Thinking about Teach For India

Jennifer Thomas

Do we call this a silent revolution, this transformation that is taking place in the field of education in modern India? Going by what the mainstream media says and observes, it does seem so. One part of young India is spearheading these changes, bringing about educational reforms and trying to level the playing field, as it were.

Adapted or modeled on the highly popular Teach for America program, and headed by Shaheen Mistri, Teach for India strives to narrow the educational divide between the haves and the have-nots with the help of outstanding college graduates and young professionals.

Now into its second year, and operating out of two cities in Maharashtra, this currently modest intervention in the public education system, promises to get bigger. However, there is an urgent need to look at the program in a more informed and critical way.

While the first article in our cover story raises a few pertinent questions and concerns, the interview with Shaheen Mistri, CEO of the program, highlights the challenges the program faces. A brief tete-a-tete with Ms. Anu Aga, who heads Thermax, gives an insight into why and how corporates decide to engage with education.


I Keep six honest serving-men: – (They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Where and When – And How and Why and Who.
Rudyard Kipling, The Elephant’s Child

A lot has been written lately in the media about the Teach for India (TFI) program. Most reports recount individual success stories of bright, young professionals who work out of dingy government school classrooms to make learning a worthwhile experience for children. Now in its second year, the Teach for India program is being touted as a ‘nation-wide movement’ which aspires to work towards eliminating educational inequity by creating life-long leaders. As I try to sift through all the media attention that the Teach for India Fellows and the program have received over the last few months, the lines from Kipling’s verse come to my mind with a renewed vigor. In this frenzy for adulation are we forgetting to pause and ask some simple, but pertinent questions about the program? Reflecting critically on some aspects of the program might provide a context to start a dialogue between the different stakeholders and perhaps even enrich it in coming years.

The context
As the Indian scene of elementary education is on the brink of new changes, it would be meaningful to see Teach for India within a wider context of educational reforms sweeping through the country. The Right to Education (RtE) 2009 comes in after ten years of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) which was the Government of India’s flagship project for universalization of elementary education, focusing on quality and life-skills.1 The State has been consistently moving towards definite goals and the RtE 2009 is a realization of the same. The RtE 2009 promises to ensure that elementary education will be an inalienable right (free and compulsory) for all children from 6 to 14 years. However, it is not an Act merely on schooling. Like the mandate of the SSA, the RtE too attempts to address issues of ‘quality’ by laying down stipulations for teacher qualification, teacher training norms and desirable teacher-pupil ratio in the classroom. The RtE then is trying to create a professional cadre of teachers through such reforms. In order to successfully implement the RtE, the various systems and processes created by the District Primary Education Program (DPEP) and the SSA urgently need to be further consolidated at multiple levels – centre, state, district, schools and not just the classroom.

What: The program
It is against such a backdrop that TFI sends in its ‘Fellows’, often fresh graduates or young professionals, from non teaching backgrounds, to work towards ‘eliminating inequity in education.’ Through a two year Fellowship, TFI hopes to create ‘lifelong leaders working from within various sectors towards the pursuit of equity in education.’2 Clearly, the TFI Fellows may not remain teachers within the public system for long; they will use their experience within this sector as a springboard to move across sectors. The question of long-term sustainability of impact not just within individual classrooms but also within the larger system is dubious. What is the nature of change that TFI hopes to bring about within the public education system given the context of the RtE?

Who: The fellows
TFI claims to have an intensive selection and recruitment process. The advantage, probably, is that more motivated and dynamic individuals enter the classrooms as teachers. But are these qualities sufficient to make one a ‘good’ teacher? After merely five weeks of training, the Fellows are put into classrooms as full time teachers. How far does this help to qualify them as good teachers? With minimal understanding of theoretical perspectives and absolutely no internship, as classroom teachers, a lot of their pedagogy tends to be experimental. Often, there is also a vast socio-cultural gap between these young teachers and their students. While most of them are sympathetic to the needs of the learner, sensitivity towards diverse socio-cultural backgrounds often develops only with time. As a result classroom management issues and other problems end up being dealt with in intuitive ways. While experimentation may not necessarily be a bad thing, there could be adverse effects of frequent over-use. Experience, they say, is the best teacher. Unfortunately, in the case of these Fellows, their ‘teaching experience’ will be time bound – two years. Will this time frame allow the Fellows to learn adequately from their mistakes and improve their teaching methods? What is the impact of this teaching (especially in the first year) where the teacher and learner learn at the same time?

