Three professionals from the education industry tell us how they are trying to change the world, one child at a time

May 8, 2016 by livemint

The pen is indeed mightier than the sword for these professionals. For they use it to change the world, one child at a time.

They have witnessed change in their own roles too: The last decade or so has seen the educator’s role go well beyond books. Today, apps, online platforms, even videoconferencing, are helping the younger generation prepare for the future.

We spoke to three professionals—a schoolteacher, a private equity investor turned educator and a coaching institute’s managing director—about how they use technology, communication and the power of words and symbols to motivate and educate.

Anoop Parik, 30

Schoolteacher, Shree Geeta Vidyalaya, Mumbai

This lanky and bespectacled man spends most of his days shuttling between the classroom and the football field. He teaches English and history and coaches students in football.

How he got here: After completing schooling in Kolkata, Parik studied economics and English at the College of Wooster in Ohio, US. After graduating in 2009, he went on to work as an admissions counsellor for the college, posted first in California and then in Bengaluru. “I had to persuade prosperous young South Asian students that they should go and study at Wooster College. It was a well-paid job, but I didn’t enjoy it. It became monotonous and was more about marketing than education,” says Parik.

In 2011, he applied for and was selected for the Teach for India fellowship, a two-year programme where fellows work as full-time teachers, teaching children from low-income communities. He was posted at Shree Geeta Vidyalaya, a private school in the dusty slums of Govandi in Mumbai, earning a monthly stipend of Rs.24,000. “I had never worked as a schoolteacher before and I didn’t know what to expect. I came in the first day; the classroom was a low, tin-roof shed made of bamboos. The roof leaked, sometimes a monkey would come into the class. But by the fifth day, I started loving every bit of it,” he says.

When Parik’s stint at Teach for India ended in 2013, he decided not to leave. “I couldn’t desert my kids (the students he taught were then in class VI). I decided to see them through Board exams at the least.” His class of 59 students will take their class X exams in 2018.

A day at work: Parik wakes up most mornings to the sound of his cats—Annabel Lee and Edgar Allan Poe. He walks 3km to his school, where classes start at 7.30am. In class 8A, Parik begins to read out from Faces In The Water, a book on female infanticide by Ranjit Lal. This is one of two-three books outside the curriculum that Parik picks every year.

At lunchtime, he eats with the children; they all sit together on the floor, chatting. “Bhaiyya, when will you get married?” comes the perennial question. Parik groans. “Don’t be so eager for me to get married. Then there will be no more Sunday morning football sessions or Saturday practice,” he says. “It’s okay, bhaiyya, we don’t mind,” they reply.

School finishes at 12.30pm. But Parik and many of the students will be back at 4pm for football practice.

Skills needed: “You need to be theatrical, need to know your subject and talk about it in a way that catches the imagination of the class,” he says.

Money matters: Schoolteachers at Shree Geeta Vidyalaya get paid around Rs.6,000 a month; many supplement their salaries with income from tuitions. Parik teaches creative writing and English twice a week at the Chembur centre of The Writers Bug, a privately run children’s writing programme. He earns a total of Rs.20,000 a month.

Praveen Tyagi, 41

Managing director, IITians PACE, Mumbai

As a child, I had to struggle to get quality education and good teachers, so I know how hard it can be,” says Tyagi. His father farms in their village, Morta, near Ghaziabad, adjacent to the Capital. The family wasn’t well off, but Tyagi’s father was determined to give his eight children a good education and all of them studied at the Delhi Public School in Ghaziabad. Tyagi went on to study at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, in 1994, taking up physics.

How he got here: As an IIT student, Tyagi interned at Mumbai’s Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in 1997. There, many students would approach him for guidance on IIT entrance exams. A year later, in 1998, he started coaching classes in a small room on the first floor of a ramshackle building that he took on rent, opposite the Andheri railway station.

Today, he runs 66 centres across places such as Lucknow, Goa, Nagpur and Bokaro, even Dubai, coaching 15,000 students for engineering and medical entrance exams. He employs 400 teachers, 200 of whom are IIT graduates. A few centres are serviced through videoconferencing. Tyagi is particularly proud of one such centre in Akola in Maharashtra, where large numbers of students have cleared their engineering entrance exams.

A day at work: Early morning, Tyagi’s phone buzzes. “Sir, I’m coming to Mumbai next week. I want to attend a physics class taught by you.” Tyagi reads the message and smiles. It’s from a former student, now an IIT alumnus and a winner of the International Science Olympiad.

