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Building Leadership – One Smile at a Time

By Pragya Bhagat

There is something very magical about a child’s smile. Ask anyone in Teach for India (TFI) and they will attest to that. Behind that smile lies a child’s realization – finally, she has ‘got it’, she believes in herself. Behind that smile lies hours of groundwork done by her teacher, a TFI fellow: six weeks of intensive training, research on teaching methods, taking in strategies through multiple sessions, meetings on classroom management with her Program Manager… achieving that smile is not for the feeble-hearted.

As a Program Manager, I have seen the investment with which highly motivated individuals sign up to teach in low-income schools for two years. I have seen the smiles of hundreds of children. It’s incredibly inspiring and humbling to be a part of this movement towards education equity. Nevertheless, it is a new movement, and like all new movements its journey is fraught with multiple challenges.

The TFI fellowship promises to be a leadership development program. Over the course of two years, fellows will strive to bridge the achievement gap in the under-resourced schools they work in. They do this by building community engagement, improving school culture, and strengthening their students’ self-reflective practice by focusing on three aspects of learning:  academic achievement, values and mindsets, and exposure and access. In other words, the short-term focus is on development of the classroom, school, and community.

The long-term focus goes beyond the classroom. After the two year fellowship, the fellow will be able to impact education equity regardless of the field he/she chooses to work/study in. In the puzzle that is attaining educational equity, each individual has a different ‘piece’.

The beauty of this dual approach is that it equips fellows to be a part of attaining educational equity even after their fellowship. Fellows feel part of a bigger purpose, a movement.

During these two years, a fellow develops certain skills as a teacher that are essential to one’s development as a leader: set big goals, invest stakeholders, plan purposefully, execute effectively, continuously increase effectiveness, and work relentlessly. This is the Teaching as Leadership framework. It is effective as a teacher development tool, addressing the short term challenges. The long-term vision, however, could be achieved more effectively.

A colleague of mine came up with an analogy to explain this gap. Imagine a swimming pool. The shallow end is where the fellow is taught to swim in the beginning of the fellowship. As the two years progress, the fellow is pushed to do laps in the deep end, building stamina and exploring new terrain in the process. Once the fellowship ends, the fellow is pushed into the ocean. The swimming pool does not prepare the fellow for tackling the waves, the currents, and the vastness beyond.

As a Program Manager my support to the fellows is centred around content, pedagogy, and student achievement. As a Program Manager, I don’t give the fellows exposure to the long-term vision, a taste of the ocean.

Sessions on student behaviour management, lesson planning, and vision setting for the classroom are mandatory. Sessions on Right to Education, policy analysis, and critically understanding reports are not. The Right to Education Act, the ASER reports, and the National Curriculum Framework cannot afford to be mere interests. They are the foundation of understanding education equity. By making these issues as essential as classroom and community-focused issues, Teach for India only stands to benefit. Fellows will gain credibility through their understanding of the bigger picture of the education landscape along with their on-the-ground understanding of the classroom and community. Moreover, they can be the bridge to move these communities out of ignorance. The parents of children I have spoken to are unaware of what School Management Committees are.  A report compiled by Sama Kalvi Iyakkam (SKI) and Child Rights and You (CRY) titled ‘Status Report of Implementation and Monitoring of Right to Education Act 2009 in Tamil Nadu’ found that “most private schools in the State have not implemented RTE and several schools are not aware of the Act.”[1] By proactively engaging with the ed-landscape, Teach for India will better prepare its fellows for the ocean beyond the two years. TFI Mumbai holds trainings every  Friday on ed-policy for its staff and is about to set up mandatory trainings on the same for its fellows. TFI Hyderabad, TFI Pune, and TFI Ahmedabad hold sign-up-based discussion groups on different aspects of the ed-landscape, which happen once a month. These cities are on the path to building that awareness for fellows, but it is only the beginning.

TFI’s journey started with a smile, and it continues with many more. In the process of developing its leaders over the two year fellowship, the organization has grown tremendously and continues to do so. The next step in its evolution will be to bridge the gap in leadership development by building critical awareness in fellows on the education landscape. This will impact community investment and build fellow credibility over the long run.

[Please Note: The article presents the views of the author, and do not represent the views of Teach for India as an organization.]


Pragya Bhagat is a Program Manager with Teach for India – Hyderabad. She spent the first 15 years of her life bouncing from one country to the next. Her first love is painting pictures with words, and she is inspired by the diversity of individual stories. She did her Bachelor’s in Biology and has a Masters in Social Work, Dalit and Tribal Studies. Other than writing and reading everything under the sun, she is a fan of Bollywood, the violin, and cold milk.

[1] “Many Schools Not Aware of RTE Act” New Indian Express, 9 August, 2014.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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