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My journey from TFI to 3.2.1

By Gaurav Singh

Sometime around the Dushera vacation in the Autumn of 2008, I was lying sick from food poisoning on a friend’s sofa in Hyderabad. I asked him if he had anything I could read – I need to read to fall asleep – and he gave me the previous day’s newspaper. Of course, the first page was full of terrorism, murder, destruction and despair – the world is ending. But the second page contained the first advert that Teach for India had ever taken out, but in all honesty I didn’t even see the whole ad, I didn’t see the ‘Teach’ part until much later. What struck me was the ‘For India’ part. Within 60 seconds I knew I was going to quit my job and join this organization.

My two years on the program were very different experiences. In my first year, I was in an affordable private school in Pune and in my second year I was in a government school in Mumbai. At my first school, I was initially told I was going to have about 25 kids, but I ended up having close to 50. I was teaching second grade and my youngest kid was 6 and my oldest kid was 14.  In that first year, my learning revolved around the question of: what does it take to teach? What does it take to understand children? What does it mean to invest individual children or adults in a vision? How do you make it come alive?  I also became painfully aware of a lot of the technical aspects that I just did not know, related to learning but also related to the basics around behavior management structures and discipline which were impacting my students’ learning.  I did a lot of independent discovery, trying to figure it all out by reading about pedagogy as much as I could and then breaking things down into manageable chunks.

I transferred schools in my second year specifically so that I could work on a project we were doing with the Mumbai Municipal Corporation. In some ways, I should have seen two very different systems at work, but the similarities were greater than the differences as they are systems struggling with the same issues.

My two year journey with Teach for India ended with the knowledge that change was possible. My students made some incredible gains; I was amazed, they were amazed, and their parents were amazed by their academic progress in English and Maths, but also by their confidence, their team work, and more significantly, their empathy and love of learning.  It gave me a firm underlying belief in the fact that change is possible.

One of my favorite moments, which I think encapsulates the special journey I went on with the kids, actually happened after I had left the fellowship and was in the US. I received a message from the then teacher of my former Pune class room with a wonderful photo. A TFI led education conference called InspirED was happening and the students from my first class had been asked to present on a topic because the children were doing really well and the students from my 2nd year class room were also called to present. So they were both there, students from different cities with different teachers and there to present on different topics. In the break, the children started chatting and they discovered that they were taught by the same teacher.  They immediately found someone to click a picture and send it to me all the way across the world. Seeing some of those pieces coming together as I ended my journey was very special.

So in my second year I had to begin deciding what I was going to do next, post-fellowship. I knew I wanted to be in the education sector.

I wanted to have an impact on the massive problem of educational inequity in our country in a meaningful, tangible, real way. If you look carefully at the education sector, you begin to realize it is far from being one problem. There are multiple problems in our sector: we need to support our teachers better, we need to train our teachers better, we need to make sure that the profession is well respected and well paid,  we need to make sure that children are coming into school healthy and cared for, we need to make sure that our curriculum is good enough, that we have ways of understanding which children are learning and which are not, how we should support them to learn, and how we support them differently in the early years. All this, and so much more, needs to be done at the massive scale of our country.  If you get into the numbers or into defining the problem it can be paralyzing. The sheer scale can make you feel incapable of being able to do something about it.

As I was trying to find a root to these problems, one of the things I felt was: Yes, it’s a curriculum problem.  Yes, it is a teacher training problem. Yes, it is a support problem. Yes, it is a funding problem. But having worked in particular with disadvantaged children, what I realized was that it was fundamentally a belief problem.  For the vast majority of our kids, who come from backgrounds of either urban or rural poverty, there are very few adults around them who believe they can learn and that they can amount to anything great. Decade after decade of research has proven that one of the best indicators of a child’s likely achievement is the belief that the adults around the child have in the child’s potential. This concept struck me deeply. It is fundamentally the absence of belief in our education system, and absence of belief in some of our most disadvantaged children that holds them and us back.

When at the end of the teaching year, the children displayed what they had learnt, there was a lot of pride and joy but also a lot of surprise – from all levels of society – and this made angry. The surprise took the nature of ‘Wow, look at these kids!’ In both cities, I faced the default expectation: ‘These kids will not amount to anything,’ or ‘These kids will not be able to do it.’ So when students from these circumstances do achieve, it causes a great deal of shock.  The point is, when the son of a gardener gets into IIT, we put it on the front page of the newspaper, but when the son of a doctor gets into IIT, we don’t. Surely this tells us, we have very different expectations of our kids and this is not acceptable.

So I wanted to set up belief centers…

Setting up a school was certainly not an easy task. Working out how to do it, getting funding, travelling round to research other school models, negotiating with the government to get space, putting together a team, setting up a trust, getting legal registrations etc were some of the hardest tasks I had ever undertaken but I was driven by the knowledge that we needed to show people what the kids are capable of. But it certainly wasn’t easy.

