This post was written soon after the first year of my Teach For India Fellowship. A collection of my memoirs is filed here.
Joining the Fellowship: a life choice, not a career choice
Usually in making life choices, we find money an easier alternative to invest than years of youth. And degrees and paychecks an easier alternative to achieve than skills, mindsets, and personal growth. But when it’s about spending two years with Teach For India, I promise, you may sit and consider once again.
June 14, 2014 marked one year of my time with Teach For India. One year before that, we, as fresh Fellows, were given this line which I’ve realized now is the most fundamental law of leadership: “Be the producer of your experiences, not a consumer.” This single statement has put my life on a different path ever since, and will continue to inspire me and my actions for the rest of my life.
Once while discussing my career, my mother expressed the wish that since I have got the best of education and facilities all through my student life, it would just be logical that I get settled into a successful, fulfilling (read, conventional) career as soon as possible. My reply was, and remains, “Since I got the best education and facilities all through my student life, I should be the one taking risks and feeling free to do unconventional things to change the world. If even those who can afford to take risks don’t take them, we are committing the crime of letting the world be.”
I do not know what “risks” I actually meant when I said that. Nor do I know the possible consequences of such daredevil notions of mine in a middle-class culture that works on the “safety first” approach. But for now, I definitely believe in what I said. My mother agreed. Ever since graduating in 2013, I know I have spent the last year preparing myself for the risks I do not know of yet. Preparing, in the most wonderful ways possible.
As time goes by, I get more certain than ever, that the Teach For India Fellowship is where you must apply: for personal happiness, for service to society, for opportunities galore, for independence at work, for a new life — these two years set you up for the life of a leader and an entrepreneur, who can lead himself out through anything, succeed, and do wonders. Whichever stage of life you’re at, whatever your apprehensions are, investing a couple of years in yourself instead of in a degree or some fat paychecks, may just end up giving you a fundamentally different sixty years to follow.
In a developing country like India, career choices work funnily. There are those, who are understandably in dire need of a decent job, to support their family better. Then, there are those, who can financially afford to take risks, but kill their dreams to be able to follow the middle-class urge of going “by the convention”, to be “safe” in life. Lastly, there are those, who can financially afford risks, do not join a conventional job for reasons such as safety and job security, but do so, because they are embarrassed; they fear the jeers of their relatives and neighbours.
If you lie in the last category, I must tell you, you are doing yourself — and the society that brought you up — a great disservice. A heartfelt advice: do what you want to, but delay it a bit; do spend some years of your twenties learning and growing, as a person. Not as a professional working for a certain boss who wants you to learn in a certain way so that you can do things in a certain way to achieve a certain goal. Travel, meet people, read, join Fellowships, do volunteer work, begin a start-up, help a start-up flourish, write a book… please do take risks if you can afford taking them. These risks are an investment to make you more valuable to yourself and the world, some years later. Read the first line of this post again, and it may make more sense now.
I have never actually dreaded writing about something as I do about this topic. The work that we do at Teach For India, the people and culture that we have, and the inexplicable variety of emotions that we go to bed with every day, is too much to explain in words, and I dread whether I will be able to do justice to it through writing. I do not want to give incomplete messages about things dearest to me, and hence I have preferred giving no message at all. For one whole year.
Sometimes I tried to give the message to people I trusted, and I was accused of being a “talkative salesman”, who has been “brainwashed” and “illusioned” by a “clever”, “selfish” organization. I realized later this is bound to happen when you suddenly start talking so very dearly and religiously about something you know for less than a year. But then, those who know me well know it’s tough to throw me into any mode of uncontrolled fantasy. I had to try writing this today. For myself. For the hundreds of other people who I work with, who feel the same way as I do about this place, who have been here for far more than a year, and still feel the same sentiments.
It was the night of March 2, 2013, few hours before my Assessment Centre day (this is where we face the final hurdle of the rigorous selection process). I wasn’t still too sure of joining if I were to be selected. If at all I joined, it would be for doing some social good and experiencing something unconventional. However, a day later, after facing a tough day and one of the longest (but in retrospect, one of the calmest) interviews in our selection history, I knew I was going to come here and ignore it even if the IIMs selected me in the coming weeks. Maybe it was just the happiness and passion this place reflected.
Ten days later, as I received the call that I had been selected, I quickly discarded the other options available to me: placements, expanding the venture I’d devoted four years to, and IIMs. This was the beginning of a journey that altered the course of my life.
At the Fellowship, these were people who were the best 6–7% of the thousands who applied. These were people, all from different colleges and workplaces, with skills and mindsets as similar to mine as they were different. I learned, and let others learn from me. I made friends who I could connect with far more than I had connected with anyone else. These were people who had dared to spend two years of their life differently. We all were here because of a certain set of shared traits despite all that was different within us: seva, selflessness, eagerness to learn, achieve, and lead. These particular shared values, I promise, make you make friends who you connect with far more than usual.
