Interview: Dhruv Kamath(Prod-2016)

Dhruv is a Fellow at Teach For India since June 2016.
Why did you choose the field of education?

Throughout college, I was involved in activities directed towards a social cause. I was a part of the Festember Social Responsibility team. My final year thesis involved designing a solar 3D printer to manufacture goods free of cost for disaster victims. I was also a part of a design project at IIT Bombay, where I engaged with Government school students for the first time in my life. Even though they were curious and vivacious, I saw how the lack of a good education set them back 3-4 levels in math and languages.

When placement season arrived, I could not imagine myself being happy crunching code or managing factory line employees 5 days a week, with the sole motive being to raise the profits of company X by Y percent every quarter. I could foresee dissatisfaction from a job that added nothing to me as a person other than making me a salaried employee.

I had heard about the Teach For India fellowship in the past, and having had excellent teachers play a major role in my life, found the idea of having my own classroom for two years to be very powerful. The fellowship appealed to me as it allowed me to be a part of the larger movement towards removing educational inequity in India. That’s how I decided to shift to the field of education.

How does the TFI model work?

The Teach for India model is based on the idea that the best way to revitalize the educational system in India is by placing highly qualified graduates and corporates in low-income schools across the country. The fellows are full time teachers, who take responsibility of the classroom for a period of two years, and are responsible for the academic and personal growth of all their students. The fellowship seeks to make leaders out of fellows, who in turn empower the students and parents to be leaders in their communities and improve their standard of living.

However, in spite of being highly selective with an acceptance rate of 7% from among 15,000 applicants, the attrition rate (number of fellows leaving before completing 2 years) is quite high. This is because the high stress environment of a low income school classroom along with the lack of a support system in the school.

The fellow’s responsibilities include conducting regular assessments and tracking student data, regular visits to their homes, counselling students and parents from troubled homes, arranging financial support in case of sudden medical setbacks, and the list goes on and on.

Teach for India is a part of the Teach For all network, a network of organisations in 50 partner countries that collectively work towards eliminating educational inequity around the world.

How was your experience with TFI?

In a nutshell, being a part of the TFI movement is the best decision I have made. I have had good days and absolutely terrible days, the latter being far more common. I have had students narrate to me horrifying tales of sexual abuse, addiction to cigarettes and drugs, parental violence not only to themselves, but their siblings and friends as well. They are beaten at home, abused in their communities and treated like dirt everywhere they go, except your classroom. This can result in two scenarios, first, with the kids either being very fond of you, doing what it takes to study and get themselves a better life, or second, they take all their anger, violence and frustration out in your classroom. Again, the latter being far more common.

I think this realization itself comes across as a breakthrough for most fellows, that children, on average, are not a product of their parents or their teachers, but the community that they live in.

My first 6 months of the fellowship were a living hell. You come in thinking you’re going to change their lives and teach them math and science, but that’s far from the truth. The first six months, I spent thinking, “Am I doing something wrong?”. I had regular fistfights and bullying taking place in my class, and several instances of drug abuse. My classes, though well planned, were terrible because of the constant behaviour issues. Throughout, I kept asking myself if I had made the right call by signing up for this role. The training I was provided did not prepare me for this class and I felt totally out of place.

What really helped me improve my relations with the students were my home visits. I would visit their homes regularly, twice a week, and be on first name basis with their parents. I tried to find out as much as I could about each kid’s life and this helped me immensely understand their anger issues in class. Drunk husbands beating their kids and wife, drug abusing cousins, and open violence cause most of the kids to live a life of constant fear, where they do not feel safe anywhere, least of all in their own homes. You need to understand these problems and work with them, pushing for the students to work towards achieving a better life.

The fellowship changes you as a person. I had chronic stage fright, an inability to form personal connections, and a fake understanding of the lives of people gleaned from newspapers. The fellowship broke those down and rebuilt me from scratch. You become a better teacher, a stronger person, an empathetic listener and powerful guide for the most troubled students.

How have you used technology in the classroom?

While in college, I had learnt about the Code.org movement in the United states, where students being taught how to code as an essential skill for future technical jobs. I felt that this could be very easily replicated in India, in my classroom.

I chose a group of students of various academic levels, and taught them basic programming using Scratch and Python. I was amazed as some of them, who were very weak academically, aced through my lessons, correctly predicting the logic and algorithm for the program. I realized they were academically weak as their English was weak and a fresh start with a programming language put them at a level playing field as their peers.

Later, we moved to using the Raspberry Pi, a 35$ minicomputer, to build gadgets that can solve problems in their communities. I acted as their guide, helping them arrange the sensors and debug the code, but the gadgets they came up with brilliant- beyond the capability of most engineering graduates. We brainstormed to make a list of problems in their community and went about thinking of ways of solving them.

We built a water leakage detector and a burglar alarm that detects movement at night. We build a calculator for the blind that beeps out the answer through a buzzer. All these projects not only made them more empathetic by thinking about other people’s problems, but also showed them how easy it was to take ownership by learning a new skill, like coding, and using it to help people.

I created a website, www.codeforhope.com, through which other teachers who were interested in teaching their own students how to code, could use my lesson plans and form a community to further the cause of teaching programming skills in India. The program will go live in July ‘18

What are your future plans?

I have accepted a role as Program Manager at Central Square Foundation in Delhi. This is a philanthropy organisation that aims to improve the Indian school education system by working with the top NGOs in education and engaging the government, to remove educational inequity in the country.

In addition to this, I plan to take my Code For Hope project forward with TFI Delhi, and assist fellows who are eager to teach their students how to code and build electronics.

I plan to study further after working for a few years, either a Master’s in Business, or Public Policy. I want to work in the education sector in the long term to bring about a grassroots change in the system.

What are the other avenues in education?

The various avenues are curriculum development, mental health, student assessment, teacher training, early childhood development, technology in education and school leadership

There are roughly two types of companies in the education sector, depending on who is being catered to. The for-profit and not for profit sectors.

In the for profit sector, there is a huge boom of companies, start-ups and established ones alike, that cater to all kinds of students from Heymath, Byju’s and Toppr for school students, to Upgrad for working professionals.

In the non-profit sector, there are a vast number of NGO’s working towards a range of need based individuals such as rural education development (Barefoot College), spoken English (Leap For Word), low income schools(TFI, Akanksha), etc.

How can one get into the education sector, having done engineering or anything similarly unrelated?

I believe that being an engineer, especially from NIT-Trichy, is a boon to anyone looking to join the education space. All the companies I mentioned value the knowledge of content we come in with, as Math, English and Science are the crucial building blocks of primary and secondary education.

They require individuals with a strong background of these subjects, so they can create excellent quality content, or be amazing teachers who can focus on personality development of students rather than study content.

In order to work as a manager in the development sector, however, you require some experience of having worked at a grassroots level, either through a fellowship like TFI or the SBI Youth for India fellowship, or at an NGO.

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The official media house of NIT Trichy.

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