Where: The reach
TFI currently operates out of two cities in Maharashtra, Mumbai and Pune. In 2009, TFI placed 44 Fellows across 15 municipal and private English medium schools in Mumbai and 19 Fellows in Pune, across 19 schools.3 When we compare these numbers with statistics that the municipal corporation manages, they seem like drops in the ocean. According to the 2007-’08 District Report Cards (DISE) the district of Mumbai alone has a total of 1372 schools with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) accounting for 59% of the schools. True, that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but ‘where’ the program is headed is a crucial question even at this stage.

Where exactly does TFI aim to make an impact? How will individual success stories within classrooms translate into a bigger positive change within the system of public schooling? What we need now is neither a quick fix solution nor a long drawn conclusion to problems of access, pedagogy, and assessment. What we need are sustainable, practical, economic, and working solutions. Restricting good work to four walls of the classroom will only set up a parallel stream within the larger system. TFI can be evaluated as an invaluable program only if it succeeds to make inroads into the existing system of public education and affect systemic changes therein.

How: The processes
Independent of media hype, it must be admitted that good work is being done by Fellows in some classrooms. But are interesting innovations merely languishing within the dingy classroom? How is the government teacher within the same school as the TFI fellow benefiting? Are such innovations passed on to other classrooms in the same school? Can these innovations rise above the din created by tabloids and be made available to people who may actually be able to use it purposefully? Compiling their learning into an easily accessible document could go one step towards helping and supporting quality teaching practices across the country.


Pedagogy apart, TFI believes in ‘measurable impact’ and stresses on definite achievement goals for students. Students are made to perform on various tests for Language and Math throughout the year. Is the program too achievement-driven? Does this sometimes result in Fellows losing sight of the fact that education must not be only about teaching a skill(s) that will ensure employability in the future? More importantly is this aiding student learning? While the differentiated support the Fellows make available in the classroom is a good practice it is necessary to think about how such a practice can be changed into a sustainable feature within the public system of education.

Comparisons between TFI Fellows and the achievement of their children versus government teachers and students are probably inevitable. But it must be noted that certain factors are not constant; the most important being time and resources. The Fellows have the willingness and time to spend extra hours with students within and outside the classroom. TFI strongly endorses remedial teaching after school hours to help children achieve their goals. Is this something that can be expected of all teachers in all contexts in our country? These issues are forgotten when we draw easy and often misleading comparisons between TFI Fellows and government teachers.

The TFI promises to get bigger and reach more schools in its next phase. In light of such a project for expansion there are some questions we must think about,

  • What does the Fellow ultimately leave behind?
  • Where does the TFI aim to make the most impact? Do we understand impact as a two year period of dynamic teaching practice which ends with the fellow’s contract? Are we looking for more concrete, long-term solutions?
  • By when does TFI hope to see a cumulative effect of its efforts?
  • How will dynamic changes proposed by TFI reach the public education system? Can realistic goals be set to achieve this?
  • Who is this program really making a difference to? Does the Fellow take away with him more than he gives?
  • Why is there renewed interest in the Education sector? What is it that makes this Public Good institution lucrative to the Private?

If the designers and implementers of TFI ask these questions of themselves and of the stakeholders they are attempting to influence, they are more likely to initiate a meaningful change within the field.


The writer works with a Mumbai based organization, Muktangan, which works with municipal corporation schools in Mumbai. She holds a Masters in Education (Elementary) from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She can be reached at

Training teachers to be leaders

As told to Somika Basu

shaheen-mistry Shaheen Mistri is the CEO and one of the founding board members of Teach For India, a nationwide movement with the mission to build leaders who will eliminate inequity in education. She has been working on the idea of Teach For India since 2007, and in 2008 formally established the movement after successfully adapting the widely acclaimed Teach For America model to India.

