Every role, including internships, at Teach for India is a leadership opportunity – Shaheen Mistry, Founder & CEO, Teach for India

Most of us reading this post may still be clueless about what we want to do with our lives. Shaheen Mistry, Founder and CEO for Teach for India is one of the few fortunate ones who discovered her calling (Education for under privileged children) quite early in life and has been pursuing the dream for last 21 years relentlessly.

Listening to her, voice brimming with passion and excitement, its hard to believe her when she tells you that she herself was a shy and nervous child growing up who could never walk upto strangers and ask for a favor. From there to dreaming about impacting lives of 320 Million children in India – the journey has been nothing short of a dream. Read on…

1. You are one of the fortunate ones who discovered her calling early in life (at the age of 12 in Indonesia?) and have pursued it for last 30 years. Have there been moments of self doubt about the goal or the path you have chosen? If yes, what has helped you overcome these doubts?

There has never really been any doubt about the mission that I have chosen. Because there is so much evidence you see when you work with the kids on how quality education can be the game changer.

I do have moments of doubt about my own ability to do justice to the cause. We are trying to solve a large complex problem of reaching every child in India and I, from time to time, wonder if I can do everything or if I should be doing things differently.

What helps in these moments of self doubt is to look around and drive inspiration from small things. I see my team members solving challenges every day and these little success stories inspire. I log into facebook and there are so many narratives, photos, anecdotes from classrooms posted by our fellows which lift the mood up and reinforce the belief that what we are doing is making a difference.

2. During your college days (St. Xaviers, Mumbai), what kind of a student were you? Was your primary focus on studies or were you actively involved in extra-curricular activities too?

I was never an exceptional student but I was hard working and diligent. I always did my homework on time because I used to rationalize that eventually I have to do it, so why not do it now. I was very shy, nervous kid who did not want to be seen doing wrong things and hence I always focused on studies. I also believe that I had a blessed childhood studying in different foreign countries that did not emphasize on rote learning – education was holistic and fun.

3. You went for a very specific Masters Program (Educational project planning for developing countries at University of Manchester) after you founded Akanksha. What prompted you to seek a formal degree in the field and how much did it help?

It was more of you just had to get a Masters degree because that was the norm and the expectation from the family and I did not really question it.

However, it was helpful because I was the youngest in the class which was filled with middle age people who had lot of different experiences to share that I learned  from.

Personally getting away from Akanksha for a year and coming back to it after the program helped me revalidate my belief that it was something I really wanted to do.

4. There appears to be an evolution in your thought process when you moved on from Akanksha (after-school centres) to Teach for India (developing leaders in field of Education) while the earlier plan as per this Outlook article in year 2000 was to set up a Residential college. What led to this change in approach?

Change in the direction happened at Akanksha itself. Every year at Akanksha was a painful reminder of how much more needed to be done before we could do justice to our own expectations of the quality of life we wanted the children to enjoy. For example, I used to wonder if any of the kids studying at Akanksha, would ever get to go to the same college or university that I did and answer was no.

We realised that we needed to do much more that what we were doing at Akanksha and the after school 2-3 hours a day model was not going to help us meet our own goals and we moved to ‘running schools’ model where we get to spend 8 hours a day with a child and can have a bigger and holistic impact and this model is going to be the future of Akanksha.

Personally the reason to move away from Akanksha was the belief that for an organization to grow, the founder should not be in the driving seat always and should make way for the 2nd rung of leadership – that is the true test of the team that you have built and the values that you have nurtured.

Coming to Teach for India, while working at Akanksha, my aspirations grew and vision became larger where I wanted to reach to every child in the country. Other than Akanksha, I came across a few more great NGOs which were doing excellent work in Education sector but in pockets. I was not sure if this model could scale and impact every needy child.

I came to believe that problem of Education is problem of lack of leadership. And if we can develop individuals through our fellowship program who are committed to solving the problem of Education and who would become leaders in different professional spheres after fellowship experience; be it Politics, Media, Corporate; we have a much better shot at solving the problem. That is how Teach for India came into existence.

5. Teach for India has been modeled after Teach for America program. What key differences have you found that exist between the two because of different Socio-economic conditions prevalent in two countries?

Now 25 countries are part of Teach for Network and in every country the program is customised as per local needs and set up. However, there are a few founding principles such as working for marginalised low income children, fellowship being a 2 years program, extensive support and training to our fellows that all 25 countries have agreed upon.

In India, some of the innovative aspects that are different than Teach for America program are – the extensive community focus and engagement and ‘Be The Change’ project that our fellows undertake in 2nd year of their fellowship. In this project, they take up an initiative in addition to their regular classroom teaching, which will have a wider impact on school. It can be to set up a library, design a program for community engagement etc.

Other key difference is that while in US, almost all the fellows are recent graduates from universities, in India 50-60% of our fellows come from corporate sector.

6. I have friends who applied for Teach For India fellowships, got selected but later joined ‘safer’ career options (one went to a B-School and another took up an i-Banking job) because of societal pressure. Do some of these aspiring fellows reach out to you for counseling and what do you advise them?

