It's a frigid winter day in Srinagar, where political conflict has brought life to a standstill and shows no signs of abating. Children in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, who haven't seen the inside of a classroom in more than five months, have been affected adversely. "My opinion is that the children are definitely suffering, but I feel it's not my place to say anything, because I'll never be able to understand the kinds of things that they have gone through," says Mainak Roy, a 2012-2014 Teach For India Fellow who has been working in the region with Simple Education Foundation (SEF)—an organisation he co-founded and currently leads.
Their initiative—Project Taleem—is a school development program that supports and collaborates with the Directorate of School Education of Kashmir in Srinagar and Bandipore. It's one of the few nonprofits to have made inroads there. SEF began as a school transformation project, working closely with teachers and headmasters in 10 schools, but after curfew was imposed, SEF pulled its team out of the region. They were committed to the region and coordinated with Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan program to revolutionise their teacher workshops; their redesigned teacher training modules and remote efforts now impact more than 80,000 teachers in the state. But each minute of instructional time lost is tragic for a community that's so committed to learning. The children are constantly calling the team to ask them when they'll be back.
The children are constantly calling the team to ask them when they'll be back.
"Whenever this thing sorts itself out and whatever the results are, I know that the kids will go back to school. I know teachers are looking forward to going back as well. I see SEF being an organisation that will help connect Kashmir to a lot of support that is available outside," says Roy, "We're looking to understand Kashmir and design support that could fast track its growth and help its students."
Roy has been in the education sector for more than five years, and his journey to Kashmir began somewhat serendipitously. An engineer by trade, he joined the Teach For India Fellowship 13 days after submitting his thesis at SRM Institute. While lucrative corporate offers awaited him then, he realised that working at an MNC— in a job that could easily be refilled by 10 eager applicants—would mean merely making electronic devices "slimmer, faster, cheaper." But those tools would still be out of reach for millions of underprivileged Indians whom he wanted to impact. The Fellowship provided the opportunity to combine his interest in making a tangible impact, changing a "deplorable education status quo" and rising to a challenge—"if not me, then who?" he asks. Roy's goal is to improve teacher training and he believes that no number of technological advancements can obviate the teacher.
Teaching in Delhi's Sangam Vihar—one of the largest slums in the country—for two years transformed Roy. It gave him an inside look at an education system riddled with problems but more importantly, fundamentally shifted his approach to leadership. "In college I always took the initiative to start clubs and organisations, but my managing style was top down and corporate. I had no empathy—I didn't even know what it was. I used to have a strong opinion on every question. I was angry and short-tempered. When I started working with parents and students (in the Fellowship) I realised that wouldn't work. Now I never take a decision without at least listening to others," says Roy.
We focused on building relationships, really rooting them to the main cause—why are we really teaching? How can we keep the child at the centre of what we do? Mainak Roy
Post the Fellowship he co-founded SEF with a 2012 Teach For India alumnus, Rahul Bhanot, and undertook a small independent education project in Delhi. During the summer of 2015, many Teach For India Fellows volunteered in Kashmir and after the government saw the value they added, it was receptive to SEF's Taleem project; SEF can now count on space, resources and buy-in from the local government. "We focused on building relationships, really rooting them to the main cause—why are we really teaching? How can we keep the child at the centre of what we do?" he reflects.
Working in tenuous, conflict-ridden Kashmir might sound like a risk with few rewards, but Roy maintains that everyone in the region is remarkably open and eager to transform it. He adds that people are quick to accept and implement feedback—he sees them change teaching methodology as soon as the day after. SEF often gets requests from people who want to get into education, to which Roy responds by, "redirecting them to Teach For India. We ask them to work with us after that. There's no better experience."
Taleem brought teachers together every three or four weeks to equip them with a set of skills that enhances learning outcomes for children through their instructional leadership curriculum. Each teacher is also assigned a coach who observes them weekly. Post the observation they debrief and share observations about the classroom to find the positives and areas of development. The coach might also teach a skill to address a certain area of development. The head teachers go through a leadership development module (adapted from Creatnet Education's programs), where they explore their own leadership styles through reflective questions that help them understand different facets of leadership.
"We're designing curriculums, consolidating a lot of the work we do now and exploring other opportunities," says Roy, "My team is extremely committed to the mission." SEF's team consists of ten people, three of whom are working with Taleem, including Anushka Ghosh and Samantha D'Cunha.
Working in tenuous, conflict-ridden Kashmir might sound like a risk with few rewards, but Roy maintains that everyone in the region is remarkably open and eager...
A few weeks after inducting teachers into the program and exposing them to the concept of guided practice—a major challenge in most schools—Samantha observed the class of a teacher, called Humaira Ma'am by the children. During the debrief, Humaira Ma'am spoke tearfully about a transformation: "I've been teaching in this school for years. My students and I share a cordial relationship. Despite this, I was struggling to bridge the Sunni-Shia divide in class. Ever since we started working and studying in groups, I have seen my girls get along so well. They even share their food—something I thought I'd never witness. The solution was so simple and yet I struggled for years. Today is a very proud and emotional moment in my life."
"As an organisation we've been advocating for Kashmir whenever we go back and we can paint a really good picture of it," Roy says. While the situation in Kashmir is unlikely to resolve itself anytime soon, we can thank organisations like SEF for continuing to work for the youth caught in the middle. It's efforts like Taleem that give us hope for a brighter future in the region!
Written By Sneha Kalaivanan, Associate, Communications, Teach For India
To learn more about Teach For India, visit www.teachforindia.org!