Shaheen is also the founder of the Akanksha Foundation, a non-profit organization with a mission to impact the lives of less privileged children, enabling them to maximise their potential and change their lives. Akanksha works primarily in the field of education, addressing non formal education through the Akanksha centre model and also formal education by initiating school reform.

Mistri is an Ashoka Fellow (2001), a Global Leader for Tomorrow at the World Economic Forum (2002), an Asia Society 21 Leader (2006) and serves on the boards of Ummeed, The Thermax Social Initiatives Foundation and is an advisor to the Latika Roy Foundation.

Can you give us a brief background on the Teach For India movement?
Teach For India is a nationwide movement of outstanding college graduates and young professionals who commit two-years to teach full-time in under resourced schools and who will become lifelong leaders working from within various sectors toward equity in education. The idea was developed in 2006 when I and a group of people working to reform education in India came together to seek an innovative solution to end educational inequity in the country. During this time, we met with Wendy Kopp, CEO and Founder of Teach For America (TFA), to discuss the feasibility of Teach For America’s Theory of Change working in India. Seeking to adapt that model to the Indian context, we engaged with various stakeholders within the government, at academic institutions and at corporations and were encouraged by the favorable response we received. A few months later, a twelve week study was launched by McKinsey & Company to determine the feasibility of implementing this model in India. The study concluded favorably and at the end of the process, a plan to place the first cohort of Fellows as well as a plan to grow the movement to scale for the next five years was put in motion.

The program has been very successful in America as well as in the UK. What makes you sure it will see the same success in India?
I believe the basic concept of recruiting outstanding and motivated young leaders to drive change in the education sector through working at the grassroots level is bound to make an impact in any country.

I am confident that the Teach For India program will achieve the same success in India because of the five-pronged model we follow to ensure effectiveness and impact. The elements of the model are:

Talent Sourcing: Teach For India recruits the most outstanding college graduates and young professionals to teach in low-income schools for two years. Fellows go through a rigorous selection process where they are evaluated for academic excellence, demonstrated leadership, a commitment to the community, critical thinking and perseverance, amongst other qualities. We believe that these core competencies are required to drive student achievement and to become life-long leaders who effect systemic change.

Talent Development: Prior to and during the two-year Fellowship, Teach For India provides Fellows with the training needed to make them successful teachers in the classroom and to drive positive and significant student achievement. Fellows are also given adequate leadership training to ensure that they are successful leaders in any field once they complete the Fellowship.

Talent Placement: Teach For India places Fellows for a minimum of two years in full-time teaching positions in under-resourced schools where impact on student achievement can be maximized. Fellows have clear accountability for their classrooms, and are responsible for ensuring that their students reach their ambitious academic goals.

Alumni Support: Teach For India builds partnerships in all sectors to ensure that participants have a clear path to leadership after the two year commitment. Through the alumni network, alumni of the Fellowship, stay connected to each other as they work hard towards Teach For India´s mission.

Measurable Impact: Teach For India has set up systems to drive and measure our short-term impact on student achievement, as well as our long-term impact in the development of our Fellows into life-long leaders who can eliminate inequity in education.

cover-story-3 How is the program in India different from those in other countries?
While other Teach For All programs recruit only fresh graduates, we recruit young and experienced professionals with experience in diverse sectors ranging from 2-10 years. About 43% of our Fellows have prior work experience across diverse sectors.

Teach For India aims to expose Fellows to information about potential career tracks and provide professional enrichment opportunities to aid their career decision-making and bolster the strength of their job and graduate degree program applications. To further these objectives, Teach For India has an Action Curriculum laid out and a Community Project to be undertaken by Fellows in their Second year. The Action Curriculum consists of 5 optional courses which Fellows pursue in the second year, to learn about how to effect change from within any given sector of interest. These sectors include Social enterprise, CSR, Government, Education and Advocacy. Each substantive course includes theoretical and practical elements and consists of monthly gatherings supplemented by independent work. Over an 8-month period, each course is designed to help guide career decisions and prepare Fellows to succeed in the field of their choosing.

