I had to shift schools from the private one I used to attend earlier to a municipal one – a school where the emphasis was on literacy rather than education – on rote learning rather than understanding. I even faced corporal punishment for the first time – it was an acceptable method of school discipline back then. It was my first encounter with education inequality, and I wasn’t able to cope with the dip in my educational standard. It was also tremendously difficult to focus on studies while living in the community, as there were always disturbances and distractions that threatened to sway your concentration.
Seema Kamble comes from a low-income community. When she was in V grade, her family had to shift to Worli. This is where her experience of living within the community began. It was a confusing time for her – after being used to an environment of discipline, she suddenly had to learn to cope with chaos. It was around this time that she began to lose faith in herself, and started to feel like she didn’t belong. The only thing that kept her going was her “never say die” attitude.
A silver lining
Seema was in VI grade when Akanksha Foundation had just started a learning centre in Nehru Planetarium, Worli. Driven by inquisitiveness, she went to see what it was all about, thinking it was probably some sort of free tuition class for school kids. To her surprise, it was nothing like the school she had been attending for the past year. There was immense focus on values and mindset, and an astonishing sense of possibilities in life. The teachers there believed in their students no matter what – and that is what led her to join. Seema says,
From the very beginning, my teacher, Rajshree Didi [teachers are referred to as Didi (elder sister) or Bhaiya (elder brother)], pushed me towards excellence. She believed in me even when I didn’t myself, and walked with me every step of the way with the aim to help me rise to my own expectations.
In the Maharashtra municipal school system, English medium schools are only till VII grade. When she reached VIII grade, she had to move back to a private school. Since the learning standards at the private school were higher than those of the municipal school she had been attending, her academic performance dipped again. Her old fears of being inadequate came rushing back. Seema overcame her hurdles and credits the feat to her teacher. “Rajshree Didi patiently and lovingly saw me through it all. I was an average student, and would often try and bunk the Akanksha classes – for no specific reason. She would come to my house every time and drag me back!”
When she graduated to X grade, her mother told her how she was the hope of the family. “She wanted me to prove to the world that no matter the circumstances we had encountered as a family, they would not be the excuse to not attain an excellent education.”
Sense of ‘Giving Back’ and quitting the rat race
The idea of wanting to give back had germinated in her long back. Someone else had been instrumental in shaping up her life, and she wanted to do the same for children like her. Once college started, she began volunteering at the foundation centers as a teacher with the aim to transfer her learning to more children like her – to be the ‘Rajshree Didi’ to other ‘Seemas.’ Her schedule was nothing short of a superhero’s – going to centers every morning; attending college; followed by extra classes! She tells us: “It was immensely hectic, but it was so satisfying! Even though, I would reach home every day only around 10 p.m., I would devote any time I had to teach the kids in my community. The purpose was clear – empower as many kids as I can.”
Seema took up a full time job with Akanksha in PR and marketing, but it was right then that she was bitten by the B-school bug. Her motivation also came from the fact an MBA would bring much-needed financial stability that had been elusive for her family.
Seema says, “Around the same time in 2009, TFI was getting ready to welcome its very first cohort of Fellows. Through Shaheen Didi [Shaheen Mistri – Founder Akanksha Foundation & Teach For India], I was always connected to these foundations, but I never really thought of joining as a Fellow – even though, she urged me to apply. I gave my MBA entrances, instead. In 2010, I remember sitting in a conference room with Shaheen Didi as she explained why it was so important for me to become a part of the movement. It was this conversation that finally convinced me to apply.”
She was apprehensive at first. She had a deep fear that she wasn’t at par with other applicants when it came to knowledge and skill-set, but was confident in her deep understanding of community children. As luck would have it, she was accepted into the fellowship and to the Welingkar Institute of Management, Mumbai with a 100 per cent scholarship to their MBA program. Even though she had two very difficult and different choices, there was no dilemma. Seema tells us:
By that time, I had already decided I’d rather work towards achieving educational equity in my country. It was too easy to use an MBA as an escape route; it was harder to stay and work towards solving the problems I’d encountered. Being someone who thrives on challenges, my path automatically became clear.
