25/06/2015 9:00 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

How Seema Kamble Transformed Her Life - And Those Of Others

Today, she is the Head of Academics at the 3.2.1. Education Foundation. From leading curriculum design to overseeing student learning and teacher training, she does it all with humble aplomb. Armed with her zeal for an excellent education for every child, she goes about her work with the aim of learning something new every day. Looking at Seema Kamble, I see a headstrong, confident young woman ready to take up any challenge that comes in the way of her passion for education.

Seema comes from a low-income community, and both her parents have served with the Indian Defence Forces. When she was in the fifth grade her family had to shift from the Colaba Defence Quarters to crowded Worli due to financial problems. This transition was difficult -- used to an environment of discipline, Seema suddenly had to learn to cope up with chaos. Besides, she was forced to shift from the private Navy Public School to a municipal one where rote learning was valued over understanding. She even faced corporal punishment for the first time. It was her first encounter with education inequality.

"I was an average student and would often try and bunk the Akanksha classes -- for no specific reason. Rajshree Didi would come to my house every time and drag me back!"

"I wasn't able to cope up with the dip in my educational standard," she says. It was also tremendously difficult for her to focus on studies while living in the crowded community as there were always disturbances and distractions. It was around this time that Seema began to lose faith in herself and feel like she didn't belong.


Crossing paths with the Akanksha Foundation

The Akanksha Foundation had just started a learning centre in Nehru Planetarium, Worli. Seema was in the sixth grade at the time and went to see what it was all about, thinking it was a system of free tuition classes. Her first reaction was that of surprise -- Akanksha was nothing like the school she'd been attending for the past one year. There was immense focus on values and mindsets and an astonishing sense of possibility. The teachers at Akanksha believed in their kids no matter what -- and that led her to join. From the very beginning, Seema's teacher Rajshree Doshi pushed her towards excellence. "She believed in me and walked with me every step of the way," says Seema.

In the Maharashtra municipal school system, English medium schools are only till seventh grade. So when Seema reached eighth grade, she had to shift back to a private school. Since the learning standards there were higher than that of the municipal school, her academic performance dipped again and old feelings of inadequacy resurfaced. "Rajshree Didi", as Seema refers to her, patiently and lovingly saw her through it all. "I was an average student and would often try and bunk the Akanksha classes -- for no specific reason. Rajshree Didi would come to my house every time and drag me back!"


A sense of 'giving back'

Having completed her schooling at Akanksha, Seema graduated with a B.Com from Lala Lajpat Rai College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai. Before she joined college, she began interning with Akanksha in the HR Department. The idea of wanting to give back had germinated in her mind. Once college started, she volunteered at the Akanksha centres as a teacher -- to be the Rajshree Didi to another Seema. "I would go to the centre, then on to college and then tuitions. It was hectic but so satisfying! I'd get home around 10pm but started to use my time after that teaching the kids in my community. The purpose was clear -- empower as many kids as I could."


A difficult choice

Seema started working with Akanksha full-time in PR and marketing after finishing college when the idea of doing an MBA struck her. "The thought of pursuing a degree that could help me achieve financial stability seemed very attractive. I started to prepare for the entrance exams with lots of help from Sriram Bhaiya at Akanksha."Around the same time in 2009, Teach For India was getting ready to begin operations and welcome its very first cohort of Fellows. Through Shaheen Mistri -- Founder Akanksha Foundation and Teach For India -- Seema was always connected to TFI but never really thought of joining as a Fellow despite Shaheen's prompting. However, in 2010 Seema found herself sitting in an Akanksha conference room as Shaheen explained to her the importance of becoming a part of the TFI movement -- it was this conversation that finally convinced her to apply.

"[S]he won a 100% scholarship to the MBA program at Welingkar Institute of Management, but Seema had already decided she'd rather work towards achieving educational equity in her country."

"I was apprehensive that I might not be on par with the knowledge and skill-sets of the other applicants but I was also confident of my understanding of the community and the kids." Her acceptance to the TFI Fellowship came at the same time she won a 100% scholarship to the MBA program at Welingkar Institute of Management, Mumbai, but by that time, Seema had already decided she'd rather work towards achieving educational equity in her country.

