and she had interesting material to engage her students, but somehow, her students were not able to learn. It was not that she was not aware that her students were not learning, but the fear of being unable to control the classroom behavior made her speak for most of the time. This resulted in students losing interest mid-way. As a coach, my job was to make her aware of this fear and equip her to deal with it. As soon as we did that, she divided her class into smaller groups, engaged them in activities, and created group leaders to hold the group accountable. Now, her passion was being channeled to her students as well.
Till mid-year, a lot of my work with the fellows went into setting the new fellows up with basics.
Most of my second-year fellows were teaching grade 10. This meant that they required a different kind of support. Their focus was mostly on getting their students through boards and into junior colleges. As a city, we have struggled to support 10th-grade fellows. This was evident in last year's results. Towards this, I worked with a few fellows to create a pool of resources for 10th-grade support. My manager and I got iTeach(an alumni-led organization) involved in two main things: creating spaces for the 10th-grade teacher community to come together and learn from each other and curating resources from this community. I also hosted bi-weekly calls with fellows teaching 10th so that they could come together to problem solve and share knowledge. I think we could have done more to support this set, but from the limited support as well, the results are promising. The pre-board data shows that most classes have more than 90% of students passing. Hindi and Marathi still continue to be a challenge.
By mid-year, when we did our After Action Review (AAR) my goal sheet looked something like this:
By mid-year, we struggled a lot with getting students to learn math as a group. I suspected that our long-standing approach of measuring mastery at the grade level for all students was not working. We were leaving behind students who could not understand things at grade level. While we were trying a leveled approach in English, it was working. My fellows teaching math and I got together to discuss and try the leveled approach with math, where the fellows would give their students a grade 3 level diagnostic paper to find out the skills that they were struggling with. After diagnosis, they would identify and work on the top 2 skills their students lacked. My work here was three folds -
- Motivating the fellows to keep trying this approach
- Equipping them with skills to be able to differentiate during and after class
- Debrief the process
All fellows put in a lot of hard work towards this experiment, but a fellow teaching 7th-grade math did an exceptional job with her students. She bought in technology to engage these students during class with differentiated work. After two iterations spanning four weeks, we took another diagnostic; we saw that most of the students had mastered the skills they were working on! It showed that this method worked.
All fellows were hard at work. By this time, their classes had minimal behavior disruptions; they were planning and executing great lessons, but I could see that they had hit a plateau. They were doing the basics right, but they had assumed the role of a provider, and the students were passive learners. I also saw that no amount of feedback on the lessons was enough. This required them to experience a class where a teacher was a facilitator, and students did most of the learning. What better place to see this in action than Avasara Academy(a school for girls)? We spent a day there observing classes and talking to teachers. In the debrief, we compared the two methods of teaching. My role as a coach was to help them become aware of this mindset and then challenge it through an opposite experience and a debrief. This turned for the better!
This experience, coupled with our discussions on the book In Schools We Trust by Deborah Meier and multiple rounds of feedback on their vision documents, I started seeing vision statements with more student involvement, fellows started delegating work to their students, they started imagining spaces co-created with the students, reflection through student portfolios became routine in the classes.
For some fellows, though, I could not figure out what I should do to aid their development except to be there for them however they needed. They seem to just know what to do and when. Roshan and Ritupal have been two such fellows. Ritupal has been instrumental in getting National Children’s Academy a new school building while Roshan has run projects like Swings and Shots and Abhivyakti so successfully that they are run by the students themselves now. I can’t recall having long conversations with them, but have tried to be present whenever the need has arisen. One of Roshan’s students is at United World College. The students of NCA have a new confidence to them. It comes from a deep pride in knowing that they have adults who care a lot about them. They have inspired me in more ways than one. They show me what it means to be self-driven and deeply connected to the students to the point where their students’ pain is their own. Their actions have had a far-reaching impact on the lives of their students.
Everything came to a grinding halt when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Suddenly, the schools were shut, exams postponed, fellows and students confined to their homes. We were all scratching our heads. We were faced with questions like how can our students still learn. what can we do to make this time useful for our learning? can we use this time to plan for our time ahead? Everything became virtual. It was essential that the fellows were able to continue their work still. Our work is so heavily on the ground that doing it virtually at first seemed like a tough ask and superficial. I was aware that our whole way of working had changed overnight; being prescriptive to the fellows could mean them not feeling motivated to take on their students’ and their own learning. So, I divided them into smaller groups and gave them a frame of three questions:
- How can I advance my students’ learning?
- How can I advance my learning?
- What can I do for my future during this time?
The fellows came up with detailed plans of action. These had the list of tasks, start and end date, the person responsible, and measures of success.
We moved from setting up structures of learning for the students online to creating spaces where we learned something new in each huddle. Roshan took us through ‘Nai Taleem’. We also created spaces for all of us to share how we felt during the lockdown.
Overall, working as a coach for this brilliant group of Fellows has been less about telling them what to do and more about believing that they all are capable of disrupting educational inequity. It has been a year of a lot of ups and downs, learning, success, and failure, but through it all, I have realized that working with students from underprivileged backgrounds is my life’s mission. One way or another, I want to do this for the rest of my life!