The Teach For India Experience


By Ashish Kashyap

I graduated from the CSE department in 2012, and then joined a fairly unheard-of NGO called “Teach For India”. At this point, I might have lost half the reading audience, the half that will find this “irrationality” hard to fathom. The other half, or whatever irrelevant statistical minority that still persists with me, which is considering TFI as a career choice, should desist from making value judgements at this precocious stage of just-beginning-to-read-my-post, and is absolutely, on-pain-of-death, forbidden to use me as an example to convince their parents about TFI. Thank You.

Disclaimer – I might sound self-important, pretentious, arrogant (not necessarily in the same order). But hey, that’s just me. Please do not take anything in this article as “biblical commandments”. As Bertrand Russell once said, “I am not prepared to die for my beliefs. Because I might be wrong.”

I shall begin with the story of why I quit TFI, and will then detail my experiences in the organization and my love-hate relationship with it. This atypical, non-standard approach is solely for the purpose of giving the reader the Cliff-notes version of reality instead of stringing him along like a Jane Austen novel. And absolutely not because I want to look “cool” and “original”.

Why I Quit   (the resignation-email version)

“A sullen Delhi morning would be more apposite for the occasion that this mail represents. Instead, there is sunshine and for me, that means, after several months– clarity. I am quitting the fellowship. Let me remind everyone, that I still do believe that educational inequality is a worthy cause to fight for. And I don’t think it is a lost cause. I am not quitting out of despondency or disillusionment.  I am driven to this grim denouement by the baser, yet stronger, emotions of ambition, self-interest and a desire to find the thrill in my life, which is, indeed, quite gone.

I disagree about the ways in which we are going about fighting this problem. The malaise runs too deep, the odds are enormously high against us. And the bottoms-up approach that we are taking, slowly getting into schools and cities, trying one child at a time —  is just too slow for me and I derive very little satisfaction from my everyday achievement. The movement may be bigger than each one of the fellows, and it may or may not sustain itself in the future. But I am not content with merely being a drop in the ocean — a sideshow. My ambitions lie in the civil services. I know that the grand canvas that I am looking for — the platform, the ability and power to affect millions — is something that only the civil services can provide.  And so, I have been introspecting and trying to figure out what I really want — and that has not changed at all in spite of joining TFI. I want to be responsible for spectacular and awe-inspiring change, the kind that gives you goose-bumps; the small, incremental changes that I might make with TFI over the fellowship do not excite me enough.

So for the past few months, I have been laboring under the hope that things will get easier. I will be able to manage myself better. I have been hoping to be able to juggle civil services preparation and Teach for India responsibilities. And that is a circus act that I can’t quite pull off. It is impossible.

In light of that realization, which I know is a little late in the day – I cannot continue with the fellowship. I cannot fulfill my responsibilities or do justice to the kids while continuing with civil services preparation.  And most importantly, I cannot continue to feel guilty every morning that I am not giving the kids my absolute best. My parents have always been skeptical of TFI and what it means for my life and I can understand that because they see only one kid – theirs. I find it increasingly hard to justify the fact that I am giving up 2 years of my life for something that is not my “highest priority”. For too long, I have been living in hope, that things may get easier, I will be faster and stronger and efficient. I have been deluding myself.

And this reminds me of Nietzsche —“Hope is the worst of all evils, for it prolongs the torment of men.” I want to end the suffering, the indecision and uncertainty in my life and quickly. When I joined TFI, I spoke to the recruitment staff about the future plans and how TFI is a window of opportunity for me. I gave up my IIT placements, I gave up my IIM interview calls — and all in search of that perfect combination of “inspiring work + time-off to prepare”. Another one of those foolish hopes. At institute, most of the staff insisted that it would not be possible, and I persevered in my denial (and in my vanity). Now I know how things are. And quitting is the inexorable decision that I must make.

I will miss the remarkable passion and commitment that TFI embodies.  I am sorry, I did not live up to that high standard for a cause —  that moves me, yet falls short of leaving me suffused with excitement, energy and unflagging enthusiasm every day.”

