The Woman Who Would Teach Every Kid

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Shaheen Mistri | 42 Founder, Akanksha Foundation, and CEO, Teach for India
Shaheen Mistri | 42
Founder, Akanksha Foundation, and CEO, Teach for India

In the 20 years she has spent as an educator, Shaheen Mistri has discovered that her two favourite words in the English language are ‘why not’. These are words she has found herself repeating endlessly to teachers, parents, principals and bureaucrats across the country. “When I think of the problems that plague us, I can trace them down to people’s inability to think for themselves. That’s what a real education is supposed to give us,” she says.

Mistri, a Parsi from Mumbai, “stumbled into teaching” when she first visited a slum while in college. It was also the moment when she realised that any kind of educational reform had to go beyond books and a classroom in a way in which communities would be involved at every stage.

What resulted are two of Mistri’s most successful ventures: the Akanksha Foundation and the Teach for India (TFI) campaign. Akanksha’s volunteers work with around 4,000 children in Mumbai and Pune at 40 after-school centres and 13 schools. While the after- school centres function like coaching classes, combining academics with value education and providing deeper insight into what the children have already learnt at Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) schools, another Akanksha project partners with these schools to create model systems.

One of the strongest resources for Akanksha’s model schools are the parents themselves. Mistri realised early on that sending children to school was often an economic impracticality for low-income communities and so, apart from inculcating the love for learning among children, she needed to get parents on her team as well. Now, all Akanksha schools include a parent-leader body whose members are nominated by Akanksha volunteers and elected by parents. Each member — even the uneducated ones — brings a unique skill set that becomes invaluable for the smooth functioning of the model school. Show up at any of these centres and you will find fathers doubling up as resident handymen, mothers helping out as ‘shadow teachers’ and traffic controllers free of cost. Further, this body of vocal and enthusiastic adults has proven integral in constantly petitioning the BMC for large-scale changes, like fee revisions and making schools wheelchair-accessible.

TFI, part of the Teach for All international movement, takes Mistri’s vision of change through leadership to an even greater scale — 730 TFI fellows are teaching 23,000 children across five cities in India. These fellows, shortlisted from college graduates and working professionals, are taught to become the ‘CEOs’ of their classrooms. They must micromanage running noses and squabbles, but also look at the bigger picture: how to get civil society to play a larger role in inspiring the 50 children under their care, how to organise funds for field trips, and sometimes, how to get the more promising children out of BMC schools and enrolled in private schools.

Abhik Bhattacharjee, a 27-year-old TFI fellow who first worked with Mistri at a BMC school in Mumbai and is now on his way to set up Teach for Bangladesh, started teaching because he was “sick of armchair conversations about change”. Abhik’s greatest challenge was trying to get apathetic government schoolteachers excited about their job. “If the government had assigned us 50 uniforms, we’d get 30, and 20 would be sold off,” he says. If TFI fellows crossed these teachers, they would be shunted out of school. Fellows recall instances when they would discover cases of children being sexually abused and find that they were unable to report them for fear of losing the child altogether. “Those were the hardest moments, but the idea was to keep at it, until one day you had earned enough trust to be able to affect long-term change,” says Abhik. In the next two years, TFI aims to reach out to 60,000 children across India. Consider joining them. Why not?

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