The first thing you notice about Anoushkha Anand, 22, is a softness that immediately connects with the other, especially when she is with children. Her eyes sparkle and her smile dazzles as she speaks about her work as a Teach for India (TFI) Fellow.
Do not be fooled. Underneath the softness lies a steely strength that grows every day, as she realizes how much of a difference she is making. She is at the end of her two-year contract with TFI, a period during which she has come up against poverty, neglect, and indifference on a grand scale. As a Fellow, she is committed to attaining educational equity for Indian children. At times, the enormity of the task brings her to tears, but she keeps her focus regardless: it is not about her, but about the children. So, she fights her daily battle: she faces the long drive to and from the school, the difficult conditions, and hours and hours of meticulous preparation.
Together with Apoorva (Anoushka’s sister and my guardian angel in this trip), I visited the school and sat in her classroom. Even before we had fully entered the courtyard, it was obvious that her efforts are paying off: we were immediately surrounded by bright, mischievous, happy third graders, who looked at us as if royalty had arrived; each and every single one of them greeted us with an enthusiastic “Hi Didi”, shook hands, gave us the high five, as well as their own version of a secret handshake. Some of them hugged us, others took us by the hand and led us up the stairs.
We were a big novelty, and knowing from experience how hard it is to maintain children’s attention, I felt guilty about bringing such disruption into the classroom. Anoushkha, however, appears unphased; she lets the initial effervescence run its course for a few minutes, then she slowly, quietly encourages them to sit down so they can begin the lesson. A magic wand could not have been more effective; the children still throw side glances at the two strangers sitting at the back, but get ready to work.
This is the RF period, i.e. Reading Fluency (in English). I remember that these children get exposed to at least three languages: Telugu, their local language; Hindi, the national language; and English, as the lingua franca that connects 1.3 billion people who collectively speak some 200 languages. RF involves learning how consonant groups and vowels combine to create word-like sounds, and frankly I cannot imagine a more boring (however necessary) subject. With Anoushkha, however, the exercise is turned into a game that has the children working in groups, putting together the letters and mimicking the sounds using their arms. In no time, the children are happily at work, building words, helping each other, laughing…. I have to refrain the urge to join in!
“One of the girls in my 3rd grade class is 12; her mother forced her to drop out of school to take care of her younger brother; now that she is back, I want to make sure that she gets back on track and feels part of this family.” comments the young teacher.
As the children worked, I explored the classroom walls, a poignant geography of the teacher’s values, and her efforts to develop heart as well as mind. In the words of her supervisor:
“You simply cannot miss the joy in her classroom (…) Her kids think about being kind and honest all the time. Anoushka has a rotating leadership structure and every kid is highly invested and eager to do the assigned duties. The Gratitude Corner, where the kids think about themselves, what they’ve learnt and what they’re grateful for is the cutest gratitude corner I have seen in years! “
Next door is another TFI Fellow. She joined less than a week ago, replacing another teacher who could not handle the classroom and quit in the middle of the academic year. She appears shy, and I can empathize – she has to connect with the class and recover a highly damaging situation, but she still seems to have the class in hand, with quiet leadership. The other classrooms are empty: since it is Saturday, the regular teachers have decided not to come; apparently it happens all the time, without any consequences.
The situation is far from easy, and an ordinary person might feel overwhelmed and ultimately either run or sink into apathy. The TFI fellows, on the other hand, see themselves as the solution to the problem, and jump in with heart and mind. They do not work for the government to fulfill institutional responsibilities, they focus on individual responsibility and take charge. They may not be able to change the entire system, at least not alone and not at once; but in Hyderabad, India, there are 45 children who can now aspire to an education that will liberate them from a race in which they have been branded as losers before reaching the starting gate.
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Teach For India is a chapter of Teach for All, an international organization committed to developing collective leadership to ensure all children have the opportunity to fulfill their potential. Our Italian readers will be pleased to learn that Teach for Italy is now on its way!