Storms ruled the first thousand years of life.
By the time I claimed my room, I turned into a zombie...
Suspended somewhere between the worlds within and outside...
Vaguely aware of either...
But then, existence needs more meaning, and spectacles need a windowpane...
Right here, I found mine…

Who am I? An average woman - trying to work on my share of maze through layers of haze...

Thursday, March 08, 2012

A Strange Afternoon and Teach For India

So? Joining ‘Teach For India’?

“So? Joining ‘Teach For India’?” asked the baritone that could put Big B to shame. My heart jumped and bumped against my larynx even before my eyes could affirm the quick diagnosis by my auditory senses – it was unmistakably the voice of God!

Now, not many expect God to be seated directly across their dining table on an unassuming Sunday afternoon! Neither can many, I suppose, handle uninvited Divine curiosity after such an unapologetic apparition! I didn’t know what to make of it.

“Not really.”– I said.


“But you’ve been looking it up for the last 37.0100011001 minutes with a sustained concentration of degree 13, which, as per my records, you’ve shown only twice in the past one decade. ‘Teach For India’ interests you lady, doesn’t it?”

Mental concentration being measurable in units was QUITE an Idea Sirjee! Would someday in future the remuneration of white collar employees be made directly proportional to their average degree of concentration per hour? - I pondered. Also, I wondered about my take on the ‘Teach For India’ (TFI) initiative with somewhat seriousness. I hardly had a way out. God had appeared out of thin air to demand an explanation for my 37.0100011001 minutes of sustained concentration!

Well, I had first come across this initiative a year and a half back on an OOH Media TV screen that hangs between the ground floor doors to our office lifts (and persuades us to hang ourselves by flashing a limited set of moronic jokes and Chanakya messages some tera-zillion times a day). However, regarding this ad, two things caught my initial attention:
However, unlike the Teach India campaign, which asks for a mere two hours of spare time every week for a period of three months, TFI’s demand was outright scary – full time involvement for two full years! It put me off. I chose to wonder about the feasibility of the program every time I came across the ad and planned to look up their home page on a certain intangible ‘tomorrow’ for the rest of my life.

And that was it until one fine evening a child mumbled out some sweet indistinct words from our TV and it turned out that she was trying to spread a message about TFI. The TFI ads had been promoted from dumb OOH screens to prime TV channel(s), which meant, the movement was gaining impetus. This was quite contrary to what I had expected. This time, I was curious!

So? What did you find out?

“So? What did you find out?” God poked me again. My brain wave transmitter had probably established a point-to-point communication channel with the Divine receiver seated just a meter away.

“That I had grossly underestimated the practical sense, enthusiasm and level of motivation that drives this movement. It’s a marvelous initiative God! Should bring a paradigm shift in the way we look at social work!”- I replied honestly. The sheer vision of the movement had somewhat knocked me out. My mind was working hard to find its way through the doubts I still retained regarding the large scale feasibility of its mode of functioning.

To elaborate, TFI has some very significant points of difference with most of the other social work initiatives we’ve so far seen in India. As the TFI website (http://www.teachforindia.org/) says - ”Teach For India is a nationwide movement of outstanding college graduates and young professionals who teach full time in low income schools for two years. The Fellowship enables them to become lifelong leaders advocating for educational equity.” Pay special attention to the words used in this two-sentence-summary to get what the TFI working model is all about.

(i) TFI has a very lofty goal – education equity in India. Its motto is to ‘Redraw India’, that is, engage in nation building – rather than the usual social work initiatives with short term impacts. And it tries to ensure that its ‘goal’ is not a mere ‘wish’ by investing in an infrastructure that is equipped to deliver long lasting results.