Additionally, the Community Leadership Project is undertaken by Fellows in their second year, through which Fellows choose to tackle one primary challenge to students’ achievement (after discussions with school communities and leaders) and create innovative and sustainable solutions to this problem. By designing, implementing and managing a small-scale project within the school community, Fellows build upon their leadership and project management skills, and develop an understanding of the barriers to student achievement and educational equity.

One of the other differences in the Teach For India program involves the teaching responsibilities of the Fellows. Teach For India Fellows teach all subjects and serve as class teachers in the school they are placed in while their Teach For America counterparts teach a particular subject in different classes.

What is the status of education in India? How is Teach For India tackling it?
India is currently facing one of the worst educational crises in the world. Today, 6 million primary school age Indian children are not even enrolled in school and of those in school, 50% drop out before getting a primary education. Children in low income schools test 2-3 grade levels below their counterparts in richer schools. At Teach For India, we believe that in order for all children to achieve an excellent education, we need a movement of leaders, across sectors, who are committed to and will work towards achieving this vision.

In the short run, Teach For India Fellows work as dedicated teachers to expand the educational opportunities available to India’s underprivileged children. In the long run, regardless of the career path they choose after their Fellowship, the Fellows will work toward fighting educational inequity in India, with their willingness and capacity to create change.

What is the current strength and status of Teach for India? Where do you see Teach For India in the next 5 years?
Teach For India currently has 214 Fellows teaching in 63 schools across Mumbai and Pune. They impact a total of 6500 children across 150 classrooms. Their impact is not confined to the classroom alone. All 2nd year Fellows have to implement a community project whose aim is to identify barriers to student achievement and conceiving solutions to remove these barriers. As a part of their community project, Fellows have teacher-training programs in their school, launched adult-literacy drives near their community and started ventures involving women entrepreneurs in the community.

In the next 5 years, we aim to place 1500 Fellows in 10 cities impacting 65000 students, teachers in their school and the community at large.

How has the government reacted to the program? Are you working with the system? How?
The Government in Mumbai and Pune, our two placement sites, have been very supportive. In both cities we’ve been fortunate enough to place fellows as full-time class teachers within municipal schools. Additionally, we’ve been very closely involved with the MCGM’s initiatives to improve its schools.

What are the challenges that the program faces?
As Teach For India expands to more cities and recruits a large number of Fellows, funding becomes a challenge. While Teach For America corps members receive their compensation directly from the schools they are placed in, Teach For India Fellows are paid by Teach For India. The Funding required for Teach For India when it places 2000 Fellows in schools will be over Rs. 100 crores a year.

The second challenge is to maintain a balance between scaling the movement quickly and continuing to maintain the highest levels of quality and impact

Teach For India recruits graduates and young professionals who are not qualified teachers to teach in low income public and private schools. What makes you confident that they have the skill set and knowledge to be teachers?
We recruit Fellows who have demonstrated excellence and leadership skills in different arenas. At Teach For India, we believe that excellent teaching starts with excellent leadership. Teachers whose students achieve remarkable results employ the same tactics as leaders in any field. When Fellows join Teach For India, they undergo a gruelling 5-week training where they learn the theoretical aspects of being an excellent teacher and the practical aspect through teaching for four weeks in summer school. Throughout the Fellowship, the Fellows constantly meet their Program Manager who support and train the Fellows on a continuous basis. This training is with regard to classroom management, teaching methodologies and planning effectively for lessons.

More importantly, I believe the passion of the Fellows leads them to transcend their initial limitations. They work longer and harder, constantly learning and re-learning teaching methodologies and implementing them in their classroom.


The program is for two years. What do you expect a fellow to achieve in these two years?
Teach For India uses a rubric called Teaching As Leadership, linking leadership theory to teaching practice. This ensures an emphasis on excellent teaching, enabling Fellows to see concrete ways to build significant leadership skills. Our Fellows work relentlessly to bring their students up to grade level and are trained in the most innovative best practices in teaching, led by our Training staff who have deep expertise on the matter.

The community projects, planned through extensive research, undertaken by the Fellows help them get a grassroots understanding of the challenges they would face, not only in a classroom, but of the barriers of learning which exist in the slum communities where the low income students live. By designing, implementing and managing a small-scale, sustainable project within the school community, Fellows build upon their leadership and project management skills. The Fellows join summer internships that include an array of high impact projects like developing a company’s CSR strategy or creating an impact strategy for a social investment company.