We don’t really try to influence them in joining the fellowship as we believe eventually it has to be their call and not ours. What we do is speak a lot with them and provide them with as much information as we can about what this program is or is not about.

Very often we connect them with current fellows who were in similar positions themselves a year or two ago and can answer these aspiring fellows’ queries from their own first hand experience.

For example, recently at IIT Bombay a student approached me and told me how he wanted to pursue IAS and wanted to know if the fellowship experience would help him get there. Instead of saying “Oh yes, it will”, I connected him to a fellow who himself wants to pursue IAS after fellowship so he can share his first hand experience.

Different students have different concerns or constraints; the key is to identify that for a particular student and address that. It could be making them speak to our Board members, or provide them with Media kits on the fellowship which they can show to their parents to educate them. I, myself, have spoken to number of parents over the years. But yes, it does take a level of courage and self belief for one to sign up for the fellowship.

7. Two batches of fellows (~200) have already graduated and have landed with some really remarkable career options with many joining world’s leading B-schools such as Harvard, Kellogs etc. Do you foresee a risk where more aspiring fellows would want to get into fellowship because of the glamor associated with it and not necessarily because they feel strongly about the cause?

Yes, I think the risk exists and we need to make sure that our selection process is stringent enough to weed out such candidates.

I don’t think it’s wrong for it to be one of the reasons for someone to join fellowship but this can not be the primary motive. The core reason has to be the passion and commitment to the cause of Education. Because if the passion is not there, the fellow would not be able to survive into the program for 2 years because only passion can sail you through the challenges you would encounter during fellowship. And we give this message loud and clear in all the fellowship recruitment drives to ensure we get the right candidates.

8. After being selected, the fellows go and teach in Govt and low income private schools for 2 years. How receptive the community, the existing teachers, principal etc. have been of these ‘outsider’ fellows?

While there have been couple of examples of strong resistance that we faced in two schools that we eventually had to pull our fellows out of; by and large our experience has been very positive.

When we started the program, we went in with lot of negative bias, but have found more acceptance than we had first imagined. Some of the schools have been extremely welcoming and supportive.

A lot of it also depends on the fellow himself/herself. Learning to adapt to this new environment, building relationships with people who have a very different thought process and come from starkly different  backgrounds, influencing change while still being respectful, are great leadership moments and learning experiences for every fellow. We also provide extensive training, mentoring and support to the fellows (there is an experienced Program Manager for every 17 fellows who acts as a coach and mentor and is reachable 24 hours)

9.  Given the magnitude of the problem you are after (reaching out to 320 million students in India), you envisage Teach For India fellow alumni to play a critical role. Is there a concrete action plan developed around how would you keep them engaged and/or how would they contribute?

Oh, absolutely! Everything we do at Teach for India is centred around our alumni because that is the core idea. To develop people who would take up leadership roles in different spheres of life once they graduate from fellowship program.

We have well defined action plan for our alumni on how they would contribute to Education sector. We define priorities, chart out career paths, connect them with people to walk on the path, and provide mentoring all along. And we are seeing the impact.

At the time of joining, ~5% of our fellows indicate willingness to continue in Education sector but 2 years later after having gone through the fellowship experience, ~60% stay into the education sector.

Only other day I received an email from a fellowship alumnus who is now at Kellogs on how he has been invited to be on the Board of Chicago Charter School – a network of low income schools of marginalised kids in Chicago. This is an example of how our fellows continue to contribute to the cause of Education even after their stint at Teach For India is over. There is another alumnus who has started a chain of schools and plans to have 100 schools running in next 5 years.

10. Based on regular interactions between Teach for India and Internshala, it appears your organization gives lot of importance to internships. What is the primary objective? To get a meaningful project done in a cost effective manner or to excite a bunch of young students about Teach for India to prepare a funnel of future fellows?

I think both the objectives are true. Given there is always so much to do, we are always short of staff and interns fill that gap. At Teach for India, we believe every role is a leadership opportunity and even if an intern does a good project and does not join us as fellow later on, that is still a great value add for us.

It also helps us to expose young students to Teach for India early in their academic life so that they can develop an understanding of the mission, the work culture etc. and may consider joining us as fellows once they graduate or later in their lives. I do not have statistics handy on how many interns have joined us as fellows upon completion of studies but that would be a great metric to  look at.

11. Finally, from your 21 years long journey in the world of social entrepreneurship and education for underprivileged kids, if there is one principle or individual trait that you believe has stood the test of time and you would like to share with students; it would be?

Focus on what you can do and not on what others can or can’t. At Teach for India, we often use a phrase, ‘Holding up the mirror’ which is about taking personal responsibility. There would always be things that would not be right, people who would not do what is right, luck might not be in your favour etc. but if you reflect upon what is it that you can do and take personal responsibility of doing that rather than bemoaning things that are beyond your control – that is what makes the world a much better place.

To know more about Teach for India and its fellowship program, visit www.teachforindia.org. If you would like to do an internship with Teach for India, apply here and here (15th October 2012 is last date to apply).

Are you an employer looking for interns? Hire interns through Internshala; it’s free and hassle-free.

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