If I could just be a drop in the ocean, I'll know I've made a difference: Angeline Dias's story

25th May 2015
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I was born and brought up in Vikhroli, Mumbai in a place called Parksite. It is a small community of about 20-30 apartments together in a chawl system. My upbringing has been very simple and my parents have always focused on values more than anything else.Hence I grew up to be the type of person who prioritises values and the mindset above everything else. My students should be able to apply all the values they’ve learnt in my classroom every single day. I envision them to have the ability to choose between wrong and right and act on it accordingly.

Angeline ‘Angie’ Dias comes from this community herself and understands the problems that the lack of quality education poses for those who have tremendous potential. She has always wanted to be able to do something about this need gap. An opportunity to begin contributing in the space did come her way, Angie tells us, “It started when I was in the tenth grade – it was way back in 2009 when TFI had just started operations in Mumbai. My brother came home from college and showed me their ad in the newspaper and I was sold on the idea of working towards educational equity immediately. I remember actually wishing to be old enough to apply for the fellowship then itself! A few years later, during my BA final year at Xavier’s College, Mumbai, I overheard some friends animatedly discussing the college career seminar about the fellowship that they’d just attended. And I knew then my moment had come. ”

Fast forward to 2015, Angie is now a 22-year-old program manager (PM) at Teach for India (TFI). After completing her fellowship she has joined the team to continue working within the education sphere and bring about a change. SocialStory spoke to Angeline. Excerpts from the interview.

SS: Tell us about the fellowship.

AD: The fellowship by far has been the best thing that has happened to me. We started with what is called the ‘institute” and then moved back to the assigned cities, schools, and classrooms. I entered the institute (a five-week intensive training module) thinking I couldn’t be better prepared to take this head on.But just a few days into the module realised that I literally knew nothing! Though we continued with bi-weekly training sessions even after the institute concluded, the classroom became my biggest challenge.

The kids in my classroom were accustomed to the previous fellow and I failed to connect with them on that same level. It was a task trying to get them to listen to me and get my points across. All of this resulted in poor planning on my partand the frustration took a toll on me; I remember crying almost everyday after school! Then mid-year results came and I saw a marked rise in academic growth in my class. That’s when it hit me – my kids were willing to work hard even when I wasn’t able to give them my hundred percent. I had no excuse to give up when they didn’t! I thought to myself:If this is what I’d achieved with less than my complete effort , imagine what I could do if I strived to give them my 120 per cent everyday!

SS: There is an outside world view of what TFI is all about, and you must have had it too. How different is it when you’re on the inside?

AD: I think people outside perceive it to be a one man mission; it’s almost as if the educational inequity is just a TFI problem and there comes a pat on the back every now and then. What many don’t realize is that this is everyone’s problem.A few people can’t change the world but if everyone comes together, we’ll surely make a difference. There is no room for giving up.

At the time of my application, a lot of people had the opinion that the fellowship was an option for the wealthy. I was under the impression that one would have to be a genius to get selected, and never expected to actually get in. Wrong on both counts! And honestly, money really doesn’t matter — your vision does. The culture turned out to be exactly what I thought it would be: there is open and honest communication, consistent constructive feedback, and a continuous self-evaluation.

Angeline( top row, center) with her students
Angeline( top row, center) with her students

SS: You’ve just finished your fellowship and have joined TFI as a program manager. How have you choices been perceived by your family and friends?

AD: My friends and family have always supported my decision to become a TFI Fellow and that has continued through my transition from a fellow to a staff member(program manager). I have, of course, been asked about on my plans on pursuing further education.But they’ve seen the impact I’ve had in my classroom of just 36 kids. Being a part of the same community that my children belong to, they’ve seen the kind of change that can be brought about. One such kid is Irshad (who stays nearby, and is in my class), going from a sub-zero academic level to a grade level 6, and from bashing up other children to volunteering to help me with class assessments. Being a program manager will mean managing sixteenfellows,which would mean indirectly impacting over 640 children! It’ll be difficult but it’ll be completely worth it!

SS: Do you think you’re missing out on the glamorous life that your peers live, given their high paying jobs?

AD: No. I know I will never regret not having the so-called glamorous lifestyle because in all honesty I don’t know what it feels. And neither am I curious about it. My parents come from a middle-income family, and hence, simplicity has always been the way of life for me. I think somewhere down the line I have found my happy place on earth – my home and community and, of course, my kids.

SS: Tell us about the kids and their hardships. Do they come and share their personal problems with you? 