The Leadership Forums at Teach For India provide an opportunity for Fellows and alumni to engage with prominent corporate, government, social, and education leaders who will share their insights and their experiences with leadership. At the end of these two years, the Fellows would have significantly increased the academic proficiency of their class, worked to solve problems in the school community, become more socially aware, and invested in the movement to eliminate educational inequity.

One of the biggest problems in the education system is the lack of well-trained teachers. Why did you not consider providing support to existing teachers? Would that not be more impactful?
The idea behind TFI is to build the movement of leaders who as alumni will do a range of things to eliminate inequity in education – teacher training being one of them. While still in the Fellowship, Fellows do reach out to other teachers in their schools, sharing effective practices and struggles with them, and doing informal training. In the long-term, however, our hope is that alumni will take on a range of issues within and outside education which directly impact educational equity. And teacher training will be among the most important of these.

What next?
For starters, we are expanding to Delhi and aim to have 300 new Fellows join Teach For India in 2011! In addition, we aim to place 1500 fellows in 10 cities impacting 65,000 students by 2016.

Several corporates, educational institutions, foundations, media houses, organizations and individuals like Hillary Clinton, Dr. Abdul Kalam, Geet Sethi, Sachin Tendulkar and Aamir Khan have supported the Teach For India movement in a variety of ways.

We are an ambitious, nationwide movement and we are working relentlessly towards our vision that “one day all children will attain an excellent education”.

Somika Basu has joined Teach For India’s Media and Communications team after working extensively at the grassroots and policy level for social development in rural India. She holds an MSc from the London School of Economics. She can be reached at

“Hope springs up again”

Usha Raman

anu If the mind behind the Teach for India program is Shaheen Mistry, the heart behind it is undoubtedly, Anu Aga, CEO of Thermax and initiator of its engagement with the education sector. In a short but wide-ranging telephone interview, Ms Aga came across as matter-of-fact, no-nonsense, and completely committed to the cause of primary education and to her belief in the power of these young TFI fellows to bring about change in the long term. Despite the detractors and critics of the program, her faith in the promise of these individuals is firm.

“The number of illiterate people in India is equal to the population of the United States,” she says, the indignation clear in her voice. “We have the largest number of malnourished children in the world…so, yes, we need to feed them, but after that, we need to equip them…education is one of the best ways to bridge the inequities in our society.”

She is, by her own admission, “not a person to invest in infrastructure,” as there are others who can do that better and in larger measure. Her focus is on the human element in education. “Teachers play a crucial role in education….the input that has the maximum impact on the child is the teacher.”

Thermax’s engagement in education is through the NGO Akanksha, which spearheads the Teach for India program, which, as detailed elsewhere, brings young people into contact with classrooms – and more importantly, with relatively disadvantaged children. “While it’s important to invest in the existing teachers, it is also important to find people who are passionate about education and bring them into this field,” says Aga. “Much of what is wrong with teaching in India is because many people join this profession for all the wrong reasons. They have neither the skills nor the values required.”

The answer, she feels, is “to invest in a group of people who are passionate about this, who are willing to look at it beyond a 9 to 5 routine, and work relentlessly to change things.” The TFI program in her view has succeeded in bringing in this passion, which she sees in the youngsters who have been selected as fellows. While she admits that the two years they put in is a limited engagement, she notes, “I am sure that somewhere, they will keep thinking about this puzzle even after they leave, and our job is to keep them engaged.” More that 60% of those who have completed their first year as TFI fellows have indicated a desire to stay involved in education. She is careful to emphasize that TFI is “not something that will show immediate gains”. It’s a “bonus” that will accrue only years from now. “The real impact of the fellowship will only be apparent perhaps ten years from now, when these young people are in positions of influence, and bring their interest in education to try to effect change at a systemic level.”

“Gosh, their dedication and caring is amazing – each one of them is a showpiece for the program,” she says, the pride evident in her voice. She recounts an incident where one of the fellows, teaching in a small school, was in a class where a student had a sudden epileptic fit. “This young man just picked up the child and rushed him to the hospital, no questions asked…you can see they really care about the children.”

