I spent 16 years of my life in a slum. My family always struggled to fulfil basic needs like food, clothing and shelter. My father is my role model; he worked relentlessly to provide me with the right kind of education. He gave me a sense of the possibilities. I have seen him going from being a peon in the Public Works Department (PWD) to becoming the bank manager of Gramin Bank. He has taught me how education is instrumental in transforming a person’s life. Being smart will not get you far; working hard will. There’s just no alternative to hard work.
Meet Jai Mishra, a recent entry to the alumni club of Teach for India. He was born and brought up in the small town of Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh. He completed his primary education in a low-income private school. He spent his childhood in an under-privileged community, and his journey from the community to completing his engineering degree to joining Teach for India was full of challenges. He was nearly five academic grade levels behind in 10th grade, but his persistence helped him overcome that barrier. He went on to become a mechanical engineer in 2012 with 89 per cent, securing the III position in his college. Having beat the odds, and despite an academically glorious run in college, Jai found himself not being able to find a job only because his 10th grade scores weren’t high enough. For many, this would have been the beginning of pity, but Jai is an extraordinary man with a vision and a smile. He says,
These challenges gave me a sense of purpose – a reason to bring the change and be the change. Being an Indian, I know that it’s my responsibility to contribute to my country’s development. I am committed to motivate and empower people, and make them realise that a solution exists for every problem.
SS: How and when did you decide to associate with TFI? Was there an ‘Aha’ moment?
JM: I was in final year of engineering when I came across the Teach for India vision statement – “One day all children will attain an excellent education.” This got me thinking. At that time, I was doing a research project on the ‘Quality of higher education in India.’ I wrote this statement in my diary, and I went to my project guide to discuss the possibility of this statement. After an hour of discussion, we came to the conclusion that this vision is indeed possible, but needs strong commitment and belief. That’s when I decided to contribute to TFI’s vision – not because I love challenges and sympathise with underprivileged kids, but because I wanted to empower these kids. I wanted to see all the children of this country get good quality education. In 2012, my first application to TFI didn’t go through, but my belief in educational equity brought me to Teach for India again in 2013. This time I was successful. One step closer to the mission, I deeply believe that one day all children in India will attain an excellent education – it is definitely possible.
SS: Tell us about the Fellowship.
JM: The Fellowship was extremely challenging. Nothing can completely prepare you for the classroom. Even the five weeks of rigorous training that TFI gives new fellows didn’t completely prepare us for the realities of the classroom. I learnt to work with limited time – learnt the importance of resourcefulness. I learnt to empathise with my children, and think from their perspective. Most of all, I understood the urgency of the necessity of quality education – it’s what helped me stay focused throughout my two years.
SS: There is an outside world view of what TFI is all about, and you must’ve had it too. How different is it when you’re on the inside?
JM: I honestly don’t know what people outside Teach For India think about us. I had no preconceived notions before joining as a fellow. All I knew was the work TFI was trying to do to achieve its mission, and how I really identified with that very same purpose.
SS: You’ve just finished your Fellowship to join TFI as a Program Manager. How have your choices been perceived by your family?
JM: My father is very happy about my decision to join TFI as a ‘Program Manager,’ since he deeply believes in the power of an excellent education. On the other hand, my mother worries about the huge bank loan I have to repay. She feels I’m deprioritising my responsibility towards my family, but I always tell her that the entire country is my family. I’m doing the right thing by serving India through these kids.
SS: Do you think you’re missing out on the glamorous life that your peers live, given their high paying jobs?
JM: No. I think I’ve have lived the most glamorous life with my kids and their families in last two years! High paying jobs give a ‘bank balance.’ My work gives me a bank balance too – one of pride, happiness and hope. I have celebrated successes, festivals and triumphs with more than 360 families in my kids’ communities. Every day, I have had food from a different lunch box. These relationships are priceless to me. Without a doubt in my mind, I can say that I have lived the past two years as the happiest person.
SS: Tell us about the kids and their hardships.
JM: Every child is different, and all kids together make this world a very beautiful space. I started my Fellowship with 32 kids, and by the end of it, I was a friend to all 360 students at my school. Kids in my school are from extremely underprivileged families. Basic needs like food, shelter and clothing for the kids in my school is almost a milestone to achieve. Majority of students are dependent on the mid-day meal scheme. I have seen kids pack these meals for their family members at home, because there is no food available at home. They don’t get as much love and care as they need, simply because their parents are working and don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to their children.