Yes, I know. A bunch of high-falutin paragraphs, with the simple underlying message being – I just did not get enough time with TFI and it was not my highest priority. Now I shall move on to the experiential aspects of the fellowship, a.k.a “the good parts”. One month into the fellowship, this is what I wrote down in my journal —

“As I write about this last week in Pune, I cannot but be struck by a profound sense of affirmation and validation (even gratification) at the thoughts and choices that have brought me here and now. I have met several interesting people (a few worth taking the extra mile for), otherwise this is a motley congregation of idealistic (sometimes to a fault and rising to naivete) but some genuinely nice people. The staff is very committed. The sense of humility and respect that people share is unrivalled. The joy here, the pleasure of working together for a mission, is hard to miss.

At the same time there are some powerful critiques that can be made.

People here seem to be thinking from their hearts, or the “gut” as Stephen Colbert puts it. We had very random exercises designed to make us “feel” part of the mission, or to inculcate “core values”, the “right mindsets” and to experience the “sense of possibility” — non-vicariously, for a change.

Everyone “reflects” all the time, sometimes we are forced to — so much so that we would make mirrors self-conscious. We also “push ourselves” and the line between pushing and shoving is hazy. The jargon, the exclusivist language, very insidiously designed to make us feel “all special” is a very blatant, yet effective, attempt to transform a bunch of nice, ordinary people into a coterie of zealots. ‘Insidious’ is a harsh word, considering the mission is well-meaning and noble (by any definition of morality). But the same doctrine would serve, with very little tinkering, as the bible for some popular religious cult.

That is where the problem lies. Fellows seem to be getting indoctrinated — they have begun speaking the same language, making the same jokes. This leads me to think that all of the first 10 days were indeed transformative for a lot of people. That is sad.

If fellows, our so-called “leaders of tomorrow” have not figured such issues out by the time they are adults, I shudder at the ignorant morass in which the rest of the youth wallows. A lot of people here are for the right reasons and the wrong justifications. Will we remove educational inequity by following this model? I highly doubt that. The big picture seems lost in the feel-good mist of moralizing and grandstanding. I do not find too many ambitious people here. Changing one life, doing good, transforming life paths for a class, is all good. But is it enough? The top management seems to have their heads in the right place. The complexity is understood, though no one really knows what to do about it.

Something else that struck me was the uniquely caring, healthy environment in which things happen. Perhaps it has a lot to do with the fact that the organization is run and managed primarily by educated, professional women. Corporate India should take some cues from the management here.  I have done things here the past few days that I would not have envisioned myself even attempting a few weeks back. I could come up with a short summary –

1. Go into a poorer section of the city and try to find some kid and “connect” to him. I found it really strange because here was a veritable army of fellows descending upon that section of town out of the blue … and looking for kids. It was hard to convince alarmed adults about “what the hell was happening”. I found that a Namaste and a smile go a long way in breaking the ice. Also I lured a bunch of 7-8 kids into “connecting” with me, by showing them some basic melodies on the harmonica – thus literally playing the role of the “Pied Piper of Pune”. It was fun.

2. Go into another part of town, with a mission to serve the people and the constraint that I could not speak. It was weird and I became acutely cognizant of the powers of non-verbal communication and gestures. I swept poor homes, cleaned a few dishes, gave an injured old man a massage (back-rub) and all without speaking, much to the delight and surprise of the community people. It was an exhilarating experience. The conquering of your own self, your inhibitions, gives you an incredible rush.  I was quite pleased with myself and was reminded of Gandhi’s insistence on physical labour and service of others. That guy sure had things figured out.

3. We have had countless chants and songs and games here, both during and after sessions. It is almost routine and I don’t bat an eyelid when asked to do ridiculously silly things in public. Group or herd psychology assuages all doubts.

Certain things in TFI irritated me, like the double standards. When an organization professes to adhere to strict notions of punctuality and expects everyone to follow it, when it makes a brouhaha over someone being a minute late, it is in no position to  let its own standards sag. However, there were numerous occasions when punctuality was ignored by the organisation. I don’t know how an organization with such a strong sense of values can fail to notice and correct such cancerous tendencies.