Once in office, a typical day for Tyagi includes meetings with his senior team—his brother Kuldeep, who handles the day-to-day management of PACE, and the other managers. Sometimes, they review students’ test scores; at other times, they decide coaching strategies. PACE also runs eight junior colleges that are affiliated to the Maharashtra State Board of Secondary and Higher Education, where students can enrol for classes XI and XII or avail of coaching for their entrance exams. This “integrated” approach is becoming popular, and a high percentage of these students make it through their engineering and medical entrance exams.

But there are also many who don’t. Of the 15,000 students who enrol for coaching every year, only around 1,000 clear the exams. “It’s a challenge, but we try and see if we can find ways to make the weakest students the most productive they can be,” says Tyagi, who works with his team on monitoring and counselling students.

Tyagi makes a conscious effort to spare time for the development of educational technology. “I have a team that has developed Physics Kombat, Maths Kombat and Chemistry Kombat, a series of science-learning apps for high-school students. These are currently in the beta stage, but are available for free download on the Google Play store,” he says. He believes the future of education lies in technology.

Skills needed: “As a teacher, you need dedication, you need to be a good communicator, and you should be able to inspire. For me, it’s been important to be a good team-builder, and to build a sense of trust among the people I work with. Also, to be able to identify good teachers,” he says.

Money matters: “I pay my teachers salaries between Rs.20-50 lakh a year,” says Tyagi.

As an educator, Dhawan straddles the entire spectrum of teaching—from school to college. Until four years ago, he was a private equity investor. Today, he is chairman of the board of management at Ashoka University in Sonipat, Haryana, and works at the Central Square Foundation (CSF), his venture philanthropy fund that works on improving the quality of school education.

How he got here: Dhawan studied economics and applied math at Yale University, US, and completed his master’s in business administration from the Harvard Business School. He worked at investment bank Wasserstein Perella in New York (1992-93), and then at MDC Partners, a holding company (1994-95). While in New York, he had an informal teaching stint in Harlem, where he volunteered to teach mathematics to children from low-income families. Returning to India in 1999, he started Chrysalis Capital (now called ChrysCapital), a private equity firm that currently manages $2.5 billion (around Rs.16,500 crore) worth of investments.

Ashish Dhawan, 47

Educational philanthropist, New Delhi

In 2012, Dhawan decided to step down from active management at Chrys and focus on education, for he believes that using technology and an entrepreneurial methodology could help improve the quality of education for India’s 240 million-plus school-going children. The foundation has since worked on teacher-training schemes and merit-based selection of school principals, partnered with the online portal Khan Academy for language-teaching, run pilot programmes in schools using technology to improve learning, worked with the Union and state governments on improving the quality of school education, and worked with social entrepreneurs as well.

A day at work: Dhawan has just returned from a fund-raising trip in the US. Ashoka University needs to raise Rs.2,000 crore by 2020. So far, Dhawan and his team are on target.

Dhawan has always been a data man, and research on the educational system forms a big part of the CSF’s activities. A pan-India study by it and partner organizations last year found that only 29% of the 2.1 million school seats reserved for disadvantaged children were being filled.

Dhawan is reviewing a presentation he had made to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav following the study. In it, he had recommended ways to fill all the seats reserved for disadvantaged children, starting with a simple, common admission form for multiple private schools that would be made available through anganwadi (childcare centre) workers. Yadav was enthusiastic. “Abhi Krishna aur Sudama saath saath parenge (Now Krishna and Sudama will study side by side),” the CM had told him. Dhawan says he will continue to work on this with the chief ministers and governments of other states.

He is still an investor of sorts, giving grants to social entrepreneurs in the education sector. His foundation runs an Accelerator programme, called Edcelerate, which offers grants and support to education entrepreneurs. Dhawan himself guides entrepreneurs who run educational start-ups, such as LeapForWord, an English-language teaching programme.

Skills needed: Dhawan says the move from investor to educator has been a roller-coaster ride. “To be successful, it’s important to develop empathy, to be able to earn the respect of people who work in non-profits. They can be sceptical of somebody who is just a corporate guy coming into their world. But being transparent and data-driven has helped,” he says.

Money matters: At the CSF, starting salaries range from Rs.4-6 lakh a year. At Ashoka University, salaries for professors start at Rs.18 lakh a year.

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