The communities where most of these children come from can play a huge a factor in the path they choose to go down. Kids absorb the environment quickly and tend to mirror their surroundings. Kids start smoking and using foul language at a tender age. They often suffer physical and sexual abuse. There are kids who work after school so they can take care of their families, but I’m proud to tell you that they still come to school so that one day they can become that change which they want to see in others. My students come to me to share all their personal problems. They come to me to share their happiness and their hardships. I believe that’s because I have created a safe space for them, and I have built a relationship with every child, which is very difficult to define. I have played the role of mother, father and brother for my kids. I have lived in the very same community for two years with my kids, so they found me very approachable, and I was available to them 24×7.
SS: What changes has TFI brought in the kids’ lives outside school?
JM: It’s a difficult question to answer. In the two years of my Fellowship, I have realised that our belief in every single child has helped TFI children and their families in a big way. TFI not only focuses on the academic aspect, but also on values and mind-set along with access and exposure – this helps students articulate their values and identify their strengths, building a movement of leaders of tomorrow. Like Abraham Lincoln once said: “Children sitting in the classroom are the policy makers of the next generation.”
SS: What has been the biggest learning so far?
JM: I have learnt the importance of understanding ourselves, as well as empathising with others. I have learnt the importance of developing true relationships. Most of all I learnt to believe that everything and anything is possible.
SS: Is there any special incident that you would like to share?
JM: There’s no one incident! Meeting kids on the first day of school; seeing the rowdiest becoming the most disciplined; watching them go from getting a zero in math to getting a gold medal in the International Maths Olympiad; and from absenteeism to becoming the class topper. There are just so many stories!
SS: What plans do you have for the future?
JM: In the long term, I hope to open my own school in my village so that no child faces the hardships me or my father faced. I’m also open to joining politics to bring about some systematic change in the state of education in our country.
Jai is a man on a mission. Here’s why: During the course of the Fellowship, Jai started the ‘Parivartan – Be the Change’ project in Pune Municipal Corporation’s (PMC) Shevantabai Dangat Patil School to improve the learning experience and quality of education imparted. His vision was to engage and empower all the key players involved in a student’s education – teachers, school administration, the community and the students themselves.
Taking the action plan of ‘Parivartan’ to the next level, he started organising a monthly conference called ‘Samvaad,’ which was designed to engage, educate and empower parents, and also to involve parents as partners. In the final year of his Fellowship, he organised five ‘Samvaad’ events and got an average attendance of a whopping 280/350! He has conducted sessions around various topics – Right to Education (RTE), child development, School Management Committee (SMC), importance of education the girl child, cleanliness, & etc.
Another aspect of Parivartan is reanimating the concept of School Management Committees (SMC). Section 21 of RTE 2009 mandates the formation of SMC in every government-recognised school. Jai says, “I worked to give an impetus to my school’s SMC by organising a training programme for the SMC members throughout the year. After working closely with these SMC members, I saw them prepare a full-fledged school development plan that helped the school administration team to start 7th and 8th grade in the school.”
Jai was conferred with the ‘Teacher of The Year’ award by the PMC. And that’s not all! He has now been approached by a group of students from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences(TISS), to help chart out a plan to extend his initiative to the entire state of Maharashtra.
Talking about the transformation he has gone through the Fellowship, Jai says,
The Fellowship has transformed my life completely. My beliefs have become stronger after interacting with all the children and the TFI staff. It has made me realise my strengths, and pushed me to overcome my challenges. It has shown me how everything is possible, if only you can find the will. In the last two years, I have learnt more than I have taught my kids. It pushed me out of my comfort zone – and that’s where all the magic happens. It has helped me understand excellence – it has defined me.
On a parting note, Jai adds,
One day all children will attain an excellent education. This is my big dream – my purpose of life. I don’t know how long will it take to achieve, or if I’ll even will be here to see it or not, but I’m sure that one day will come. Let’s make a change today. We need to change ourselves instead of discussing the never-ending problems- just start working towards finding a solution. You don’t have to be some sort of a famous leader or a politician or an icon to make a change. Just take one step at a time. Try making a change every day – even if it’s not a huge one. The small deeds will build up to something immense over time.
For a country, two words always spell growth and prosperity – hope and faith. Talking to someone like Jai gives us exactly that. The hope that our country will impart excellent education to all its children, and the faith that, one day, we will get there. Every day heroes like Jai are making this possible, and we’re inching ever closer – bit by bit – to the summit.