AD: My kids are my friends – they come to me whenever they have problems because they know that I’m always ready listen and help and make them feel better. I have had a lot of kids who wanted to give up on a lot of things but I’ve kept them going by reinforcing their belief in themselves. They’re amazing inside out and just need to be reminded of that every now and then. Family, community, class and other issues have always been up for discussion either collectively or individually and my kids have shown grit and gratitude at every step.

When I was introduced to Atul, he was a sulky pre-pubescent boy whose defensive reaction to being made fun of due to his dark complexion throughout his childhood was anger. He was beating other kids just for kicks and it was next to impossible to get him to listen. Several individual conversations and classroom discussion sessions (on racism) later, I encouraged Atul to have honest conversations with his classmates and at the same time suggested laughter as a solution to his outbursts. Today, he has become someone who cracks jokes even in the most difficult situations and stays calm no matter what happens. Then there was Aamir, who had suddenly resorted to foul language in the classroom. A candid conversation with his friends revealed that the culprit was peer pressure.Being a mature child, he realised that I wasn’t going to judge him. All I did was sat him down and explain what the bad words that he was carelessly throwing around actually meant.And that was the end of cuss words from him.

SS: Being a woman yourself, do you think TFI is making an impact on the girl child? Is this something that is close your heart? 

AD: TFI is making a substantial impact on all children irrespective of gender. I have had 18 boys and 18 girls in my classroom — it wasn’t a ratio by design but it’s always made me feel confident about the equality of my impact. We make sure our children understand the importance of gender equality through classroom discussions and the fellows constantly try to keep the parents of our girls especially invested in their education.

SS: What has been the biggest learning so far? 

AD: I have learnt to believe that no matter what happens,I believe in my kids, I believe in myself and I believe in the vision that one day all children will attain an excellent education. Nothing is impossible. Dedication, hard work, and love are the answer to every problem. I’ve also learnt patience. I always thought of myself as a calm person — an illusion that was shattered when I witnessed myself getting worked up every time the kids would try and push me into a corner.I worked on it and realised that nothing works better magic with children than pure patience!

My biggest success is my kids. I cannot describe how elated I’ve felt when I heard of one of my kids, Injamul achieving merit in his scholarship exam and hence is now funded by the government till his graduation.

SS: What are the problems our system is fraught with?

AD: The RTE is framed to ensure that every child in India gets the education they deserve.But this hasn’t been implemented in the right way. In the endeavour to show increasing literacy rates, kids are allowed to pass exams they haven’t studied for. And teachers, buried neck deep in admin work, simply do not have the time or mindspace to focus on helping these kids learn. The result is high dropout rates by the time the children reaches 9th grade. This is because he/she is actually 5-6 grade levels lower at that point and so ends up failing repeatedly. It’s a system problem that needs to be addressed.

Our system needs to involve parents more. I started to go for community visits two months into my fellowship. The parents had serious doubts on how a 20-year- old BA graduate could shoulder the responsibility of educating their kids. I realised that if the parents were not invested in their children’s education, the children wouldn’t be interested either. And so to tackle the problem from root up, I started to work on trying to build their trust in me. Hanging out with them after school — a cup of tea, a casual conversation — helped us understand each other better. Slowly, the impact of such visits spread from my kids to other kids in the neighbourhood as well. I found out how my kids were actually teaching their friends. My impact had suddenly broadened! Class attendance improves once the parents are convinced that going to school is important for their child.

SS: What plans do you have for the future? 

AD: At this point, I’m just focusing on doing all the right things as a TFI program manager – there’s always so much to do! There was a time when I thought I’d really like to open my own school but along the way I’ve realised we have enough schools. So I’d love to explore a teaching partnership –to bring together the best teaching practices. Being a foodie, I also think about reinventing the mid-day meal scheme with a meal van/cafe idea that would serve both vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian food. Wouldn’t the kids just love that!

How many of us talk about social issues? Almost everyone. How many of us are ready to take the plunge and start being a part of the change we want to bring about? Some of us. How many of us do not get overwhelmed and continue to work day in and day out with optimism? Rarely, any of us. Angie is one of those rare ones who does. She’s working on her dream and the transformation she sees in herself and the students is her reward.

 

On a parting note, Angie says:

I dream of bridging the educational gap within the community and make sure that people are equipped to get what they truly deserve. I would love to be able to make systemic changes towards this end. So perhaps, I will study education policy to become capable of doing this. I don’t want to be a big wave; if I could just be a drop in the ocean I’ll know I’ve made a difference.

Watch Angie’s kids talk. It will warm your heart and fill it with hope for the leaders of tomorrow:


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