Venil Ali was born and brought up in Mumbai. “I was someone who was always focused on myself – my family, my academics, my goals, and my dreams,” she says. As a part of her Honors programme at Xavier’s, she was required to do 60 hours of social work. She says, “My initial reaction was to just get it over with. After college hours, I’d go to an organisation called V-Care near my house and teach kids who had come from different parts of India for cancer treatment for two hours everyday. The idea was to keep them up to speed with their academics since they were obviously missing out on school.” Somewhere, Venil surprised herself and began enjoying teaching children. She ended up volunteering 400 hours instead of the assigned 60 by the end of her graduation. But after the 400 hours were over, she had to go back to her academic life.
The love for teaching and the kids
On her way to Sion Hospital from Shivaji Park, she would see a lot of children just playing on the road and wondered if these children went to school. She missed teaching and so during her summer break she went to the community and registered 80 children to study with her in an initiative that she called LEAP – Let’s Educate All People. Her friend and she managed to get the permission to teach for free in a Balwadi classroom in the railway complex.
Venil began to spend more and more time in the education space and knew that her heart lied in it. The universe conspired as well. She saw an ad for Teach for India’s Fellowship programme and thought to herself, “If I was doing this in all of my spare time anyway, why not take it up full-time and work towards actually solving the education crisis at a much larger scale. I was also inspired by the model – it was not just about teaching but also about building a movement that could solve this problem at scale.” Six years later, she’s still with TFI and now in the capacity of a City Director for Mumbai. In conversation with us, we try and understand the problems that plague the children and loopholes in the system.
But what about all the work she put in to be an MSc in Biochemistry? She says, “In retrospect, it (taking up teaching) has been one of the best decisions of my life.”
In her first year of teaching, she taught third graders in a private school in Govandi (in Mumbai), she says, “I failed much more than I succeeded. I would have kids playing hide and seek under my desk during a math lesson or simply walk out of class if it got too boring for them. I realised how so many external factors completely deprioritised learning for these children.”
In her second year, she taught the third standard in a municipal school in Worli with the general perception that most of us have – that government schools are much worse in terms of student learning outcomes than their private counterparts. She quips, “But I was in for a shock! My Worli kids were many levels above my kids in Govandi! They could read and understand complex words and sentences where my Govandi kids could not even comprehend a simple instruction to open their books. Even my school HM was very keen to try new strategies to make her school much stronger. This was so different from what I had heard about Government schools.” All her existing notions were challenged and that’s when she understood how complex educational inequity is in Mumbai with too many factors affecting the scenario – health, sanitation, religion, economic status, overall development of the area, exposure to the world, parental and community beliefs, the list could go on. She adds, “I realised that overall economic status and the exposure that my Worli kids had was so much more than in Govandi – and this played a big role in their learning.”
Educational inequity – not an isolated issue
Venil takes the example of Mumbai to elucidate her point, “You have some wards where there are no slums at all and there are others that have 86% of their area taken over by slums. If we were to compare the Human Development Index in both such wards, we’d see a huge disparity within the city itself – 0.96% versus 0.05% (the highest HDI score is 1). This in itself signifies that ancillary problems like crime, health and sanitation, etc., actually contribute to the problem of education as well. How will learning be prioritised in a ward where, for example, the burgeoning slum area is right next to a garbage dump?” Looking at a holistic approach, Venil says that solutions to education inequity cannot come from the classrooms in isolation. If we need to solve this problem at scale then we need the school, parents, community and Government to come together. That is what will create sustainable enduring change.
The ugly underbelly of Mumbai
A city like Mumbai exposes children to the ugly underbelly of our society a little more than other cities, and this, by osmosis has flown into the classrooms as well. Venil tells us about the issues that affect these kids, “Between grades sixth and eighth, when adolescence hits, every child faces a confusing time with personal identity, sexual knowledge, and& self-esteem. With kids from privileged backgrounds, help comes in the form of family and friends as well as school counsellors in a lot of cases. In our classrooms, our kids suffer the consequences of half information and the lack of proper guidance and proactive conversation. Violence and bullying increases, substance addiction like smoking, drinking, and drugs becomes common. Inappropriate sexual comments towards classmates and teachers are common. You have to understand that the root of such behaviour lies not in the psyche of the child but in his/her surroundings.”
To address the issue, she says that they partner with other NGOs who have the expertise in child psychological development – who can support their fellows and students. She adds, “At our level, the fellows hold regular sessions and conversations on gender equality, sexual health, good touch-bad touch, etc., with their kids. They often informally counsel their kids when needed – being that parent figure that our children are sometimes unable to find in their own parents.”
ASER says that disparity in the education standards between public and private schools is huge. We ask Venil how she’s trying to solve the problem, “Within our classrooms, we are trying to do our bit to address this by creating and effecting a strong vision for each classroom. We integrate academics with values and mindset. We also focus on a student’s awareness of their strengths and areas of development and help them leverage that to solve problems in their community. This helps us amplify best practices and provide additional support to certain classrooms. Through projects that fellows take up, we try to improve outcomes in other classrooms as well. The projects range from teacher training, setting up libraries, integrating extra-curricular activities in the school, etc.”
Venil says that she has noticed a welcome change in the parent’s attitude. She says, “We have come to see parents demanding the school principal to raise the quality of education. They have started to question why the learning in non-TFI classrooms within the same school are not on the same level – they’re creating the right kind of pressure for educational standards to improve.” She says that she and her team are also encouraging the schools they work with, to work with different NGOs like ‘ISLI – India School Leadership Program’ and ‘3.2.1 Schools’ to achieve a better teacher training programme.
Of failures, successes and lessons
Venil says that every day she learns by doing. She adds, “Every day I reflect on what I could have done differently and what went well. Everyday I push myself more than the previous day. Everyday I fail, reflect, and learn. That’s all that I learn in a day, now multiply that by 2190 days (6 years) and that’s much I’ve changed in 6 years.”
She draws inspiration from school students, she says, “They’ve grown to become such inspiring individuals.” Venil cites Anuj’s example – an eighth grader from Goregaon, Mumbai. She says, “He has developed an entrepreneurial mindset, blogs about life – his actions and mistakes, regularly posts on his newest inventions on his Facebook page, has started his own website called ‘O Diary’ that enables other children to blog about their experiences and has developed a learning app! He’s our leader for tomorrow and he’s just one – there are so many others!”
Did she never think of going back to what she studied to be? She says, “I have been inspired by the idea of systemic change from the very beginning. Education is at the core of change. If you break down most problems, education tends to be one of – if not the main root cause. That’s my reason for staying back in education. There is immense change that can be created if the right kind of education is given in school. One that has an equal focus for on academics, values and self-awareness.”