The First Year
In my first year, I taught 52 second-grade kids in a municipal school (the children are in third grade now). They didn’t know any English initially, and scored zeroes in their beginning-of-year assessments conducted by us. They sincerely thought an instruction to sit down was an instruction for them to stare back with mouths wide open. And then, twelve weeks into teaching:
We don’t believe in giving for the sake of giving. These children, who we often call underprivileged, can actually be as privileged as we treat them to be: we are their privilege. If we teach, we resolve to give them excellent education, and nothing less suffices. An excellent education is a long-term plan, of holistic learning, that moves the kids towards vision and goals, instead of teaching excellent-but-random things every day.
An excellent education is much beyond strong academics. It means to us giving kids exposure and access to the world outside:
An excellent education means to us imparting values and mindsets that will shape the character of these children amidst adverse circumstances that they have to fight every day at home and in streets:
What Teach For India means to me need not be something what it would mean for you if you became a Fellow, and should not be something in hope of which you would apply for the Fellowship. The Fellowship means different things for everyone, and besides being part of a huge team eliminating educational inequity one child at a time, every Fellow is also leading themself their own way to the life and career they want: they know they need to learn in order to create an impact in the future. Some may not agree with everything I say in this post, because of the experiences they had and the experiences they created for themselves. Fundamentally, we all teach in classrooms. Broadly, we build leaders in ourselves. The Teaching As Leadership framework may be just an analogy for some, but it means the world in our context.
No, teaching isn’t a six-hour job. The best teachers do the same things that the best leaders do, we believe. We plan our days and units purposefully for hours, we try to execute effectively, we invest stakeholders, we continuously increase our effectiveness, we assess our strengths and weaknesses, we improve, we face challenges, we persevere: through two years, we learn to do everything a quality leader does.
All Fellows fundamentally do similar things, but have different aspirations. There is an art to this. We learn to form our vision and goals in advance, so that we are able to extract different things from the same activities we indulge in every day. We learn to extract whatever matters to our classroom, our own career, and our personal growth. This is what I mean when I say that we are all leading ourselves in our own ways to the lives we want.
In addition to the classroom, which in itself is a full-time task, we also often choose to volunteer in available opportunities at the organization, to grow in additional skills, such as the numerous Fellow Committees, conducting trainings, and community projects.
It was November and I had taught my kids the value of compassion. One day that week, I punished some children by not allowing them to eat their lunch for five minutes into the lunch break. They knew clearly they would face exactly this if they didn’t behave well, and this was a choice they made. Kajal came up to me, with her example of compassion: “Why don’t you let them eat? Don’t they have a stomach?”
Try doing something extremely tough, and you may be able to do it some day. Teach a kid that thing, and not only will you understand how to do it lifelong, but also why to do it. These kids facilitate our learning of what should be the core values of our life, the values which adulthood made us forget. We teach kids those values, with the intention to preach; our kids teach them back to us so that we improve. Today, I understand some values, most specifically respect, compassion, and gratitude, in totally different ways than how I used to understand these same values a year back.
Every organization and company has core values, that often get lost in formalities and orientation sessions. In our case, our core values are similar to what we teach our children. When we teach our kids, we want to model those values to them. Two years of doing this are more than enough to change our own life values — through children. These values, in turn, build the culture of how staff interacts at Teach For India, which makes it such a pleasing place to work at.
The organization is very serious about how every Fellow develops as a leader through the two years. Most workplaces are serious about how you develop: the catch is, the corporate needs you to develop as a professional who can do things the way they want. A leader, however, is a person first before he is a professional. And this is where the difference lies. Here, the conscious focus on each individual’s own growth as a human being is flattering; it makes you feel there’s someone at work who cares about you as a person.
It’s not that I have had a year full of happy days. Sadness and frustration is a common thing in the life of a sincere teacher and a leader. In October, I was shouted at in front of kids, for days in a row, and they were the worst and most challenging six weeks of my life. Week after week, the insane strength of the class frustrated me as I was lost more in behaviour management than in teaching. The 11-year-old girl who wouldn’t sit with anyone because it made her want to beat them up, refused to learn. The boy who wanted to sit with everyone so that he could keep hitting them, refused to listen. The parent who had never shown up in eight months had suddenly come, only to tell me how another child had hit her daughter with an eraser.
I went to bed, sometimes tense and irritated. Then, there were days when I woke up hopelessly but went to bed delighted. From the “being-shouted-at” experience, I had created an opportunity of my own: I was doing a year-long, city-wide project to ensure it doesn’t happen to any other Fellow from next year onwards. The girl had smiled at me and was trying to answer in the class. The boy had promised he would stop fighting and had opened his copy to write. The parent who showed up once in eight months to make an unreasonable complaint, had started showing up to discuss her daughter’s extra classes.
These children need you. Are you listening?
Your heart is calling. It needs the real you to come alive. Are you listening?