(ii) For example, TFI talks of social work as a full time employment (employment criteria: http://www.teachforindia.org/apply/who-we-are-looking-for.php) that involves commitment to two years of living in a specified city and working as a full-time staff member of a specified school. This is opposed to initiatives that simply seek a better utilization of our spare time and energy (e.g. Teach India), discardable garments (e.g. the collection drives at our offices), disposable income (i.e. donations), leftover food (Remember the chain mail asking people to call 1098 to donate leftover food from parties?) or even less than that (e.g. http://bhookh.com/ - Feed a child with a click!) without shifting what may be called the center of gravity of our lives.

(iii) Again, TFI attempts to disassociate social work from the spirit of sacrifice or alms-giving. It extends financial support in the form of monthly stipends, housing allowance and other reimbursements to all its associates (http://www.teachforindia.org/fellowship/financial-support.php). In turn, it refuses to let you walk away with the easy self-satisfaction of once-in-a-blue-moon social work with your throwaway resources.

(iv) TFI doesn’t preach you to uproot yourself from your present career to dedicate your life for social causes. Rather, it encourages you to take a break from your education/career in the form of a sabbatical, (check http://www.teachforindia.org/fellowship/tfi-fellows.php for the diverse and often remarkable background of the TFI fellows), return to whatever path you choose for yourself after gaining two years of valuable ground level experience, and collaborate through the organization’s Alumni Network in order to enrich the movement with your insights and thus “become lifelong leaders working from within various sectors towards the pursuit of equity in education”. In order to make this option more feasible/practical in the context of current Indian professional segment, TFI “has tied up with certain corporations who allow their employees to take a sabbatical to teach. These companies have agreed to hold their position until the end of the Fellowship and some even pay their salaries while they are Teach For India Fellows”.

(vi) The members associated with TFI (for the two years’ teaching activity) are called ‘Fellows’. The TFI website showcases its Fellowship to be more like a career opportunity that is ‘earned’ through the demonstration of the required abilities, rather than a charitable social work that requires no filtration criteria for the willing benefactors. Its effectiveness is enhanced through a defined recruitment and selection process (10% of people who apply are accepted) and trainings.

(vi) Most importantly, TFI tries to ensure a certain transparency and measurability in their achievements (http://www.teachforindia.org/impact/index.php). This sets it apart from many NGOs whose credibility can be doubted on as their results are vague.

“Shaheen! Shaheen! You DO deserve a pat on the back my girl!”- hollered God in His trademark voice with zero consideration towards the fact that my parents were happily snoring away the warm spring afternoon in the adjoining bedroom. I signaled Him to hush up as He went on to plan a dozen of enviable rebirths for Shaheen Mistry, the CEO of TFI (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaheen_Mistry), the details of which He made me forget by refreshing some of my brain cells.

“Right to education! Yeah, what could have aided this country more! And see how smart this girl is! She’s building upon the existing school infrastructure of India rather than trying to create a Utopia from scratch! And man, what a fine term they’ve selected for their fellows – two years! Too less for complacence, yet enough to make a difference! Bravo bravo!”
God had every reason to jump up and down regarding TFI, but…
God had every reason to jump up and down regarding TFI, as He was doing now, especially with the morning newspaper on our dining table emphatically announcing “Fifteen-year-old Indians who were put, for the first time, on a global stage stood second to last, only beating Kyrgyzstan when tested on their reading, math and science abilities.” (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/education/news/Indian-students-rank-2nd-last-in-global-test/articleshow/11492508.cms). I enjoyed the sight. I loved to see God happy. But then, my doubts lurched back.

Why, India, till now, doesn’t entertain academic or professional sabbaticals at all! Who’d have taken kindly to it had I gone for a two years’ break between my engineering and first job? Which branded organization would have allowed me for their fresher recruitment drive two years after passing out? Which are the ‘certain’ corporations TFI has tied up with so that they allow their employees to take a sabbatical? TFI should have published their names in their website, I thought.