“Of course, any such intervention is bound to create some resentment in the system, but there are many who feel that there is much to be learnt, and that is enough to keep us going,” she says, when asked whether the system feels threatened by what could be seen as “interference” by outsiders. “It’s clear, one hundred percent, that the education system needs to be revamped, that teachers need to be the focus of the change,” she emphasizes, calling attention to the fact that our established training systems are clearly not working. “It’s a pity that the Right to Education Act will force out those teachers who do not have formal qualifications,” she says. “We can see that many people who are excellent teachers have no paper qualifications – they are just individuals with the skills, values and the right attitude.” And, according to her, this is where TFI comes in, bringing in people with the right mix of these attributes, plus a generous dose of humility.

Anu Aga dislikes the term “CSR”, preferring instead to just talk about the cause as something she personally believes is crucial to the country’s development. “There is so much corruption around, and at the same time, so much corporate success…I had become somewhat disenchanted with things,” she says. “But now, with this program, I can say hope springs up again.”

A promise fulfilled

Fiona Vaz

“Please pray that I become an excellent teacher,” is what I told one of my friends, about two days before I began my stint with Teach For India (TFI). A person who overheard this conversation replied that a teacher’s excellence is known by her students’. I instinctively knew what I wanted my two years in the classroom to yield — student excellence. That was the promise I made to myself.

I learnt about Teach For India when I was working at a corporate organization. Although, we were funding a lot of ‘good’ work, I somehow felt that nobody was doing the work right.

What the country’s most pressing problem of collapsing education, especially for the underprivileged, required was good people on the ground, rather than in the classrooms. TFI proposed to do exactly this- place college graduates and young professionals who have been exemplary in their chosen area of work, in some of the most under- resourced schools and classrooms in the cities of Mumbai and Pune. The outcomes in the short run would be that students would get quality teachers, and after spending considerable amount of time by being a part of the system, TFI fellows would gain an understanding of what systemic changes have to take place for excellent education to be a reality for every child.

After a gruelling five weeks of sessions in classroom management, curriculum development, and student motivation among other things, I entered my classroom. No amount of training, statistical data and pictures of deprived children staring at me with pleading eyes from a flyer could prepare me for the reality that resided in this low income private school. We were told that the problem is huge and no matter how much we work, there will still be more to do.

People wonder how we return to our classrooms every single day even when we face so many problems like lack of space, hygiene, ventilation and even chairs. Although nobody says the answer, we all feel it in the core of our beings, “How can we not?”

Sometimes the problem is so huge that I feel like maybe really, a solution does not exist. And at that very instance, a child will come to school with completed homework despite trouble at home, or another will look at a fancy school with a swimming pool and ask just one question, “Ma’am, don’t they have a library?” or someone will say she loved meeting foreigners because she realized that “they are not very different from us.”

Or a little boy on the first bench will look up at me and ask, “Ma’am, how do we say this in perfect English?”

So have I kept my promise now that I am nearing the end of my fellowship? In my heart, I believe I have.

The author is a TFI Fellow and she can be reached at

Happy new day!

Veena Verma

Every day is a new story. My only grouse is that I can’t capture every moment of it. But I can see the signs of change so clearly. There’s my Sneha, who couldn’t read a single word four months ago and didn’t know the meaning of subtraction. Today she can read at the rate of 45 words per minute and is one of the first 5 to finish a speed math worksheet. And there’s Amir who wouldn’t sit in one place for more than a minute, today he listens and picks up information and applies it in life. The violence in my class has reduced considerably and my children and their parents too have started looking out for each other. And then there’s me – I have started falling down more often but have also been picking myself up more and more quickly each time.

It’s my 38 children and the stories we become a part of together that keeps us going. It is the huge hope and confidence in their bright future, riding on my instruction that makes me wake up each day with the idea of a ‘Happy new day’. It is their struggles that make me struggle to detail out lesson plans, make assessments, correct them, and celebrate achievements day in and day out. It is like celebrating life every new day.

The author is a TFI Fellow and can be reached at

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