Wanting to step out of her comfort zone, Seema began her fellowship in Pune (away from home). She was reduced to tears in her first year. She thought she felt inadequate as a teacher to her students. There was no dearth of difficulties – from having monkeys in her classroom who shortened her students’ already-limited attention span to the principal doubting her teaching abilities just because Seema was a 20-something(less than half the principal’s age). At the same time, she did get affirmation that restored her faith – an impulsive hug by one of her students; the school principal gradually appreciating her work; and her students finally starting to do well in school exams. By the second year, she started contributing and helping with PMCs- be it curriculum design or funding. Her association with the community gave her in-depth understanding of education at its very grassroot. Seema says, “I finished my Fellowship with a musical put up by my kids on Charlie & The Chocolate Factory – a dream come true! While it was being presented to a group of government educational officers, one of them simply couldn’t believe that they were municipal school kids! In my time with my students, I learnt that everything is, indeed, possible. There is nothing your students can’t achieve – you just need to believe in them.”
Staying with the education space
“Education became a default option to pursue after the Fellowship – I had seen the changes that could be brought about at a small level. I wanted to be able to scale it up from a macro perspective. Gaurav [Founder, 3.2.1 schools] is a friend from TFI, and I remember him telling me at an event that if he ever started a school of his own, he’d like me to be a part of it. In 2012, as I was filling out TFI’s placement applications, I came across the vacancy of a kindergarten teacher in 3.2.1 schools. I remember thinking that I should not take a full-time teaching job due to my persistent health problems, but Gaurav soon called to change my mind, and the decision was made.” Seema taught kindergarten kids for the first two years during which she became the ‘grade leader.’ Each grade had 120 students; her job involved managing the lessons, as well as the vision to values, and mindsets. She is currently the Head of Academics at 3.2.1, which essentially is the role of a Principal. Seema adds, “I have also stumbled upon the revelation that adults are no different from kids – you need to teach them both the same way.”
View on Indian education landscape
According to Seema, education inequality is still being perceived as a problem in India. She adds,
education inequality has not become a crisis yet, which is actually the case. When you are faced with a problem, you try to look for solutions. In the case of a crisis, you jump straight in and do whatever you have to do survive. That is the scale at which we need action and reaction on the subject of education in our country today.
India has a hoard of a lot of auxiliary problems that pitches in to the overall educational crisis. To name a few:
Lack of health & hygiene – If sanitation levels in a particular community are low, and it results in the child falling sick repeatedly, how can we expect him/her to attend school regularly and pay attention in class?
Poverty for instance – A family has nearly nine members with an average total income of Rs. 5000 per month. How could they possibly focus on the education of their children as a priority over basic hunger and survival?
Teaching as a profession – “Guru gobind dou khade, kaake lagoon pay, Balihari guru aapne gobind diyo batay” (A student’s dilemma of whose feet to touch first when God and his guru are before him. In a moment of clarity, his dilemma washes away when he decides to touch his guru’s feet, since it was his guru who imparted him the knowledge of the very existence of God.)
It’s sad to note that from a country that once had poets like Kabir, whose famous couplet went onto to show the pedestal on which we kept our teachers, we have now become a country where teaching is looked as the last profession of choice. Our teachers are undervalued and underpaid. How do we expect the best from our country when the state of teaching and teachers is not the very best?
Seema tells us about her views on government policies: “I feel a lot of policies within the RTE do bring in results. Take the Mid-Day Meal Scheme. The idea of a free meal in school, at least, helps ensure that the child attends his classes regularly! But, at the same time, I think a lot of these policies are not thought out all the way through. For example, the RTE act has a plan to ensure student enrolment, but none for retention – which to me is a very big need gap.”
Under the RTE, education is defined by literacy – the ability to read and write – rather than actual learning and overall child development. The policies must corroborate with the learning at the ground zero level with enforcers like teachers and school principals. The way to correct that is to formulate policies in conjunction with relevant stakeholders and take a holistic approach. If the government partners with NGOs that’ve been working in the education space – in a non-restrictive way – it’ll be more hands working to bring innovative and far-reaching solutions on the table. Citizens can contribute, too – full-time roles in the education space, volunteering as teachers, fundraisers, & etc.
Most of our student population comes from low-income group families. And yet, the initiatives being taken to ensure education equity are not at par with the need of the hour. Heroes like Seema, who comes from the community herself, and gave up mainstream options like an MBA to continue working in the education sphere, is a ray of hope to us. These heroes don’t care much about the credit, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be applauded. All they want from everyone is to think of education inequality as everyone’s problem, then assess ways in which we can contribute. However small the effort might be, it’s a step in the right direction.
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