And then, why restrict this movement to ‘outstanding college graduates and young professionals’ only, when the ample free time of our retired senior folk and housewives could have been utilized so well? In an overpopulated country with limited higher education and job opportunities, ‘time’ is by far the most valuable asset to be banked upon. The racing rats of college goers and young professionals may not have the luxury to deviate from track for two full years – don’t they realize that?

Also, TFI targets the English medium schools only, which DOES make the job of staff allocation a lot easier, but probably leaves out those who are in greater need of the initiative. Not many of the remote villages of our country have access to English medium schools. Immersed in the darkness of a hundred and one superstitions and evils, THIS India is continuously marginalized in our ambitious schemes. Who needs the eye-opener of education more than them? Which democracy can afford the unhealthy burden of a huge illiterate voter class?

Think of TFI as an Idea-Generation factory…

God intercepted my thought chain and furrowed His brows. “Think of TFI as an Idea-Generation factory, girl! Do you think employing suitable teachers in ALL understaffed schools of India is anyway feasible for a non-governmental body?”

Point taken! Social innovation, rather than rapid expansion, seems to be the priority for TFI at this point (see http://www.teachforindia.org/about/theory-of-change.php). No wonder their Careers page (http://www.teachforindia.org/careers/index.php) looks for the strategist, analyst, ideator and leader, and those of the most productive age group, rather than every odd person with excess time in his hand. Will India, in the years to come, witness a flood of multi-thronged nation building strategies, emerging out of the brains being groomed by TFI today? I fervently hoped so, for that is what the need of the day is.

“Okay, enough of speculations, Madame Idle Thinker! Ever heard the word ACTION?” God pushed the chair aside and stood up with the air of Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Come to the point fast and tell me what YOU can do for TFI.” God, project managers, corporate clients– are NEVER innocent creatures. There HAD to be a bully in each of them!

“Look… God… I’m head over heels in love with whoever conceptualized TFI, but… I’m enjoying what I’m doing right now! Does every person discover his calling in time? No. But You’ve helped me find mine through the stormiest days of my life! Don’t You want me to see the culmination?” I pleaded with the Almighty’s Holy biceps. Sabbaticals for social work – yes, I’d love to see the culture in India. And I’d love to go for active field work for social initiatives – but not now.

God scanned my brain tissues for a fraction of a second, and then, convinced that I wasn’t concocting excuses, threw His next yorker.

“Why don’t you go for sponsorship then? An initiative like this will surely involve a lot of expenditure.”

“That I’m already doing, God!” I was excited this time. “Remember the last time we met? Your words were so inspiring, enriching, and sad…. Every second of the experience is still fresh in my memory…. I increased my yearly donation 8.3 times since then, but the entire amount goes to CRY. See, it’s like… we’re yet to book our first flat or car. Nor have we invested in a single pension plan. You never know how much the EMIs would ultimately run up to once you start investing. It’s hard to afford an additional sponsorship on the top of these, God.”

God sulked a bit. I hated to see Him sulk.

“Okay – there’s something I CAN do for TFI!” – I felt this irresistible urge to cheer Him up. God looked at me inquisitively. And I blurted out “I’ll write a blog on it, and ask OTHER people to join.”

God boxed both my ears before He disappeared. [ By Antara Kundu ]

9 comments:

  1. An outstanding post from you once again. Eto bhalo likhechis ki bolbo. Ami tor moto eto bhalo likhte parina. Especially liked the humor element in the article which made it an enjoyable read, apart from being analytical and informative. Eto gap na diye aro frequently lekh

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  3. God wanted me to take up TFI too, but I found giving up two years to be really daunting. I took up Teach India to stop him from sulking and I am enjoying every bit. :)

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    Replies
    1. That's wonderful of you Khushboo! Had I been able to take a similar decision, it would have saved my ears from getting boxed by God every now and then :-). It's the first time I've got in touch with someone directly associated with Teach India - would love to know your experiences.

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    2. I am just a three day old baby in Teach India. I plan to blog about it once I become an experienced soul :)

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    3. Will wait eagerly :-).

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