Shaheen Mistri, CEO and founder trustee of Teach for India talks to VIBHA SINGH about the need for change in the education sector.
Education is fundamental to an equitable society. An excellent education equips children and youth with the knowledge, skills, values, and mindsets needed to be empowered individuals and responsible citizens. It is the educated Indians who will only help us to develop faster and live on zero dependency with the foreign countries.
With thoughts of helping the slum and street children in receiving education, Shaheen Mistri founded the Akanksha Foundation in 1991 and is also the CEO and founder trustee of Teach for India. Excerpts from an interview…
Tell us something about your professional journey?
I was born in Mumbai, lived out of India for 18 years, attended 10 schools in five countries, and then dropped out of Tufts University to come back to India and work with kids. I have a Bachelor’s Degree from St Xavier’s College, Mumbai and a Master’s Degree from the University of Manchester. I am an Ashoka Fellow, a Global Leader for Tomorrow at the World Economic Forum, and an Asia Society 21 Leader. I am the board member of Design for Change, and an ex-member of the board of India School Leaders Institute, the Thermax Foundation, and Teach for All. I have written a book Re-drawing India.
What was the inspiration behind setting up the organisation and one turning point that led to inception of this project?
I think many seeds led to the setting up of both Akanksha and Teach For India, but the single moment I remember is being in a noisy cab and seeing some kids at a traffic light and feeling like I wanted to do something. This prompted me to drop out of college, move back to India and start Akanksha. For 17 years, I have worked with teachers and students, building Akanksha to provide 4000 children from low- income communities the kind of education that would maximise their greatest potential. Today, Akanksha serves 6500 children through their school project and after-school centres in Mumbai and Pune. When I look back now I feel many things – my mother was a speech therapist working with kids with multiple disabilities, the fact that I had so many opportunities and spent summers volunteering with kids, the many role models I found along the way – all led to me believing in the power of opportunity in shaping people’s lives and doing what I do.
What is the Teach for India Fellowship program?
It is an opportunity for India’s brightest and most promising youth, from the nation’s best universities and workplaces, to serve as full-time teachers to children from low-income communities in some of the nation’s most under-resourced schools. Through this experience of teaching in classrooms and working with key education stakeholders like students, principals, and parents, the fellows get exposed to the grassroot realities of India’s education system and begin to cultivate the knowledge, skills, and mindset necessary to attain positions of leadership in education and identify their role in building a wider movement for educational equity in the country.
How do we give hope to all the children?
I think we need to start by redefining the education system and really making education holistic. We need to move away from education just being about marks and competition and being ahead of others to education being about making the world better. With this reimagined purpose, we then need to shift power – away from just adults and those more senior in the hierarchy to working as equals with our children for all children. We need to explore peer learning, kids really as problem-solvers today and other radical ideas that get all kids to take responsi-bility for each other. We also need to infuse the whole system with leaders committed to giving all kids an excellent education – only then will we allocate the time and resources to make this happen.
What are the challenges faced by you?
There are the usual challenges of growing any organisation – funding, systems and processes, finding and retaining the right talent – but the more complex challenges are in actually serving our kids and their complex needs, their learning is impeded by a range of factors that come out of poverty and all of those need to be tackled for kids to attain a really holistic education. Another massive challenge is the changing of mind-set around inequity, poverty and justice.
What would be your message to the women and the younger generation?
Find something you care about and then just don’t stop. To do anything is a long journey, with many bends in the road, and the important thing is that you stay true to your purpose and be open to always looking in the mirror to know how you can be better – both as a person and a professional.