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Guest Editorial – Teach For India: A ‘Movement’ to Uproot Inequality through Education

By Mary Ann Chacko

Headed by Shaheen Mistri, Teach for India (TFI) is a non-profit organization that provides fast-track teacher training to “outstanding college graduates and young professionals who will commit two years to teach full-time in under-resourced schools” (TFI website). It is part of a global network called Teach for All led by Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America (TFA). Going to school at Teachers College, Columbia University, with its robust teacher education program and having friends who had been Teach for America corps members, I was aware not only of Teach for America’s popularity but also of the scepticism about TFA within American schools of education. Hence I still remember my disbelief when I first heard that there was something called Teach for India (TFI), Teach for Pakistan, and Teach for Bangladesh!  The inspiration to dedicate an issue of Café Dissensus to Teach for India came from a recognition of the paucity of critical engagement with Teach for India as an alternative teacher ‘training’ (see Prof. Daniel Friedrich’s piece in this issue) ‘movement’ in a country where the crisis in teacher education has been a persistent concern. The shortage of research on TFI, unlike in the case of TFA, is not a surprise considering that while TFA has been around for 23 years, TFI is only 6 years old. However, in these six years TFI has expanded to 6 cities—Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmadabad, and Delhi—and is about to be launched in Bangalore.

While TFI’S relative state of infancy could be one reason for the paucity of research on this alternative route to teacher training, the general apathy towards teacher education within educational research in India could be an equally significant reason for this lack of engagement with TFI. The Justice Verma Commission Report (Vol.1) on teacher education in India points out that the majority of teacher education institutions in India are set apart from Universities in a separate and independent campus. This makes these teacher education institutions isolated from developments in education as a discipline and from educational research. Moreover, teacher education itself is viewed as a mere technique with the idea that one just needs as much disciplinary understanding as the level of school one teaches. The picture becomes more compounded because of the isolation, low-profile, and poor visibility of early childhood and elementary education. While university-based teacher education programs focus on secondary teacher education, the preparation of elementary school teachers is undertaken by District Institute of Education and Training (DIETs) which are not linked to universities. As the Verma Commission Report opines, the marginalization of elementary teacher education is extremely problematic and contradictory in a context where India has been making fiscal commitments to the universalization of elementary education and where elementary education has become a fundamental right through the Right to Education Act.

While I approached a number of university-based educational scholars and teacher educators in India to write for this issue, Daniel Friedrich, Assistant Professor of Education in Teachers College, Columbia University, is the only teacher educator to contribute to this issue. Coming from a place of deep commitment to teacher education, he examines features that are common to Teach For All (TFAll) programs in order to question underlying assumptions about educational needs, the “good teacher”, teacher training, assessment, and the very aims of education.  However, rather than being defensive about university-based teacher education in the face of the growth of the TFAll model, Dr. Friedrich invites teacher educators to examine their own practices and histories to understand  the very existence of teacher training models like TFAll.  In her article Romana Shaikh, who is a TFI alumna and currently a teacher coach with TFI, gives us a glimpse into the pedagogical practices of TFI Fellows. Fellows are also expected to reach out to the parents and the community in order to make a “collective impact” through education. I was struck by Romana’s use of phrases such as “grade level” and “path to college” which are common parlance in American schooling.  For instance, considering that very few students from low socioeconomic status graduate high school and make it to college, making them college ready is viewed as a critical task for teachers and schools. TFI’s adoption of such terms can be regarded as an example of the export and globalization of educational needs and concerns, an aspect highlighted by Dr. Daniel Friedrich. Soorya Hariharan critically examines the TFI model of second language acquisition in light of language acquisition theories. He suggests that TFI’s insistence on English only classrooms, its policy of placing fellows who do not speak the local language in impoverished schools where students and parents might speak no English, its over-emphasis on Spoken English and “rising to grade level” might be counterproductive to the acquisition of English as a second language in these settings.

 Padmini Copparapu’s piece begins by highlighting the role played by TFI fellows in improving the academic performance of students in a government primary school in Hyderabad. The article sheds light on some of the challenges and bright spots in TFI’s attempts to collaborate with the government. Taking into account the heated debates concerning TFA, in her piece Joyeeta Dey examines their relevance for TFI and the Indian context. Some of Joyeeta’s concerns are the merely five-week teacher training that the fellows receive before they start full-time teaching, the potential for the infusion of corporate culture in the form of evaluating teacher effectiveness and learning outcomes predominantly through numerical data, and the possibility that the availability of externally funded TFI fellows on a contract basis will dissuade the government from employing permanent staff in government schools.

Pragya Bhagat, a Program Manager with TFI, focuses on TFI’s mission of “leadership development” among its fellows. Pragya’s piece asks if the teacher training the fellows receive, which while commendable, can indeed prepare the fellows to understand the “bigger picture of educational landscape” in India. She concludes by discussing some of the efforts taken by TFI in select cities to bridge this gap. Gaurav Singh is a TFI alumnus who has continued to make an impact in the field of education post-TFI. He is the founder of 3.2.1. Education Foundation in Mumbai. The 3.2.1 school is based on the US Charter school model and is an instance of private-public partnership where the Mumbai Municipal Corporation provides the premises while the Foundation provides the teachers and determines the teaching techniques. The 3.2.1 school is funded by the Central Square Foundation that seeks to “utilize the infrastructure of government schools in metros to build innovation schools” and to set up an “outcome oriented education structure.” In his piece Gaurav reflects on his personal journey as he narrates the vision that led him to launch the 3.2.1. school and the commitments that drive its growth. In a conversation with Vivek Vellanki, Katie Pollom, Director of Education with Kranti, an NGO that works with the daughters of sex workers, reflects on her days as a Teach for America corps member and later as Program Director. Among other things she points out how when privileged and, in the case of TFA, mostly white corps members teach children from disadvantaged backgrounds, the corps members often develop a “saviour  mentality” that can sometimes result in them taking the agency away from the parents of these children and discrediting the expertise of veteran teachers present in the school. Talking to Mary Ann Chacko, Aniket Thukral describes, among other things, the teacher training provided by TFI and TFI’s vision of community development. The issue concludes with a series of three cartoons –TFI Chronicles – by Satwik Gade.

This issue would not have been possible without the enthusiasm and support of Yohann Kunders. Yohann’s unwavering belief in the need for a critical examination of TFI got this issue to its feet, while his TFI network enabled us to get in touch with most of our contributors. I would also like to thank Arhan Bezbora, who heads the TFI alumni network, for his prompt and generous help in contacting TFI alumni. We invite all our readers to enrich this issue with your comments and feedback.

Guest Editors:

Mary Ann Chacko is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her dissertation examines the Student Police Cadet (SPC) program implemented in government schools across Kerala, India with a focus on adolescent citizenship and school-community relations. She is an Editor of Cafe Dissensus. Read more of her work on her blog, Chintavishta.

Yohann Kunders is currently a student of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, researching Mind, Language, and Embodied Cognition. He received his Bachelors in Philosophy from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi in 2012 and finished his fellowship with Teach for India, Chennai in May 2014.

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

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