In TFI, you are asked to voice your opinions in a free environment. But then you are fed subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) derision and condescension in return. Just the fact that TFI fellows work against educational inequality shows that the one thing they do not lack is concern and empathy. Why would one question that sense of empathy in public just because a fellow’s opinions are not in line with the TFI management’s? Does everybody here have to have a shared set of beliefs?

A final point. Is experience essential for intelligent expression? When I see Orwell write about his experiences as an anarchist in the mud-stained battlefields of Catalonia, I see the value of experience, when I read Fisk comment on the insanity of Western foreign policy and duplicity as he writes from Beirut, I can again appreciate the wisdom of an immersive writing experience. But what would happen if people stopped commenting and criticizing people and events and people-in-events that they have not personally experienced? How stifling would that be? Where would Einstein’s gedanken experiments go, when would Kafka’s Metamorphosis see the light of day, who would listen to Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and his travails? So let us be open to people voicing opinions, even if we sometimes risk the naivete that comes with a person who has not experienced the things he is talking about. In the ceaseless blather may lie the one aphorism, the one idea that really changes the world.

My personal goals seem even more important to me now. TFI has been a tiring expedition where the organization desperately tries to paddle me away from the shore, while gale-force winds keep buffeting me back to the same place, again and again. And amidst all this pandemonium, this melange of voices, this shrieking cacophony of “reflections”, I am resigned to my personal silence. The silence of the crowd, the solitude of not belonging.”

— Well, as you can see, I had my issues with the organization! But let me just point out, briefly, the things I loved about it.

The diverse set of people you get to meet here is quite wonderful. I have made friends with people I would never have encountered in any other imaginable multiverse – a Cornell girl with Bachelors in Literature and Physics (she is crazy and cute), a guy who graduated from Amrita College of Engineering, Bangalore (he is hilarious), a cool lawyer woman from NLS Bangalore, a few Delhi University liberal arts graduates, uber-rich Bombay girls, a sociology graduate and engineer from Hyderabad who understands sarcasm at a profound level, etc. It is a refreshing change from the IITM experience!

The fellowship experience also presents several questions to you –

  1. What do you do when 8 year-old kids tell you with unbelievably straight faces, that you are a Hindu and there is an invisible demon hovering over your head? (They are wrong about the location by a few inches — I confess to the demons within.) It is fairly obvious to them that they have the Q’uran which protects them, while I, miserably devoid of monotheistic faith and terribly skeptical about my own — am lurching in the wind, waiting for hell.
  2. How do you console a girl who says “she is not beautiful”? This girl is one of the best students in class. And what about the other girl, who keeps playing with you, teasing you, and not paying attention!
  3. How do you teach kids who are in Grade 4 but have a non-existent English vocabulary? What philosophy of education, what innovative techniques would you use to bring them up to grade-level? What values do you want to leave them with?
  4. How do you stop yourself from dying with laughter when after a particularly long sentence on the blackboard, a little girl says, “Bhaiya, you have such nice handwriting.” And the entire class starts clapping and giggling, with their entirely subtle sarcasm!
  5. How do you deal with parents who habitually beat their kids and ask you to thrash them in the class if they do not listen?
  6. How do you motivate yourself when nothing seems to work in class and you have to plan for 6 hours of classes for the next day? And what do you do when you have to fill out several horribly inane Excel spreadsheets, as part of your TFI requirements? (The answer is Plagiarism.)
  7. Last, but most importantly, what happens when you have a massive crush on some fellow who is in another city?  Ah, the tragic romance!

I do not have the definitive answers to many of these questions. But I would proffer some advice to those who are thinking about joining the organization –

TFI is wonderful. You will love the time you spend in it. It is also tiring and you don’t get paid much. There are limited prospects after the fellowship, don’t fall for their publicity. You are on your own. (It is the ugly, real world.) My priorities were civil services and I could take that risk. Many people can’t and should not. You do not want to wallow in indecision and doubt, one year into the fellowship. If you want to discover yourself, as hackneyed as the phrase might sound, join TFI. If you already know what you want in life, go get it.

Best of luck!

P.S. And feel free to contact me for spicier anecdotes which would be too embarrassing to share in a public forum.

Ashish currently lives a boring, isolated life – preparing for his Civil Services Mains in December. Secretly, he wishes to be either Milan Kundera or Italo Calvino.

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