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Giving Back: Shaheen Mistri | CEO, Teach For India

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Tell us about yourself and your background
Shaheen Mistri Feature

I had a blessed upbringing, living in more than 10 countries – including Greece, Lebanon, America and Indonesia. In 1989, I was enrolled in an undergraduate program at Tufts University. In my second year, during my summer break in Mumbai, I walked into one of the city’s sprawling slums and was greatly moved by the neglected plight of children. I decided at that point that I needed to stay in India and do something about it. I dropped out of Tufts and enrolled in a sociology bachelor’s degree program at St. Xavier’s College, and began educating underprivileged children in a low-income community in Cuffe Parade after college hours. Two months later, I started the Akanksha Foundation (which then got formally registered in 1991) – which pioneered the idea of bringing together available resources: vacant classrooms of mainstream schools, colleges and offices after work hours, the minds and hearts of children eager to learn, and the skills of college students who wanted to teach. The first Akanksha Center enrolled just fifteen children in a single centre and was staffed with college friends as volunteers.

This idea was really easy to replicate and we soon expanded to 60 Akanksha centers. Ten years down the line, we decided to shift this model dramatically. So from being an after-school supplement model, we moved to a partnership with the government and started running full schools for kids. A number of our Akanksha children have grown up, gone to college and made incredible changes to their own lives.

Over the past 25 years, the Akanksha Foundation has worked relentlessly across Mumbai and Pune to equip our children with the education, skills and character they need to lead empowered lives.

Teach For India happened in 2007 – when I realized that something on a much larger scale was required to eradicate educational inequity from our country. Teach For India was an idea that sparked to life in 2006 when I met Wendy Kopp – CEO and Founder of Teach For America – to discuss the feasibility of adapting Teach For America’s model to the Indian context. A few months later, the plan to place the first cohort of Teach For India Fellows was put in place.

Teach For India today is a nationwide movement of the country’s most promising college graduates and young professionals who commit two-years to teaching full-time in low-income & under-resourced schools and go on to become a powerful and ever-growing leadership force of Alumni. Informed by their experiences and insights, these Alumni strive to work from inside and outside the educational system to effect fundamental, long-term changes necessary to ultimately realize educational opportunity for all – ensuring that one day, all children in India will attain an excellent education!

Which cities are you operating from?

We are currently in 7 cities: Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Bangalore.

Why was the organisation set up? / What prompted you / the founders to set up the organisation?

I truly believe that every child deserves an excellent education – an education focused on academic achievement, the right values & mindsets and adequate exposure and access to the world.

My mother started the first school for the hearing impaired in Mumbai when I was very young and we always had children with some form of disability or the other in and out of our home. I grew up watching my mother patiently work with them – this was definitely an influence that shaped my perspective.

Secondly, from a very early age my parents encouraged me to volunteer. So I spent every summer since the age of 12 with kids – all of whom had some kind of special need – which is what made me realize that I loved being with kids.

The third influence was the strong education that I received. I started out in the French school system, subsequently moving on to the British & US school systems. I never went to an Indian school but had the opportunity to experience different forms of education with really good teachers. From a very early age, I realized that I had been very lucky with the education I got. In contrast to that, when we would do a number of trips to India, I would meet children who did not have access to the same opportunities. So the realization that there existed inequity in education came very early on.

It was a combination of all the above that eventually led to what I did.

What is the mission of the organisation?

India has close to 7 million teachers in classrooms. So the idea is not to put a teacher in every classroom who is a Teach For India fellow but to have a stream of leaders across sectors who are focused on equity and education. These people will be part of different sectors and work to make opportunities for a much wider group of children wherever they are.

Our vision at Teach For India is that one day, all children in India attain an excellent education. This lies in stark contrast to the situation today, where every child does not even enroll in school, and less than 10% graduate from school and enter college. Most of those who are in school do not get an excellent education – one that truly maximizes their potential, and gives them opportunities to do what they want to do, and be who they want to be.

Our belief is that the root of systemic change is leadership – in this case, leadership that understands the problem of educational inequity, knows how to change it, and is committed to doing so. Our mission, therefore, is to build a movement of leaders who will eliminate educational inequity.

The Teach For India Fellowship Program operates in a two-pronged impact model, the two pieces being:

(a) The Fellowship Program
(b) The Alumni Movement

Shaheen MistriThe Fellowship is a two-year, full-time teaching program in a municipal or low-income private school. Fellows are recruited from a large pool of applicants, with typically less than 7% of applicants making it through a rigorous selection process. This is followed by an intensive 5-week training program, after which they are placed in a classroom in one of seven cities. In year two of the Fellowship, Fellows further hone their leadership skills by designing and implementing a Be the Change Project that helps them overcome a significant barrier to their students’ learning.

During the two years, Fellows see that their classroom is a microcosm of a range of social issues that affect their students, including health challenges, inadequate nutrition, unemployed parents, and abuse and other child right violations. They are charged with putting their students on a fundamentally different life path despite their circumstances. What starts out as a distant dream when they first see the glaring 2-6 year academic gaps their students’ face, ends up in a relentless pursuit to do whatever they can for their students, leading to dramatic results and heart-warming stories of change.

Countless examples across our classrooms today evidence what we believe an excellent education actually is – the integration of academics, values and mindsets, and exposure and access.

It is our belief that when all of these come together, magic happens, and the power of a child’s potential can be fully unleashed.

The second part of our model is the Alumni Movement. It is this Movement that we believe will bring about the systemic changes needed to get to our vision. After completion of the two-year Fellowship, Teach For India Alumni choose their piece in the puzzle of educational inequity, committing to work in one of the 13 prioritized pathways identified by our Alumni Impact Team. It is our aspiration that our Alumni become politicians, educators, businessmen, entrepreneurs, lawyers, artists – all focused on bringing about educational equity from across various sectors. It is also our aspiration that our Alumni work together, collaborating and building on each other’s strengths and inspiring change beyond Teach For India, such that we can begin to see significant traction in what today is the seemingly intractable challenge of educational equity. As our Alumni grow in their leadership, staying committed to children, it is our belief that they will form a formidable force of people working for that day when India’s potential is truly met.

Are you currently running any special initiatives?

We are currently focusing in our 7 cities but hope to reach schools in semi-rural areas and across different mediums of instruction in the next five years.

How do you fundraise?

We have been so humbled by the support, trust and faith that many corporates, individuals and foundations have placed in us over the past 7 years. We continue to work closely with our supporters and hope to be able to reach more children together.

How can others help?

You can help by spreading awareness about the educational crisis in our country, and spreading the word about our Fellowship program. We accept applications for our program from July 1st – Feb 7th and are looking for outstanding individuals to join our program.

Who are the faces behind the organisation: Founders, Directors, Board Members

You can find this at www.teachforindia.org

Contacting Shaheen Mistri –
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