‘Education is the only way to end poverty’

Central to the tenet that preoccupies Shaheen Mistri’s mindscape — underprivileged children and their education — is the often overlooked need to hear the voices that matter most. “We must understand the importance of working with our children and not just for them, listening sincerely to them and including them in dialogue and discourse,” says the 49-year-old educator.

Ms Mistri has done more than her share of working with, and listening to, children while devoting herself to the cause of equity in education, especially for those on the fringes. In 1991, she seeded what has grown into the Akanksha Foundation, a nonprofit that provides education to about 9,300 children from low-income communities in Mumbai and Pune through a network of public-private partnership schools and after-school centres.

That was the precursor to Teach For India, an initiative that Ms Mistri and five colleagues launched in 2008 to help improve the education ecosystem, and the learning prospects, of marginalised children across the country. Ms Mistri, who heads Teach For India, sees it as a movement, one with a 3,400-strong alumni army serving some 32,000 children across seven cities in India.

Ms Mistri, who lived in five different countries while growing up and returned to India when she was 18, speaks here to Christabelle Noronha about the newly enacted National Education Policy (NEP), schooling in pandemic times and being called an ‘education warrior’. Edited excerpts from the interview:

“If we want creative, free and assertive adults, then we must encourage our children to think freely, to imagine and to do.”

What do you make of the recently unveiled NEP? How far will it go in plugging the many gaps in India’s education system?

NEP’s aspirational definition of an excellent education matches so much of what we believe in. There is the reaffirmation that curricula and assessment must be holistic, that all children must have a foundation of literacy and numeracy, that school culture matters, and that teachers are all important.

However, there are certain facets that NEP seems to have overlooked. In the current climate, we need to be doing more to empower our children with digital knowledge. While 21st-century skills are mentioned in the curriculum section, it isn’t clear which skills will be focused on and how. Furthermore, this new framework continues to see students as the recipients of education and not equal partners in driving their own education and the education of others.

By not defining the unique role that students have in helping us understand, and be a partner in, the purpose, content and delivery of education, NEP has missed a huge learning and impact opportunity. More student voices are needed in governance structures. Given that students have the least power in the system, ensuring they feel safe to raise their voice at every level — from school management committees to participation in policy — is crucial.

We need greater emphasis on creating a talent pipeline for all levels of the education system to ensure high-quality implementation of the policy in innovative ways. We must make child rights and protection more prominent and devote a full section of the report to this.

It is vital to mandate social workers and counsellors in the headcount of schools, while including courses on mental and physical health in all schools. Teacher reform and education, innovation, and the structure of schools are areas that haven’t seen much coverage in NEP but are necessary for the delivery of high-quality education.

This new policy is the third such attempt to define and implement a countrywide education system, and it has to contend with a similar set of infrastructure and resource challenges. Can it do better where the previous two fell short?

Yes, it can do better. Many of the areas the policy focuses on are essential and, with proper implementation, change can be brought about. But if we hope to bring about long-lasting change, we must understand the importance of working with our children and not just for them, listening sincerely to them and including them in dialogue and discourse, especially on issues that affect them and which they are central to.

Gaps in leadership also need to be filled at the earliest and with the utmost care, precision and rigour. If the areas that aren’t covered in NEP are worked upon and included, then there is no reason why it won’t yield better results than the first two such attempts, even if we have similar infrastructure and resource challenges.

The Covid-19 outbreak has brought digital learning into the light like never before. What are the advantages here? What about the many issues that this throws up in a country such as ours?

The Covid-19 pandemic has given us the opportunity to reimagine education and to create a new structure that can be a true equaliser for all. Given that the internet is the only mode through which education will be imparted in the near future, children now have the opportunity to develop skills they perhaps could not have previously: IT skills, coding and learning a language, for example. The current situation is resulting in both educators and children becoming more creative to ensure that learning doesn’t stop.

But given how the majority in India live, I do feel that digital learning throws up issues that far outnumber any advantages. Most of our children do not have access to a stable internet connection or a device that is solely theirs. Additionally, in the most marginalised sections, there are few or no literate family members, parents and siblings often share a phone, and the atmosphere at home is frequently unconducive to learning.

The feeling of connectedness and being a part of something that physical classrooms offer is lost. This is hard to replicate online. Also, with the advent of virtual education, many families are being pressured to buy devices they can’t afford, just so their children may continue to learn. Meanwhile, there are children who are undergoing social and emotional trauma from their experiences with the pandemic and the lockdowns. Lastly, it is hard to measure progress in children from a distance. The challenges our teachers face today are steep.

India needs driven, passionate educators who can enable children to be the best they can be
India needs driven, passionate educators who can enable children to be the best they can be

The Akanksha Foundation, which you set up, has been involved with enabling children from low-income families realise their potential. What’s critical in social uplift programmes of this kind?

In the decades I have spent working in education, what has become abundantly clear is that this is a sector that needs caring adults in the service of children. We need to have driven, passionate people leading classrooms — whether physical or virtual — educators who can motivate, inspire and enable our children to be the best they can be.

If we want creative, free and assertive adults, then we must encourage our children to think freely, to imagine and to do. If we want strong voices, we should work to amplify the views of students. We must — and I cannot stress this enough — engage in a dialogue with our children rather than talk at them. We should include them in issues that affect them and work with them to find solutions.

How has your experience with Teach For India been like? What have you and your team learned from the effort?

Our mission is to build a movement of leaders to eliminate educational inequity. This movement has, with each passing year, grown and become stronger. In order to build this community of leaders, Teach For India has developed a two-part programme for change.

My time with Teach For India has shown me that people care deeply, about one another and about the future of this country and its citizens. While it may be hard to see, things have improved and, with the kind of organisations that are working in the education sector now, things will improve further still. The road ahead may be long but the task isn’t impossible. We will get to the finish line, one step at a time, one child at a time.

How can philanthropies and NGOs best help in improving education outcomes, particularly at the school-going stage?

If we want people to come out of poverty, to have the opportunities and platforms to put themselves and their families on the pathway to a better life, then a good education is a necessity. This is the only way to end generational poverty. Philanthropists and corporations need to continue giving to organisations that are working in the field of education, particularly now when there is a heightened need to put gadgets in the hands of our children as we attempt to bridge the digital divide.

You spent the first 18 years of your life growing up outside India. What sparked your interest in addressing the inequities bedevilling the country’s education system?

I have always believed that a child’s socioeconomic background should not play a role in the kind of education he or she receives. Every single child has the right to a quality education and should be empowered and be given the means to change the life they were born into.

There are so many bright and talented children who never get the chance to explore their full potential; too many in fact, a reality I first observed when I started teaching children while I was in college. Somewhere deep inside me there was the desire to change that.

You have been described as an “education warrior”. How much fighting have you had to do?

Well, I wouldn’t term it as fighting, but yes, it has been a long road, with much joy along the way. The team that I work with across the country, our fellows and alumni, have made this a wonderful journey.

There have been challenges along the way, some harder than others, but then again it isn’t easy to change whole systems that have existed for decades. The fight is tough — and well worth it.

Education can bring about social transformation and every child has the right to a quality education, says Ms Mistri
Education can bring about social transformation and every child has the right to a quality education, says Ms Mistri