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Teach For India Tackles Mumbai's Slums

How the Teach for America model is being put to use in India. Skinny arms stretched high-59 eager hands rose...


How the Teach for America model is being put to use in India.
Skinny arms stretched high-59 eager hands rose above 60 equally eager faces. Even as one hand seemed about to be clipped by a fan circling overhead, students covered their mouths to remind themselves not to shout out the answer before being called upon.

Save the whir of the fans, silence prevailed, but this did not prevent Umer Gauss Khan from jumping a bit or Afrin Akram from standing on the very tips of her toes, adding a few extra inches to her petite frame.

So far, this second grade class in the Govandi neighborhood, a slum near Mumbai, India had correctly placed three numbers-1, 11, and 21-in ascending order.

The question they were all so eager to answer: Which number comes next-111, 101, or 99?

The students sat three to an old-fashioned bench desk and each wore a dusty, white uniform and brown tie bearing the initials of their private English school: Shri Geeta Vikas Mandal, where tuition is about $4 per child per month. Most of the families who send their children here cannot afford even the meager fees and the school depends on charitable support to cover the difference. The lack of funds, however, has clearly not dampened these students' appetite for learning and may be in large part due to the man standing at the front of the room and the woman giving extra attention to a boy in the back.

This is the classroom of Rahul Ranjan and Iffat Khan, two of the first to heed the call of Teach For India, a new program that trains and places recent college graduates and young professionals in slum-area schools in Mumbai and Pune. Last July, the non-profit began operating in low-income private and government-run schools. The program received 2,000 applications for its first round of 87 spots. For 2010, 3,800 applicants competed for 150 openings.

TFI bases its teacher training on the Teach for America model and is a member of the Teach For All network, which connects them with similar programs around the world. Despite these international connections, the program is the lone option in India for high-achieving young people who want to teach for two years.

In the US, the growing popularity of programs like Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows, along with the growth of the charter school movement, has made this type of service more common amongst middle class American youth. Last year, for instance, TFA fielded 46,000 applications for their 2010 corps.

This is not the case in India. "Teaching is really the least aspirational thing you can do today as a bright young person," according to TFI's founder and CEO, Shaheen Mistri. "Flipping that, getting the best people to actually want to do this and associating teaching with leadership, is a very different and new mindset in India."

Part of the problem is money, admits Mistri. Teachers in India make vastly less than an engineer or businessman might make. To make up for this, TFI pays a portion of each fellow's salary to help make it more attractive. The school pays a quarter of Ranjan's salary of 15,000 rupees or the equivalent of $326 a month-with TFI making up the rest to get him closer to what a fully certified government teacher would make after a few years in the classroom.

For middle class youth here, many of whom have college loans and are also expected to contribute to their family's welfare, this remains a miniscule amount. Ranjan, who stood in front of his fifty-nine neatly uniformed eight-year-olds wearing jeans and a blue-collared shirt, said money was a main reason his family refused to support his decision to teach.

"They don't think very highly of this," said Ranjan, who, prior to teaching, worked as a business analyst and had just been lured to the US with promises of a $5,000 a month salary. He turned it down to teach second grade."Quitting business and going into this-socially, it's not acceptable."

Perhaps because of this social norm, when asked what appealed to him about joining TFI, Ranjan did not gush about the need to save India's poor children. "I don't see the TFI fellowship as teaching experience for me," he said. "For me, this is more of a leadership experience."

While Mistri does not expect many of the fellows to stay in the classroom, she does hope they will continue to work on fixing educational issues. "Very few of them coming into the program thought they wanted to be in education long term and now its as high as 70 to 75 percent who feel that they want to stay in the sector in one form or another."

The crisis is nothing if not enormous in its scope. Last year's UNESCO report noted that India was home to the largest illiterate population in the world. And though enrollment is as high as 97 percent in most Indian states, attendance at school is closer to 70 percent according to the Annual Status of Education Report conducted each year by Pratham, an Indian education NGO that covers every state and a majority of districts in the country.

The other big issue is the quality of education available in most of the schools that poor children are forced to attend.

The students in Ranjan's class started the year by barely being able to recognize English letters, even though the school they are attending specializes in teaching English. In India, the language is used not only in higher education but also to conduct business, among other things. Ranjan estimates that fewer than 50 percent of his students would continue to grade 10 if they are not taught by TFI fellows. Part of TFI's mission is to stay with the same students for the duration of their schooling by leapfrogging the placement of its fellows to cover students as they progress from grade to grade.

Back in the classroom, the wrong answer had been given in the ascending numbers problem: 101 instead of 99.

"One answer has been given," said Ranjan. "Remember the rule: does anyone see a two-digit number?"

The next student to be called on gave the right answer: 99. Ranjan allowed that this was correct but wanted to know why. He told his students to think hard and look closely at the board. They did, nearly burning a hole through the wall with the intensity of their stares.

Umer finally got his chance.

"101 has three numbers and 99 has two," he said.

"Almost," Ranjan told him. "That's good thinking, but I'm looking for a specific term."

"101 has three digits," answered a girl in the back row.

"Yes!" said Ranjan to the grinning girl as the class turned its attention back to the board and waited for the next question.

"Every year, India produces 400,000 engineers," Ranjan later explained. "Out of that, hardly 1,000 belong to the underprivileged category because the primary education system in India is not strong enough for them to be able to climb that ladder."

In the meantime, Ranjan's 59 students can go home tonight having climbed one additional rung on a very long ladder.

Lillian Mongeau is a Teach for America alumna who taught seventh grade English on the Texas-Mexico border. She is now a student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, where she reports on education in Oakland at She recently traveled to Mumbai, India, to report on education.

Photos courtesy of Mongeau.

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