"It was too easy to use an MBA as an escape route, it was harder to stay to solve the problems I've encountered myself. Being someone who thrives on challenges, my path automatically became clear," Seema explains.

The Fellowship experience

The Fellowship was extremely challenging -- especially because she chose Pune rather than Mumbai. "In my first year, I remember coming back crying almost every day. I berated myself for being a horrible teacher to my kids." But slowly her faith was restored -- an impulsive hug by a student, the school principal's appreciation of her work, her students finally starting to do well in exams.

By her second year, Seema got involved with the Pune Municipal Corporation as well --helping out wherever she could -- be it curriculum design or funding. This helped developed her in-depth understanding of education at its very grass root level. She finished the Fellowship with a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory musical put up by her kids and funded by the government. "When my kids were making a presentation on the musical to a group of government educational officers, one of them simply couldn't believe that they were from a municipal school," she shares.


A career in education and joining 3.2.1.

Education became a default option to pursue after the Fellowship. "I had seen the changes that could be brought about at a small level and wanted to be able to scale it up." Gaurav Singh, a TFI 2009-11 Fellow, first put the idea in Seema's head. "I remember him telling me at Teach For India's first InspirED conference that if he ever started a school of his own, he'd like me to be a part of it."

In 2012, as she was filling out TFI's placement applications, Seema came across the vacancy of a kindergarten teacher at 3.2.1. Though she hesitated in applying because of persistent health problems, Gaurav helped change her mind.

"We started off with a group of five Teach For India Alums and the job description was to be all hands on deck! Together, we were recruiting kids, looking for funding, hunting for school premises and designing the curriculum all at the same time! We ran from house to house in various communities asking for enrollments -- and though we faced the hurdle of having no reputation to base our pitch on, we also had 75 kids whose parents put them with us without question. I remember us not even having a school venue 12 hours before our formal opening! But the journey was fun and we were all united by one mission."

Seema taught her kindergarten class for the 1st year and went on to additionally become the grade leader in the next, finally rising to her current role as Head of Academics.


The Indian education landscape And the RTE

"Education inequality is still perceived as a problem rather than a crisis in India. When you are faced with a problem, you try to look for solutions. Let's try this or that. In the case of a crisis, you jump straight in and do whatever you have to survive. That is the scale at which we need action and reaction on the subject of education in our country today," says Seema.

She also draws attention to the ancillary problems that add to the educational crisis, such as health and hygiene.

" Education inequality is still perceived as a problem rather than a crisis in India. When you are faced with a problem, you try to look for solutions... in a crisis, you jump straight in and do whatever you have to survive."

"If sanitation levels in a particular community are low and it results in the child falling sick repeatedly, how can we expect him to attend school regularly and be able to pay attention? Or take poverty. In a family that has eight-nine members with an average total income of Rs. 5000 per month, how could they possibly focus on the education of their children as a priority over hunger and survival? Also, teaching as a profession is no longer aspirational. Teachers are underpaid and undervalued. How can that possibly help in attracting talent? If we don't have the right kind of talent, how can we ensure an excellent education? As a nation, we need to adopt a holistic approach to make any real impact."

Seema believes some policies within the RTE do bring in results. "The Mid-Day Meal Scheme ensures that children from low income communities attend school regularly!" However, she notes that some are not fully thought through. "The RTE focuses on enrollment rather than retention, and the idea of education is within the framework of literacy rather than overall learning and development."The policies need to be in line with ground-level realities. What might make sense on paper might completely fall through in action. It also makes sense for the government to partner with NGOs who've been working in the education space -- in a non-restrictive way. It'd definitely help bring innovative and far-reaching solutions on the table."


There are times in your life when you witness that rare display of courage, conviction, compassion and commitment. People that compel you to relook at your own life choices and become inspired to do more. Seema has been one such instance and my hope for the world is to see many more Seemas marching to the forefront of the problems we all seek to address.

Written By Alankrita Khera - Manager, Communications at Teach For India