In the last week before the June 16th opening date, we still didn’t have a building.  We were battling all kinds of rumours in the community that we were a fake school and we wouldn’t open on the day when every school in the city was opening.  24 hours before we were due to open we still didn’t have a building. From the first interaction with the Government until this point, it had been over one and a half years.  I sent the team out to at least find a ground that we could call the parents to and at least do something in, because if we did not do something they would think we were not a legitimate school and it would all fall apart.  I went straight to the office of the Municipal Corporation where I literally begged them, ‘It has been more than 1 and a half  years. You need to give us a room to start.’ Finally, about 16 hours before we were due to open, we got the permission.  We were given one room. We sprinted there in the evening to set up the basics, but it was in a really bad shape.  We cleaned it up as best we could and told each other we would all come early the next morning to spruce it up for the starting day.

So we arrived first thing the next morning and it is only then we realized that our school building was on top of Mumbai’s biggest fish market. Early in the morning the fish market is at its full pitch and the stench is overpowering.  We pretty much carried some of our teachers in as they were doubled over wrenching from the smell. But once we got upstairs, we took stock of our situation. We realized, okay this is what it is: we have our vision, mission, and idea, now we have a room. It is on top of a fish market, but its fine. We still need to get the money and we shall get the other things in place, but we have something to start with.

Of course, this wasn’t the end of the struggle. In fact, many of our biggest challenges were just beginning. The first few weeks were really tough because out of the 70 kids we had on roll, about 10 to 12 kids dropped out in just the first week itself. Their parents had managed to get them into the neighboring affordable private school, their reasoning being that we were a government school and so we couldn’t be good. We of course tried to convince them that this wasn’t true, but we had no proof at that point.

So in that first year, we tried to give the kids the best we possibly could; we worked our hardest. I ensured that a lot of the team’s time was spent reading, researching, building, bringing best practices, and contextualizing them. We were trying to mix all our passion with all our research and make those things come alive for the kids everyday in class with a whole lot of joy mixed in. And that’s when it started to come together on the ground.

Word of mouth started spreading very quickly that something special was happening in the school. At first, word was mostly spread by the kids themselves because they were taking home the behaviors they were learning in school. Kids would go back home, to often chaotic households, and arrange their slippers nicely and make sure everyone else’s slippers were arranged properly. They started taking care of their surroundings, even admonishing parents if they threw something on the floor.  When children learnt how to wash their hands, they began making sure that everybody in their house washed their hands as well. The parents were pleasantly surprised by these behaviours and they would come and tell us these stories with delighted disbelief at how quickly the child was changing.

After around 2-3 months, the dramatic learning growth became apparent.  We started to receive frequent visits from parents coming to us and demanding to know how it was that their child who had only been in this school for about three months could know more than their older child who had been in school for three – four years? We spent a great deal of time building relationships with the parents and the community, engaging them in our philosophy and explaining how and why we were different.

Then because of those relationships and the word of mouth about the improvements in the kids, our numbers started going up and so we ended our first year with a hundred and twenty kids on roll which was our target number for each batch. We almost doubled our numbers within the course of the year, which we saw as a validation of what we were doing. Parents obviously liked what they were seeing. However, for our team, our confidence grew leaps and bounds as we were seeing the impact of what we were doing come alive and seeing firsthand the changes in the kids.

The word of mouth continued to spread beyond the kids and the community. In that first year, we had a lot of people coming in to visit the school, close to 500, and we didn’t even have a website or any formal way of sending invites. They just arrived.

Over the next year and a half we have continued to learn and grow, literally as well as figuratively. As we grow by a cohort each year we are now triple the number of staff and students we had in the first year which of course has presented its own challenges and opportunities.

Our first step at broadening our reach beyond the school has been to set up our teacher training initiative. We received a great deal of interest from a variety of parties, seeking to learn with us and so our “Sustained Mastery Project” was born. Through it we are seeking to figure out how we can share some of the things we have researched, discovered, and created over these early years within the larger education system. Our goal will always be to get people to the point of mastery where they can continue to implement sustainably without our help.I believe there are lots of teacher in our school system who have the hunger and desire to learn but might not have had the support, or bandwidth or a combination of both  to do all the research that we do, might not have bandwidth to do all the contextualizing that we do. So we can create it and bring it to them through our training.

In this way the idea for our school has evolved into the concept of our 3.2.1 school as an innovation hub – where ideas are generated, where talent comes in and where creation happens. Through different platforms and products such as the teacher training we will be able to spread the impact of our work to the wider education system. This might be our curriculum, our assessments, teacher training in the use of technology – anything we feel has been impactful and would make a difference in all schools.

So this is where we are – partway through the third year of our school, and into the 6th year of my personal journey in the field of education.

Author:

Gaurav Singh, the Founder of 3.2.1 Education Foundation and the 3.2.1 school is an engineer by training, who worked for Accenture before becoming a fellow in the first batch of Teach for India. He then participated in the prestigious Fisher Fellowship from the KIPP Charter Network in the US to learn best practices in school leadership. In 2013, for his work with 3.2.1 he was awarded the prestigious Echoing Green and Ashoka fellowships. He can be reached at gaurav.singh@321-schools.org

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

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