Even seven decades after Independence, the properly schooled are still a ‘small lot’ in India’s immensely vast and diverse society. Do children have to be sent just for the mid-day meal to cut food costs for the poor? ‘Right To Education (RTE)’ is now the law, but has access improved quality?
The glaring inequity in school education in the country is a paradox that clouds understanding. Even Achilles may overtake the proverbial tortoise, but here for
every seeming breakthrough, the pitfalls are more. Caste, gender and colour of the skin, domestic violence, sexual abuse, fear of parents that in a purely market-
driven system their children may turn wrecks as kids are unwittingly pulled into drugs and liquor, even as helpless teachers complain of “parents who don’t care.”
The children’s woes are endless, as much as the many shades of grey are nuanced. But it is the room for hope that dedicated teachers as transformative figures try to bring into the system, even if at the margins, is what emerges from this chronicle of real life stories that author Sandeep Rai, has put through, along with his own experiences and reflections in this book, ‘Grey Sunshine: Stories From Teach For India’.
So, the first thing is not to link outcomes of good education with money, while never giving up hope. Sounds Incredulous? There are people who defy this pull
of the greenback, despite being through the best of the schools and universities abroad after taking huge familial risks, yet willing to return to India to help usher
in a qualitative transformation in school education over a period of time.
The author, Sandeep Rai, having taught secondary science in Washington DC, as a ‘Teach For America’ corps member, has played a critical role in shaping and
building its Indian counterpart model, ‘Teach For India (TFI)’, in the last decade and is currently based in Pune. Each real-life story that has been brought to light
in this text is a riveting tale, whose resolution needs a deeper metaphysical view.
Sandeep Rai, who had received training at ‘Teach For America’s five-week Training Institute’, has imbued a part of that metaphysic in the rough and tumble of American life, writes that though he “rarely paid heed to Christian theology”, he found it impossible to ignore that while dealing with themes of “acceptance,
service, poverty and love, our lives are measured by how we treat the least amongst us, by our recognition that we are all recipients of unmerited grace.”
“Three years after, after I first stepped into Wells in my final year of college I told my parents that I would no longer be pursuing a career in medicine. Instead, I
would be joining ‘Teach For America’, a programme that recruits college graduates and places them in some of the country’s most challenging schools as full- time teachers. While I did not realize it at the time, I would effectively be accepting a calling that would bring me much closer to my motherland,” writes the author in his introduction.
The Founder of ‘TFI’- a two-year fellowship programme that gives an opportunity to talented young people to take off from their work and teach in government
schools-, Shaheen Mistri, could have had a very good education abroad and had a good career for herself - her father was a Citibank executive which took the
family from one country to another, as the author points out.
But in Mumbai, when she “face-to-face with children who spent their days and evenings loitering at traffic signals and street corners,” her whole attitude to life
changed. She told her father she would not go to Tufts University, one of the best places to go. She then settled down for a UG course at St. Xavier’s Bombay
which, “following her intuition”, took Shaheen to Mumbai’s slums.
Seeing that tens of thousands of children in India have no choice, but to accept what comes by - no access to a good school, to health-care, to tutors or mentors-, it prompted Shaheen to eventually start the ‘Akanksha Foundation’, “an organisation committed to serving India’s neediest urban children”.
“Over the next 17 years, she would grow the foundation into an organisation serving 4,000 children through 60 after-school centres and an emerging school model,” says the author.
And when Shaheen realised the need to do more to address the inequity in school education and faster, she discovered the American model ‘Teach for America’s Fellowship’. It hinges on “placing bright, highly qualified individuals from reputed colleges and corporates as full-time teachers in public school for two years.” Thus was born ‘TFI’, which has so far inspired more than 4,000 young Indians “to take a similar leap of faith. Together, those leaders are impacting hundreds of thousands of children across India,” writes the author.
Sandeep Rai in various chapters discusses number of individual cases, riveting stories, particularly girl children, for whom completing school education is like
‘many a slip between the cup and lip’. The story of Yasmin, growing up in Jahangirpuri in Delhi, is a typical case of a bright young girl who is keen to pursue higher education, but due to immense pressure from within the family she is forced to drop out of school and get enrolled in a ‘Madrasa’, for her father fears a cultural degeneration in modern education.
If Yasmin comes to terms with her reality, the story of 13-year-old Pradnya in one of Pune’s slums, is even more pathetic. She was taught by one of the fellows
under the TFI programme. Soon, Pradnya was one of the most loved students in class, trying to help friends “struggling with homework” and even bringing extra
lunch for classmates. One day when her mother chided her, it was too much of a shock for the generous-minded Pradnya that she self-immolated herself.
“My staff and I rushed to the hospital that evening only to find Pradnya dead less than 24 hours later,” writes the author, adding, “accompanying every glimmer of
sunshine are ten shades of greyness.”
One may be through interventions able to improve children’s literacy levels, mathematical proficiency, language skills and so on. But the education that brings about a transformative change, through empathy and deep understanding of the ‘other’ - particularly in densely populated localities prone to Hindu-Muslim tensions at the slightest provocations- is not easy to come by.
Every human story narrated by Sandeep Rai in this work has its ups and downs, mirroring in parts the larger national crisis in school education. But can we really embrace our children as partners, he poses. It means a world of difference from teaching to living, and ‘TFI’ is one small but very significant step in that direction.
In days to come, whether it is ‘NEET’, or ‘NEXT’ exams, it is not just an issue of coaching classes or grace marks for rural students, but the challenge of imparting a holistic vision to the younger generation. Sandeep Rai, in his telling prose, presents each and every situation of educational inequity in its raw
For teachers, there is no standard way to attack a problem - he or she can draw from a vast array of skills and methodologies, say from games, reading-aloud,
painting, modern theatre, role-reversals to integrating music. But what Sandeep does is to show in stark terms what it means to confront this problem collectively. ‘Grey Sunshine’ seeks to uplift the chaotic pieces into a humanistic whole.